Why Nuclear Disarmament is a Policy Unicorn

Written by Kenny Gyu Ho Jeong & Ye Zhang

The idea of complete nuclear disarmament is interesting to say the least. But sadly, it is one overblown with misconceptions and fraught with inconceivable expectations. Of course, it is very laudable to pursue this worthy goal, and commendable that it is given as much attention as it is. But many are as misguided on this topic as they are on world peace, or on the end of terrorism. In this article, we’ll examine why the idea of complete nuclear disarmament is so beneficial, but why it will never come to pass.

Before we move onto examining why complete nuclear disarmament is a “unicorn” (something that we can hope to find one day, but ultimately never will), let’s first determine why nuclear disarmament is a worthwhile pursuit in the first place. There are two different schools of thought for nuclear disarmament – one for and one against.

Those who believe nuclear weapons to be crucial to foreign policy and defence usually push the “deterrence” argument. To explain what this is, let’s introduce the hypothetical nations of Appletown and Orangeville, and examine how they would behave in the face of two realistic scenarios.

Scenario 1: Let’s assume that Appletown and Orangeville both possess nuclear warheads and are fully capable of removing each other off the face of the planet with the click of a button. In this scenario, there is an incentive for both nations to not launch nuclear weapons at each other, because the launch of Appletown’s arsenal would guarantee the launch of Orangeville’s arsenal, and vice versa. This is the mutually assured destruction (MAD) theory that many have heard of.

Scenario 2: Let’s assume that Appletown has military and industrial capabilities double that of Orangeville’s. At first glance, one might think that Appletown holds the advantage, allowing it to potentially bully or invade its inferior. However, if we introduce nuclear weapons into the equation, the power landscape begins to resemble that of scenario 1. As the be-all and end-all of modern age military technology, nuclear weapons completely disregard the notion that whoever has the bigger stick will ultimately win. Regardless of their other military capabilities, as long as both nations are able capable of destroying each other, they will be forced to resolve conflicts through other means, such as bilateral diplomatic negotiations.

In a nutshell, the “deterrence” argument suggests that nuclear weapons have an equalizing effect, which can be seen as beneficial in order to maintain stability between nations. While this concept of “you shoot me, I shoot you” may seem a bit childish, it’s a sobering thought when billions of lives are at play, and one that many pessimists do not feel is a strong enough idea to stake their lives upon.

The argument for nuclear disarmament is just as, if not more, compelling. Let us now consider the four main points which support this stance.

Point 1: Nuclear weapons are morally indefensible. It’s not hard to realize that nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminate and devastating weapons to have ever been invented – look no further than Hiroshima. There’s no way to control, let alone limit, the number of non-combatant deaths, or the magnitude of its side effects (such as destruction of landscapes, destruction of civilian construction, and spread of radiation). Because of this, using nuclear weapons will always be a violation of both war and humanitarian principles.

Point 2: Nuclear weapons do not neutralize conflicts nearly as well as they should. If Appletown and Orangeville both have nuclear weapons, then based on the MAD theory they would not be willing to engage in direct conflict with each other. However, the number of minor conflicts between the two nations would inevitably increase. As long as neither side allows a contained minor conflict to escalate into war, they can wage as many small conflicts as they want to further their political/economic interests. This is exactly what happened during the cold war period, when the Soviet Union and United States fought a series of proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, and Afghanistan. Both nations were able to do so because they knew that a direct engagement would heighten nuclear tensions. As a result, minor conflicts were propagated at the cost not of national status, but of human lives and livelihoods. This is the so called stability/instability paradox, which is considered the Achilles’ heel for the “deterrence” argument.

Point 3: Nuclear weapons are not at all significant in “keeping the peace”. Most political scientists now believe nuclear deterrence to be absolutely garbage. If the stability/instability paradox didn’t prove so already, here are a few other examples to showcase the fallacious causation and correlation trap that many opponents of nuclear disarmament have fallen into.

Diplomacy and political relations: The reason why there has been little to no military intervention against North Korean aggression to this day is not because of North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. Rather, it can be attributed to the nation’s withstanding diplomatic ties and geopolitical significance to Russia and China, and its potential threat to South Korea in the form of conventional artillery and bombardment. Simply put, North Korea is more at a political standstill with the rest of the world than a nuclear one.

Japan’s knowledge of the US’ nuclear capabilities did not push them to unconditionally surrender and sue for peace. While the effects of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastating, by August 1945 the declaration of war from the Soviet Union on Japan (amongst other factors) meant that Japan was already cornered. Thus, claiming that Little Boy and Fat Man deterred Japan from a prolonged conflict would be an irresponsible historical interpretation.

A nuclear weapon does not deter terrorism. Governments and terrorists are beginning to realize that nuclear proliferation lends itself more to the strength of insurgent groups than it does democratic governments, as nuclear weapons are strategically and not tactically viable in the war on terror. Terrorists don’t hold a set territory for extended periods of time and even if they did, as Gareth Evans, the co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament puts it: “conduct[ing] nuclear strikes on another state, even one demonstrably complicit in a terrorist attack, would raise huge legal, moral, political and strategic issues.”

Point 4: As long as nuclear weapons exist, they will be used. Contrary to what politicians believe, the greatest risk to a nuclear launch is not a rogue state, nor a radical expansionist regime – instead, it’s human or system error. With almost 19,000 nuclear warheads in existence (with arsenals continuing to steadily increase over time), the idea that one could accidentally be launched, either due to poor decisions or technological errors or tactical blunders, is not that far fetched. The risk of all this is multiplied when we admit that the person on the other side of the switch might not always be the most rational or logical. And as the MAD theory suggests, the launch of just one warhead could potentially lead to the exhaustion of all nuclear arsenals, yielding devastating outcomes for all nations.

After assessing the two sides, it is clear that complete nuclear disarmament is a worthwhile pursuit. Unfortunately, there are several infallible obstacles which stand in the way of complete disarmament, which is why unfortunately, this goal will never come to pass.

Our Psychological Influence: with the possession and ownership of nuclear weapons comes a sense of national pride and status that most nations would be unwilling to forfeit. Of course, the status that comes associated with a nuclear arsenal is now beginning to wane as more countries, such as India, are becoming modernized – however, this does not dissuade the current membership (especially the Permanent 5 nations in the Security Council) from being adamant about retaining what they have.

Ugly Technicalities: this is a simple matter of practicality, but nevertheless an all too complex problem with no real answers. Firstly, the cost of disarming a nuclear arsenal with over 8,000 warheads (the United States has around 8,000, while Russia has around 9,000) would incur significant costs to any country. It’s the economics of war: in a time when countries are concerned about their national debt to GDP ratio, a movement towards increased spending in defence in exchange for lower military capabilities simply won’t be approved. Just like Professor Oak, all politicians have to say is: “there is a time and place for everything, just not now.” This is an excuse almost sure to be used again in the future.

The Verification/Enforcement Problem: we currently lack any credible means of verifying that a country is beginning to decrease its nuclear arsenal, let alone ensure that it has completely disarmed. While the Security Council continues to push for checks and enforcement systems, an unwillingness for transparency and a feebleness in reinforcement of said policy will ultimately mean that no level of significant disarmament will ever occur.

The Distrust Problem: Any arms race, whether over a short period of time or extended over several decades, can be expressed in terms of a Nash equilibrium: neither side has any incentive to initiate a significant large scale conflict, nor does it have one to disarm. It’s the old “I’ll lower my gun if you lower yours.” problem, but now on a global scale.

The verdict is simple – if nations such as the US and Russia are serious about non-proliferation, they simply cannot continue to cite their own nuclear arsenals as a means of protection from nation states, nuclear states, and terrorists. (Ironically, the Obama administration has recently called for a modernization of the US nuclear arsenal, despite the fact that Obama cited disarmament as a long term goal during his first year in office.) The activities that current nuclear states are engaging in not only breed a general air of mistrust amongst allies and enemies, but also make for an extremely convincing argument. After all, it is important to practice what you preach – demanding others to do as you do will always be more convincing than demanding others to do as you say.

In the end, in spite of all our efforts to stave off the power-crazed politicians from pressing the big red button, or pleading with other nations to reduce their military expenditure, our toil will never bear fruit. It is altogether far too reassuring to know that WW3 could start at any time, and that human extinction may occur before the turn of the century. Of course, de-proliferation in the near future is a possibility – but only time will tell.

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