Why we can’t live without nukes

Why we can’t live without nukes

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, US President Barack Obama dwelt at length about notions of Just War, that is war waged for the right reasons. He also admitted that instruments of war have a role in preserving peace. Today, the foremost instruments of preserving order are nuclear weapons. Yet, non-proliferation activists decry their existence. Is this a misguided belief? Will their elimination lead to a peaceful and durable global order?

Much has been written on the difficulties in getting countries to give up existing nuclear arsenals. The expiry of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I on 5 December and the statement of Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin point towards the possibility of a new arms race.

Both the US and Russia have nuclear weapons wedded to their tactical and strategic military plans. This has a domino effect: China won’t give up its weapons, India will follow that logic and so will Pakistan. Coordinating universal disarmament requires political will the world does not possess.

There is, however, a bigger obstacle. What will happen to the knowledge of making these weapons? That knowledge cannot be destroyed or unlearnt. In fact, it will be put to dangerous use. Imagine two latent nuclear powers that have given up all nukes (but who know how to make them and can mobilize materials to produce such weapons) on the brink of war. The temptation to win by coercing one’s rival by quickly manufacturing a nuclear weapon will be too strong to resist. The other country, too, can foresee this and make a nuke before the other does so. The whole logic of disarmament can unravel within days. A world sans nuclear devices will be a nervous and edgy world.

Such situations can quickly turn into nightmares. Economist Thomas Schelling’s warning (A World Without Nuclear Weapons? Daedalus, Fall 2009, P127) is worth quoting in extenso. “A ‘world without nuclear weapons’ would be a world in which the US, Russia, Israel, China and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to pre-empt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications."

The world has walls that need to be guarded. The sooner we realize that and secure them, the better it will be. Nuclear weapons are very good for keeping the world calm.

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