If We Survive the Next 100 Years, Which Came First: Nuclear Abolition or World Peace?

Imagine a future in which mankind has wrestled global warming to a draw and the rich have finally come to understand that extreme income inequality degrades their quality of life as much as the next guy’s. To those of us who, for so long, have been begging for crumbs — just the survival of the planet and our financial lives — it’s a veritable golden age.

The third leg on which, if not utopia, the next best thing to it — the ability to stave off dystopia — stands Global Zero, the abolition of nuclear weapons. Which bring us to the old chicken and egg cliché. In this case, which came first: global zero or world peace?

In November of 2010, Hudson Institute fellow Christopher Ford issued a paper, in response to which I’ve written a number of posts, titled Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of Weaponless Deterrence. In the course of his work, he details the challenges of a possible transitional stage to Global Zero: dismantling nuclear arsenals, but retaining the infrastructure and know-how to re-build them in the event of a perceived national-security emergency. Ford writes:

. . . that it is difficult to imagine today’s weapons possessors actually agreeing to it without some quite fundamental transformation in international politics already having taken place. [It may, in fact, be] a self-solving problem by virtue of becoming unnecessary under the only conditions that would make abolition possible in the first place. [Commentator Alexei Arbatov] has argued that “much more important” than solving the many “concrete problems” presented by [weaponless deterrence] is the likely precondition it demands of “profound improvements in the world’s political and military environments and in great powers’ ability to cooperate and trust one another.”

Continuing to belabor the obvious, another commentator has

. . . . suggested that “[t]raditional worries associated with nuclear crisis stability disappear if all states no longer find the need to maintain an operational assured nuclear retaliation capability.” For his part, Harald Müller also argues that “[i]n order to realize the vision of a nuclear weapons free world, the relationship among the great powers must be one of cooperation and mutual trust, not one of sharp geopolitical rivalry in which the security dilemma reigns.”

In other words, if that’s not obvious enough for you, two other commentators

. . . have averred that “a world free of nuclear weapons would likely become a reality only after significant political developments around the globe, leading to more stable and secure international relations than at present.” [Another observed] that “the nuclear weapons problem cannot be separated analytically, politically, or militarily from the larger strategic context.”

Along similar lines, at Switzerland’s ISN (International Relations and Security Network), John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2010), writes:

It is difficult to see how any country that has possessed nuclear weapons has found them beneficial since World War II. They have supplied little diplomatic advantage, and no nuclear-armed country has discov­ered an effective use for them in the many wars waged [since]. Nor have they been useful in deterring war. Their supposed chief achievement was to prevent World War III during the Cold War, but this notion continues to be undercut with each leak from Soviet archives. . . . For nuclear weapons to fade toward obliv­ion, perhaps nothing needs to be done but wait, as more and more people come to question the weapons’ value and cost. . . . No real “manage­ment” may be necessary.

Already, the US and Russia have engaged in something of a negative arms race, mas­sively reducing their atomic arsenals from levels that are ridiculously large to ones that are merely foolishly large. Meanwhile, France has unilaterally and without any in­ternational agreement cut its collection of nuclear bombs by two-thirds; the UK has wondered in public why it needs to have any at all. . . . in time, perhaps even American taxpayers will come to muse on the expense. . . . The weap­ons, without studied effort, might then be allowed to rust in peace.

What’s missing here? Oh, the urgency of the nuclear threat. Little things like an irrational leader (such as in North Korea), overweening nationalism (as in India and Pakistan), or, of course, an accident. Both approaches — waiting for international relations to heal or for nuclear weapons to live out their usefulness — are, in fact, too casual. Under these circumstances, Zen-like forbearance only adds to the threat of nuclear risk.

Improved international relations, to help ensure disarmament, would be ideal. But, the situation is an emergency, and, as with other illegal weapons such as land mines and cluster weapons, it cries out for us to be in a “put down the weapon” mode.