Monday, April 13, 2009

Unicorns, Fairies and a World Without Nuclear Weapons

OK, I’ll say it. This whole “world without nuclear weapons” thing is ludicrous.

To be fair, Obama is not the first American president to call for this, nor will he be the last. But the idea is a bad one.

First of all, I’ll reveal my cynicism by saying it’s not possible. It’s like uninventing electricity. Or maybe there’s a better analogy. Has anyone heard of that gossip parable, with the woman and the bag of feathers? Well, now imagine that the feathers can reproduce asexually and take on the form of non-feathery things. That’s how difficult it would be to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world.

Here’s why. The scientific know-how exists, and it can’t unexist. Building on this fact, I’ll approach this thing logically.

What do nuclear weapons provide? Well, they’re cheaper than building and maintaining a massive conventional army able to compete with the United States. They’re also extremely effective deterrents. A country can increase its standing in the world, and force greater powers to listen to it, by possessing nuclear weapons. And some countries that possess nuclear weapons or possess the capabilities of creating nuclear weapons are not moved by President Obama’s idealistic rhetoric.

The way they see it, no one would like to see a nuke-free world more than the United States. That’s because the United States has, by far, the largest and most capable conventional military force in the world. What would be an incentive for countries like, say, Russia or North Korea, to give up their nuclear weapons? Or for that matter, how about Israel, which has a very capable military but is surrounded by adversaries? Not only would it require the elimination of enmity, hate, and all those things that we’d like to get rid of in the world. It would also require the elimination of the concept of self-interest, or the self-protection of the state.

In the highly unlikely case that the United States and Russia got rid of all of their nuclear weapons, would smaller countries get rid of their nukes? No. They would see them as just as valuable as a deterrent against the huge military forces—a means of fighting asymmetrical warfare, if necessary. This also also means that terrorist groups, whose budgets are growing and who certainly don’t have qualms about looking bad in the eyes of the international community, would continue to seek nuclear weapons. Sure, that’s not going to happen anytime soon given the difficulty of creating nuclear weapons and using them effectively, but it could happen in the time it would take for the great powers to rid themselves of their entire nuclear arsenals.

Not to go all right-wing gun-nut on you, but there’s also the old 2nd amendment adage—if you outlaw all the nukes, only the outlaws will have nukes.

On a related note, Obama said that the recent satellite launch by North Korea only illustrates “the need for action … to prevent the spread of these weapons.” I like the way E. Thomas McClanahan from the Kansas City Star puts it:
Wrong: Instead, the launch showed the fecklessness of pretending that international agreements and displays of good intentions can change the behavior of countries bent on going nuclear in defiance of world opinion.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was hardly effective in constraining North Korea, which signed it and then simply violated its terms and withdrew. Both Iran and North Korea have been subjected to sanctions and years of diplomatic pressure. Little has worked.


As long as there are states, and even powerful, militant non-state actors, there will be a desire for nuclear weapons. And where there’s a will, eventually, there’s probably a way. It’s one thing to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in military strategy, to reduce the outrageous amount of nuclear weapons we now possess, and to try as hard as we can to prevent nuclear proliferation. It’s entirely another to propose that the world disarm themselves of nuclear weapons entirely. The former are concepts I can get behind. The latter is not.

1 comment:

Porthos said...

Despite my own ultra-lefty point of view, I have to essentially agree. A world with no nukes is never going to happen again, if only due to the danger of defection.