President Obama has just visited the Hiroshima Memorial and has made another impassioned plea for “a world without nuclear weapons.” On this occassion, pacifist organizations all across the Western world have made similar, and equally impassioned, calls for nuclear weapons to be “banished” from this planet. As usual, they claim that such a world would be more peaceful, more secure, and is realistically achievable.
But on all three counts, they are dead wrong.
A utopian fantasy
First and foremost, a world without nuclear weapons is nothing but a childish fantasy. Ever since 1945, the world has been going in exactly the opposite direction : more atomic weapons and more nuclear-armed states in it.
And although the three Western nuclear powers: the US, the UK and France – have significantly cut their arsenals since the end of the Cold War, that example has not been followed by anyone.
Russia did reduce its own stockpile markedly after the Cold War’s end, but only because it couldn’t afford to maintain the vast arsenal she had inherited from the USSR. Thus, the US succeeded convicing Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, to agree to deep cuts in the two superpowers’ arsenals. Gorbachev needed arms control agreements even more so than the US did. He needed them to quickly end the arms race so that he could focus on badly needed reforms at home. For the same reasons, Russia’s first democratically-elected president, Boris Yeltsin, continued that policy. Yeltsin’s Russia simply could not afford to maintain the USSR’s vast arsenal or to start a new arms race with the US.
But since Vladimir Putin has come to power and revived Russia’s might, Moscow has begun steadily rebuilding its nuclear muscle. Since 2013, Russia’s nuclear stockpile has been growing non-stop and is poised to grow even further, to as many as 3,000 deployed strategic warheads (on top of Russia’s thousands of tactical warheads) by 2020.
Russia’s Nuclear Increases Are No “Temporary Fluctuations”
The recent increases in Russia’s deployed strategic arsenal are not “temporary fluctuations” as pacifist groups (such as the Arms Control Association and the FAS) falsely claim. These are consecutive steps of a large-scale buildup that has been ongoing ever since the New START arms control treaty between the US and Russia was signed in 2010. And since September 2013, i.e. for almost three years now, Russia has been adding warheads at a rapid pace.
Over the last 3 years, since September 2013, Russia has increased her deployed strategic nuclear arsenal from 1,400 to 1,735 warheads – an increase of 335 warheads in less than 3 years! (See the graph below based on State Department data).
The New START treaty was supposed (and was advertised as an accord that would) prevent a new nuclear buildup by the Kremlin. But, as I warned when it was signed, it has spectacularly failed to do so.
Many Countries Are Growing Their Arsenals
Outside the West and Russia, all other nuclear powers are steadily growing, not shrinking, their arsenals: China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. China, in particular, has increased its nuclear arsenal from just 250-300 warheads in the 1980s to at least 1,600, and perhaps as 3,000, today.
And now, Iran and, reportedly, also Turkey are developing atomic weapons. Given Iran’s desire to build them and the 2015 VP5+1 agreement’s failure to put meaningful brakes on Iran’s nuclear and missile programme, it is virtually certain that Iran and, concurrently, its longtime rival Saudi Arabia will acquire nuclear weapons at some point.
No amount of “international pressure”, not even the harshest sanctions, will deter these countries from developing nuclear arms or Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel. These countries, having acquired these weapons, will not renounce them under any circumstances – Israel hasn’t even admitted to having them and has conducted its nuclear programme in absolute opacity.
North Korea is a case in profile. That regime is subject to the most stringest sanctions regime ever devised, one that was reinforced with fresh sanctions just several months ago after its fourth nuclear test. Yet, none of that has stopped Pyongyang from continuing to build up its atomic arsenal (Chinese analysts predict it will number 100 warheads by 2020) and developing ever more effective ballistic missiles – ground- and sea-launched.
In short, while the West continues to daydream about “a world without nuclear weapons”, the rest of the world is steadily building up their arsenals.
We, Westerners, will ignore this reality at our lonely peril. If we continue to indulge in the “world without nuclear weapons” fantasy, it will be the source of our own undoing.
A Non-Nuclear World Would Be More Belligerent
Secondly, there is zero evidence that a world without atomic weapons would be more peaceful and secure than the present one – even assuming for a moment that such a world is even possible, which it isn’t.
Let us not forget that all the deadliest, most destructive wars in history occurred before nuclear weapons were invented : the 100 Years War, the 30 Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the U.S. Civil War, colonial wars, and the two World Wars.
These conflicts occurred even though, in most cases, there were already established mechanisms for resolving international disputes. What’s more, in the run-up to World War II, the West also indulged in “global disarmament” fantasies, disarmed itself unilaterally, and tried to simply appease evil, imperialist dictators sch as Hitler and Mussolini.
What’s more, before WW2, left- and right-wing parties alike supported unilateral disarmament in the naive hope that “leading by example” would somehow induce Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union to follow that “moral example.”
The result was World War 2, by far the deadliest, most destructive, bloodiest conflict humanity has ever seen, with a death toll of at least 60 million people – the equivalent of nuking a large part of China, the US, or most major Russian cities – or of nuking all of France, all of Italy, or the entire United Kingdom.
Nuclear Weapons Have Kept The Peace
But since the advent of nuclear weapons, humanity has been much more prudent about war. There have been no more wars between the great powers. Instead, wars have been fought between:
- A major power and a weaker state;
- Multiple weaker states;
- Nation-states against insurgents or terrorist groups;
- Various factions in civil wars.
As deadly, destructive, and brutal as these wars have been, they do not even approach the death, destruction and human suffering that was the result of wars between major powers and especially of the two World Wars.
And it is exclusively nuclear weapons that have spared us from this dastardly fate. Precisely because of their unmatched destructive power, they have taught even the most seemingly irrational actors, such as North Korea, to refrain from making war (as opposed to merely threatening it). They have taught humanity, in a manner no other weapons have, that there is a red line it should not cross.
Without nuclear weapons, the consequences of war, even between major powers, would not be as terrifying, and therefore, the risk of such a conflagaration would be much greater.
A world without nuclear weapons would therefore be much less secure and peaceful than it currently is.
But that is an academic discussion, because, as stated at the beginning, there is zero chance of such a world ever existing again. The nuclear genie has been unleashed from the bottle – and he will never return there. It is time for the West – and especially for President Obama and all candidates vying to succeed him – to come to terms with this reality.