The main argument given against the idea of nuclear abolition is that the “genie is out of the bottle,” and the only thing that keeps more countries from getting nuclear weapons is threatening them with nuclear weapons. However, Iran and North Korea stand as stark evidence that this is simply not true. Nation-states will develop nuclear weapons in response to being threatened by nuclear weapons. In an age where the nuclear armed states can invade any non-nuclear country without drastic consequences, threatened states see that in this mindset, it only makes sense to arm oneself. The US was able to invade Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I would argue the only reason why the US hasn’t invaded Iran is because Russia and China have threatened retaliation. Russia invaded Afghanistan in the 80s. China took over Tibet. The message the nuclear powers have been sending the rest of the world over the last 50 years is that if you do something we don’t like, and you don’t have a nuclear arsenal, then we can invade you. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that in reality deterrence leads to proliferation because it creates a mindset in which nuclear weapons are the source of power and therefore necessary. This is disastrous in an age where terrorists are no longer bound by national barriers. It is dangerous in a world that is currently fraught with instability and popular unrest.
Currently, President Obama and President Putin have agreed to lower their arsenals by a third more. While this looks like a step in the right direction, it is not really progress. Let me tell you why. Both Russia and the US are modernizing their nuclear arsenals. They are spending billions of dollars on making the nuclear weapons more deadly (as if blowing up an entire city-sized area isn’t deadly enough), more difficult to shoot down with missiles, and faster (missiles that can hit a target in 4 minutes rather than ten). So really while they lower the number of overall warheads, all they are really doing is retiring the old warheads and actually creating a new stockpile of deadlier ones. I must ask why the US needs to spend billions of dollars on making the deadliest weapons in human history deadlier. It is almost laughable. I mean how accurate does a nuclear missile need to be? If you get within a mile of your target you will still vaporize it.
For example, the old WWII nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are 80 times weaker than our smallest nuclear warhead now. Our smallest nuclear warhead completely annihilates a 1.7 mile radius around the detonation spot. Most buildings and all living things in this area are wiped out instantly. They get off lucky. Then within a 2.7 mile radius from the blast (or 1 mile outside of the instant death area) all buildings except for steel structure are gone, fifty percent of living things are instantly killed, the other fifty percent is mortally burned or wounded and will die within the coming minutes, hours, or days after the blast. At a 4.7 mile radius from the blast center (or 2 miles outside of the last damage radius), all houses are destroyed by the blast wave, an estimated five percent of the population is instantly killed, forty-five percent are injured, all have been exposed to toxic levels of radiation. They will most likely die slowly and painfully of radiation poisoning. At a 7.4 mile radius (or roughly 3 miles from the last damage radius) there is still blast damage but only twenty-five percent of the population is injured. After this point there is less damage from the blast itself, however every living thing within thirty miles from the blast center has been exposed to lethal doses of radiation. They will die within days, and that area will be uninhabitable for ten years. Within ninety miles, all living persons will die of radiation poisoning, also within days. Within 160 miles, people will show symptoms of radiation poisoning: hair loss, white blood loss, nerve damage. The elderly, the young, and the sick will die. Finally within 250 miles from the blast center, radiation poisoning will occur, though most will live. Also, the land will be safe to inhabit within three years. This is the effect of both the US and Russia’s smallest nuclear warhead. In another report, this time on a terrorist nuclear attack on New York City estimates that there would be 800,000 people killed, and 900,000 people injured. Those are the effects of the smallest warheads. If anything bigger is used the results are dramatically worse. The fact remains if ever a nuclear attack were to occur on any city the results would be horrifying. While deterrence may have prevented a nuclear attack from another country, no amount of nuclear weapons can prevent a terrorist from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
How do you prevent a terrorist from getting a nuclear warhead? Well one way is to keep nuclear weapons in secure facilities. However, countries like Pakistan and India have questionable security, and the US can’t regulate their security. Also, in Pakistan’s case, if government rule was to break down, nothing would stop terrorist groups from gaining access to those weapons. However, if the nuclear powers come to an agreement to set a date for virtual disarmament, boost the power of the IAEA to regularly inspect and regulate nuclear programs in all countries, and agree to support the enforcement of the agreement through UN military force and sanctions then the disarmament could be permanent. This is quite a lot to ask from most of the nuclear powers. However, I believe that security from nuclear attack should trump sovereignty in this instance. If there is no enforcement, then there is no punishment for failing to make good on disarmament. Once countries disarm, it would be very easy to make sure no country starts arming again because creating weapon’s grade plutonium is a lengthy, expensive, and fairly obvious endeavor. Think about it; no terrorist organization has been able to make one because doing so requires building huge facilities and employing experts who are under surveillance. Even North Korea, the most secretive country in the world, didn’t keep their nuclear weapons development a secret. As long as the IAEA and various intelligence agencies do their jobs, no country could get away with making a nuclear weapon.
So why is it likely that this idea won’t come to fruition? First of all, the belief in nuclear deterrence is accepted as fact by both parties in Washington and Moscow. Second, there is still little trust for the Russians in Washington DC. The good news is that Russia is not our enemy anymore, and this mentality could be changed through effort. For some reason, many politicians in America and Europe still see Russia as a country to fear instead of work with. The truth is the moment America takes off its Cold War goggles and views Russia in a new way is the moment in which nuclear disarmament talks will actually bear fruit. If the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals and worst nuclear track records start transparently and honestly disarming, is when the rest of the world will see that a commitment to a nuclear-free world is actually possible. Current deterrence ideology has failed. However, I believe that if the world is transparently disarmed and then honestly regulated, nuclear weapons development can be deterred.
Nuclear affects estimations come from: http://www.nationalterroralert.com/nuclear/
New York City scenario: http://www.atomicarchive.com/Example/Example1.shtml
Brooks Troiani is an intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.