A Formula for Nuclear Disarmament

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Naga...

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there’s a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword.

Jacques Chirac

Today marks the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On 6 August 1945, the United States dropped a single bomb on the city that instantly killed 80,000 people. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki that instantly killed another 40,000. Many tens of thousands more eventually died in both cities from the effects of radiation, resulting in total deaths of over 200,000.

The use of nuclear weapons in war has thankfully never been repeated, but there are still an estimated 19,000 such weapons in the world — a mere five percent of which could render the planet virtually uninhabitable. These stockpiles are split between the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. And while some leaders occasionally pay lip service to the ideal of a nuclear-free world, it is not often that countries undergo unilateral disarmament.

Why? Because of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), according to which a country will be deterred from attacking another country provided that doing so risks self-annihilation. But even if it is true that a nuclear arsenal causes the national security of its possessor to improve by discouraging attack, the world as a whole becomes a much more dangerous place. Accidents can happen, nuclear materials can be stolen or sold to non-state actors, and there is no guarantee that military and political leaders will invariably respect the logic of abstract game theoretical models. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the probability of their use increases with time. In fact, there have been numerous close calls already. The prospect of destruction is made no more tolerable by virtue of its mutual assurance.

So how do we convince the nine countries currently in the nuclear club to give up their weapons? Relentless pressure on their governments by regular people all over the world is an obvious part of the answer, but it is almost certainly not enough. What else?

States must be assured that not only they but also their geopolitical rivals will be expected to disarm. And they must be confident that their rivals will not be permitted to renege on their agreements. So perhaps a stepping stone is needed — one in which full global disarmament does not take place right away. Instead, nuclear weapons could be taken out of the hands of nation states and given to the United Nations. Such an arsenal — belonging to the international community as a whole — would be meant to deter individual states from rearming themselves. However, the bar for its use would have to be set very high via the requirement of a large supermajority — say, 12 out of 15 members of the Security Council, or perhaps a similar percentage in the General Assembly. Only something along these lines would be high enough to prevent the weapons’ frivolous use, but not so high as to eliminate the deterrent effect.

Once again, this would only be a temporary measure, with complete nuclear disarmament remaining the long-term goal. The important thing is that nuclear weapons be taken out of the hands of unaccountable and potentially trigger-happy nation states. The loss of military power and prestige would be a small price to pay for the increase in overall global security. And on Hiroshima Day of all days, we owe it to the countless victims of the two nuclear massacres 67 years ago to prevent their tragedies from recurring.

Nuclear Weapons, Iran, and War

Stop Sign in Iran

With an all-too-familiar rhythm, the drums of war are sounding. The target? An authoritarian Middle Eastern regime set on acquiring exceptionally destructive weapons.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

This time around the country is Iran, and the weapons allegedly being developed are nuclear. The Israeli government (although apparently not with the blessing of its people) seems to be laying the diplomatic groundwork for an attack on Iran, claiming an existential threat. Meanwhile in the US, Republicans are showing off their hyper-conservative chutzpah by forcefully condemning President Obama’s reluctance to lead or to sanction such a military adventure.

Most of the talk on this issue, from both politicians and the media, fails to consider two key points:

  1. Iran, should it develop nuclear weapons, is extremely unlikely to use them against Israel.
  2. Among belligerents in the present international war of words, the United States and Israel are the only ones who actually have nukes.

According to many analysts, including US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Iran is not currently building a nuclear weapon, but simply developing the capability to do so should it wish to exercise that option quickly at a later date — a capability which many non-nuclear states (such as Canada) already have, and which in itself does not contravene any international laws. But even if Iran does fully acquire nuclear weapons, why is it a foregone conclusion that it would use them? Countries are generally not in the business of committing suicide, and a nuclear Iran would be far more inclined just to exploit the deterrence value of its weapons than to invite nuclear retaliation from Israel and the US.

While every country individually is unlikely to launch a nuclear war, these low probabilities begin to add up as membership grows in the club of nuclear powers. We should not ignore the threat of catastrophe through theft, accident, or the inexorable illogic of a nuclear-armed game of chicken. But Iran is no more inherently dangerous in this respect than the US or Israel.

There is widespread belief in the West that the world can be neatly divided into countries that are and are not “responsible” enough for nukes, but the only objective measure for such a division is the historical record. How many countries have actually used nuclear weapons in war? One, the United States. How many additional “close calls” have there been? Two that come to mind are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the incident of the American scientific probe launched near Russia in 1995. The myth that longstanding nuclear powers are somehow more trustworthy than so-called “rogue states” is unfounded. Iran has as much reason to feel threatened by Israel’s nukes as Israel has to feel threatened by Iran’s.

Going to war will at best delay what nuclear ambitions Iran has, not destroy them. Instead of seeking to preserve the current global system of nuclear apartheid, the only realistic and non-hypocritical way to halt proliferation is to work for a just and lasting peace in a nuclear-free Middle East, and ultimately, a nuclear-free world.