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.