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Can We Disarm, Should We Disarm?

by Alexander Seling 10 months ago in opinion · updated 10 months ago
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The feasibility and necessity of nuclear disarmament

In this essay I will explore two very important questions, is nuclear disarmament feasible and is it necessary? I will begin by discussing the recent attempts by the Obama administration to move towards the goal of reducing the nuclear arsenals of the nuclear powers around the world. Here I will look at the many different policy areas in which the administration attempted to create the conditions for a safer nuclear world, but also the challenges and failures that it encountered. I then move on to examine the recommendations of the Nuclear Security project, and the conditions they present as, in their opinion, necessary for creating an international environment that is united in the aim of achieving nuclear disarmament. I then explore the necessity of disarming, here I will examine the inherent risks of the current system and how prone it is to mishaps and failures in judgement. I also look at the moral issues of threatening death and destruction on innocent people of another nation to achieve stability.

Feasible?

To properly discuss the feasibility of nuclear disarmament, it is necessary to examine the efforts made by administrations in the past, to encourage nuclear disarmament. Barack Obama’s administration announced in 2009 a wide ranging scheme, which was aimed at moving the U.S. and the world away from the traditional Cold War deterrence mentality. The administration established several steps as to how this new way of nuclear thinking was to be introduced. It relied on four pillars, preventing nuclear terrorism and promoting nuclear security, strengthening the nonproliferation regime, supporting the peaceful use of nuclear energy and reducing the role of nuclear weapons. Alongside these it also presented a list of practical actions that the government could take in order to make sure the U.S. would keep progressing towards the goals it had established. One of these was a reduction in importance of nuclear weapons so as to slowly promote the idea that there was a possibility of a world without nuclear weapons and that nuclear deterrence was not the only way of maintaining international stability. The administration also recognized that the huge scope of the project, as it stated that for disarmament to take place, many regional conflicts would have to be resolved to remove incentive for rivals to build and acquire nuclear weapons, monitoring of nuclear capabilities and production would have to become more transparent and the ability to detect violations of nuclear disarmament agreements and obligations accurately. It then concludes that these conditions do not yet apply, and that if this plan is to be a success, consecutive administrations must continue the development of the project. Some of the wider aims were establishing dialogue with countries like Russia and China, in order to increase transparency and restraint, to “preserve strategic stability”, but also addressing the issues arising from countries like Iran and North Korea which could threaten international security. Reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy, as well as completing a nuclear test ban treaty were also on the agenda. The results of these efforts were mixed, there were some successes such as the U.S. managing to reduce military reliance on nuclear weapons to an extent, and some reduction of the role that nuclear weapons played in regional conflicts in Asia. Even though the U.S. managed to begin discussions with Iran and agree on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which would have been one of its most important achievements had the next administration not undermined it completely. North Korea however remained on its path of developing nuclear capabilities, and the efforts of the U.S. to secure the region were not successful. The diplomatic relations with China and Russia also failed to yield the results the initiative promised to, Russia reduced its nuclear arsenal only marginally (from 1700 to 1550 warheads) after which discussions about disarmament and arms control broke off, while Chinese discussions were episodic at best, and rarely substantive. The efforts to increase compliance with treaties concerning use of chemical weapons were also a failure, in fact noncompliance arguably became more troubling as Russia appeared to refuse to adhere to the arms control framework. The U.S. also found itself in a situation where it could no longer fight a war on two fronts, and so was unable to achieve the reduction in reliance on nuclear weapons as much as it had envisioned. Obama’s administration, after examining the results, concluded that “no new unilateral action was wise in light of the continued deterioration of the security environment”. International nuclear stability is dependent on the stability of the international political order, and so many countries refused to cooperate on disarmament as nuclear weapons still seem like an important component of their defense and security. According to Roberts (2019) this stems from the fact that it is more difficult for nations that already have nuclear weapons to relinquish them than it is for states that have never had them. Furthermore the complexity of international relations makes nuclear disarmament seem like a serious security risk to many states, there are too many variables that have to be accounted for, technological development that changes the international order, political events and security events that occur unexpectedly and cannot be reasonably prepared for. Many countries like Pakistan and India see their nuclear arsenal as necessary for defense against their bordering nations that they consider a threat, how could these countries be sure that in a situation of disarmament, their opponents would respect the destruction of their nuclear weapons. This network of nuclear influence is very complex, Russia and the U.S. maintain nuclear arsenals to deter one another, but they both also maintain them to account for the Shirt risk of China, China in turn has nuclear weapons because of a perceived threat from India, and India possesses them because they see Pakistan as a danger to their national security. This chain of rivalries and historical conflicts that motivate acquisition and possession of nuclear weapons is not easily interrupted, and it is not difficult to realize why none of these states would agree to a unilateral destruction of its entire nuclear arsenal. This is why Perkovich and Acton (2017) suggest an incremental, reciprocal Approach to disarmament, where different states move at different rates, but all move towards the same goal. This however is not enough, as many countries like China and Russia have concerns about U.S. power, and whether nuclear disarmament would increase the U.S.’s power on the global stage and whether this would increase the chances of the U.S. being interventionist. This is where one of the main issues appears, for many states nuclear capability is seen as a counter to U.S. military dominance, and so for a disarmament effort to succeed, a change in diplomatic relations must take place. The international community would have to trust one another that they would all adhere to the rules of disarmament, and that they would not be under greater threat of invasion if they abandon their nuclear weapons.

Conditions

Even though past experience and the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals and move towards nuclear disarmament only yielded few successes, these successes did prove that there was possibility and potential for it to succeed. It was clear that for nuclear disarmament to be effective, the right conditions would first have to be established. To this end the Nuclear Security Project was established by four senior statesmen, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry and Henry A. Kissinger. In their series “Towards a world without nuclear weapons” (2007), they lay out several of these conditions, and one of the main ideas they present is that a project of nuclear disarmament can only succeed if it is done through cooperation. They put huge emphasis on the fact that if this is to succeed it must be through a joint effort, leaders of nuclear nations must all be on board with the project of nuclear disarmament. They also advocate for the elimination of short range nuclear weapons, so as to prevent them being deployed in an offensive manner and reducing the risk of escalation. Another important issue they recognized, was the resolving of regional conflicts, as these give incentive to new nuclear powers. Furthermore, they argue that all Cold War operational plans of massive nuclear offensives should be destroyed, as Russia and the U.S. are no longer enemies and so have no need for Mutually Assured Destruction. Some of the steps outlined, referred specifically to the relations between Russia and the U.S. and what these two nations (being the two countries with the highest nuclear arsenals in the world) had to do to ensure both were united in the effort to disarm. These included the necessity of establishing cooperative missile defense systems and early warning systems, with the aim of securing the U.S., Europe and Russia from possible nuclear threats emanating from the Middle East. This would allow these powers to exchange data more transparently, which would then reduce tensions over missile defense. Increasing the security standards for nuclear weapons around the world, as well as nuclear material as there is a significant risk posed by smugglers obtaining it illegally. This then results in the threat of terrorist organizations having access to nuclear weapons, which creates uncertainty and makes states reluctant to relinquish their nuclear weapons while this threat exists. These are some of the main issues that need to be resolved, if the right conditions for nuclear disarmament are to be created.

The consensus seems to be that while complete nuclear disarmament is still very far away, and would require consecutive administrations following through with the efforts made by the previous ones, it is possible to achieve nuclear disarmament or at least make significant progress in this direction.

Necessary?

After answering the question of whether nuclear disarmament is feasible, it is then important to discuss whether this is in fact necessary or desirable. To answer this question I will examine several of the arguments that have been made in the past, justifying maintenance of nuclear arsenals by world powers. During the period of the Cold War, one of the main justifications for the nuclear arms race was that it was the only way of maintaining national security, because it forced nations to behave responsibly. Even though at the time, it was adopted reluctantly, it was perceived as the least bad option in the circumstances. It is necessary however to reevaluate this position as the world has changed drastically since then. Doyle (2013) argues that the devastation that a nuclear war would cause is indisputable, the loss of life and the damage that cities and nations would suffer would be intolerable. According to him “no political, economic or military objective could justify this outcome”, but also that the systems that are in place are not safe against human mistakes. He argues that nuclear can fail and has been close to failing, when there is human error involved or when a crisis escalates. Beyond that there have been many cases of mishaps, ranging from flocks of geese being wrongly identified as ICBMs to aircraft equipped with nuclear weapons crashing. The author makes the case that even when both parties involved in a situation are trying to avoid escalation and do everything to prevent nuclear confrontation, these accidents and failures in the system are too unpredictable, and could lead to the conflict escalating. Another common argument for nuclear deterrence is that it has been responsible for a long period of peace, and Doyle states that this is not an unreasonable argument considering the rates of wars and conflict present before the nuclear age. Mueller (1988) offers a response to this argument however, he claims that nuclear weapons had no significant effect on the rates of warfare in recent decades. One of the examples he presents is the pattern by which Cold War alliances were created, if they had been directed by nuclear strategy he claims, then the two main powers would not be very eager members of the alliances as other members would not offer much in terms of nuclear deterrence. In recent decades however, it was the minor members of these alliances that have been more and more reluctant to be in the alliance, which would not indicate that their membership was directed by nuclear strategy. Furthermore, he argues that many occurrences during the Cold War, like the Soviets being forced out of Iran, were falsely attributed to American nuclear power projection. Finally, there is the moral argument, is nuclear deterrence morally justifiable? Lee (1985) describes it as a tactic of holding hostage, citizens do not benefit in any way from being threatened with nuclear war by another country. The people who would suffer the most in a nuclear war, would be the people most undeserving of it, and so as Lee puts it “The conclusion is that nuclear deterrence involves in its treatment of innocent persons systematic violation of nonconsequentialist moral rules. According to PMSI, then, nuclear deterrence is morally unacceptable.” In The Moral Paradoxes of Nuclear Deterrence”, Kavka supports this claim as he states that, even in the case of a retaliatory nuclear strike, it would simply be immoral due to the deliberate destruction and killing of millions, while the outcome of the enemy backing down not necessarily being guaranteed. These arguments make it clear that the question of nuclear disarmament is not just a question of feasibility, but also a question of morality. Building an international system around such destructive weapons, and the concept that deterrence is the only way to proceed are ideas that can have serious consequences. As presented in the beginning of this part of the essay, the inherent risk of human error, of the systems failing and the resulting risk of conflict escalation and the death and destruction that would result from a nuclear exchange are simply too devastating to accept.

Conclusion

In this essay I have examined the two important questions relating to the concepts of nuclear disarmament and nuclear deterrence, first I discussed the question of whether it is feasible to try and achieve nuclear disarmament. Here I looked at previous experience that the U.S. has had in trying to complete this goal, the results have been mixed with few serious successes, additionally many of the successes it did have were then undermined by the next administration. After this I looked at the contributions of Kissinger, Nunn, Perry and Schultz, who set out a plan of how nuclear disarmament could be accomplished. They presented many conditions that would need to be established, before any such attempt could be expected to succeed. Among these were the insistence that the process of disarmament must be approached as a joint effort by the nuclear powers. Trust must be central to the movement, only then will the international community agree to disarmament. Other arguments they presented related to how Russia and the U.S. (the two biggest nuclear powers) have an important role to play, and must cooperate on this issue, but also several practical policies that could be effective at decreasing tensions. I then moved on to discuss the question of whether nuclear disarmament is necessary. To answer this I examined several arguments that counter the idea that nuclear deterrence is in fact the only reasonable policy, but also the morality of maintaining an international system sustained by the threat of nuclear death and destruction. One of the arguments was that in terms of risk assessment, it is an unacceptable policy to maintain. As the area of nuclear weapons can be subject to human error, and mistakes have happened in the past such as flocks of geese being wrongly recognized as enemy ICBMs, it is simply too risky of a system to keep as the consequences of these mistakes could result in huge destruction and death. I then proceeded to look at the argument that we do not need nuclear deterrence and that the idea that the recent decades have been so peaceful are not thanks to nuclear weapons. Here I discussed how several events during the Cold War that did not escalate to nuclear war, were not the result of nuclear deterrence and would have probably resulted similarly even without nuclear weapons. I then looked at the question of morality, and here I explained how the maintenance of peace through constant threat of nuclear war, considering that most of the people affected would be innocent, is not a good and moral goal. Concluding, I have made the argument that in terms of feasibility, there is possibility under the correct conditions, nuclear disarmament can succeed and that an attempt should be made to achieve it. The reason why it is necessary to try and complete disarmament is because of the serious moral implications of maintaining it, but also the inherent risks of the world being held hostage by the devastation that a nuclear war would cause.

References

Mueller, J., 1988. The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World. International Security, 13(2), p.55.

Lee, S., 1985. The Morality of Nuclear Deterrence: Hostage Holding and Consequences. Ethics, 95(3), pp.549-566.

Roberts, B., 2019. On Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament: Past Lessons, Future Prospects. The Washington Quarterly, 42(2), pp.7-30.

Doyle, J., 2013. Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?. Survival, 55(1), pp.7-34.

Perkovich, G. and Acton, J., 2017. Abolishing Nuclear Weapons. London: Routledge.

Kavka, G., 1987. Moral Paradoxes Of Nuclear Deterrence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunn, S., Perry, W., Kissinger, H. and Schultz, G., 2007. Toward a World without Nuclear Weapons [online] Nti.org. Available at: <https://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/NSP_op-eds_final_.pdf?_=1360883065> [Accessed 25 January 2021].

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Alexander Seling

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