There are two basic and quite disparate ways in which nuclear weapons are viewed. The first is that these weapons provide security and power to their possessors. I would call this the view of the Nuclear Nine – the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons – and their allies. The second is that nuclear weapons undermine the security of their possessors and must be abolished. I would call this the humane view of the hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombings).
The perspective of the Nuclear Nine and their allies is based upon nuclear deterrence, which is a hypothesis about human communications and behavior. Nuclear deterrence is the threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons if another country commits a prohibited act. Such an act might be a nuclear attack, but it could encompass a much broader range of prohibited acts. One major problem with nuclear deterrence is that it is unproven to work under all circumstances. It requires rational leaders, and not all leaders are rational at all times. Further, it requires a territory to retaliate against, thus making it inapplicable to terrorist organizations. The bottom line with nuclear deterrence is that it might or might not work. There are no guarantees, and it could fail spectacularly.
Nations rely upon nuclear deterrence at their peril. It is a concept that is intellectually bankrupt. I would equate nuclear deterrence to the French Maginot Line. Prior to World War II, the Maginot Line was highly praised for its high-tech defensive capabilities. However, when the Germans chose to invade and occupy France, they simply went around the Maginot Line and it provided no defense to France. Nuclear weapons are a Maginot Line in the Mind; that is, they provide a false sense of security based on a belief in the effectiveness of threatening mass murder. I fear this will not be understood by political and military leaders until nuclear deterrence fails and that line in the mind proves useless for defense, as surely it will if the status quo continues.
The hibakusha perspective, on the other hand, is based upon the immorality and illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons as well as the uncertainty and unreliability of nuclear deterrence. Can there be any doubt that weapons that cannot differentiate between civilians and combatants and that cause suffering to generations yet unborn are immoral and illegal? Further, if nuclear deterrence were to fail, as it has come close to doing on numerous occasions, there would be catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
At the relatively mild end of the spectrum (but, of course, not mild at all), cities and countries would be destroyed, as happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the most severe end of the spectrum, nuclear war could be an extinction event for human beings and other forms of complex life. To describe the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, philosopher John Somerville coined the word omnicide, meaning the death of all. In between these degrees of nuclear annihilation, there is the possibility of global nuclear famine, which atmospheric scientists predict would result from a relatively “small” nuclear war using only 100 Hiroshima-size weapons that could lead to a billion deaths by starvation.
Which is the better perspective? The perspective of the Nuclear Nine and their allies is not sustainable. It may provide a false security for some countries, but it provides insecurity for the vast majority of countries as well as for all humans, including those living in Nuclear Nine countries and their allies. This perspective encourages nuclear proliferation, nuclear brinkmanship, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. The perspective of the hibakusha, on the other hand, would level the playing field and fulfill the obligation for nuclear disarmament, which is an important element in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is a far more sensible, decent, humane and prudent perspective.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.