I am skeptical about the degree of optimism some people are expressing about nuclear weapons. To take just one example: Between the mid-1980s and the present, the number of nuclear weapons has been reduced from over 70,000 to approximately 14,500. This is a reduction of more than 55,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Some analysts see this as a sign that the world is out of nuclear danger. However, while the number of nuclear weapons has come way down, one nuclear war with only a tiny percentage of the nuclear weapons that still exist could end civilization and possibly the human species. Reductions in the size of nuclear arsenals are a positive sign, but they do not indicate that humanity is secure from nuclear threat.
At the same time that these reductions in arsenals have taken place, nuclear weapons have proliferated to three new countries (India, Pakistan and North Korea), in addition to the six initial nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, UK, France, China and Israel). The more nuclear weapon states, the greater the nuclear danger. In addition, nuclear-armed states have withdrawn from existing arms control agreements, such as the US unilaterally withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, Trump withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Agreement) in 2018 and his administration’s recent announcement of suspension of obligations and intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February 2019. These unilateral steps on the part of the US are undermining nuclear stability and leading to new qualitative nuclear arms races.
With Trump as the US president, the world remains in a precarious situation, close to the ultimate brink, and even with a more truthful and rational president, we would still be close to the brink. That is the reason that I see peace as an imperative of the nuclear age, and why I think the only reasonable number of nuclear weapons in the world is zero. Instead of negotiating to achieve that goal, the nuclear weapon states are all planning to modernize and improve their nuclear arsenals. This is occurring in an environment in which leaders of the nuclear weapon states and their allies are giving magical and unrealistic powers and efficacy to nuclear deterrence. In part, we learned far too little from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we may not be so fortunate on the next nuclear standoff, which could occur at any time. The large reduction in nuclear arsenals that has taken place in recent decades is not sufficient to assure human survival, and we should not be celebrating our success until the world is out of danger of nuclear holocaust.
I would prefer to be more optimistic about our nuclear-armed world, but I am concerned that optimism can breed inaction and a lack of engagement on the issue. What we need now is healthy skepticism about nuclear weapons and the policies which guide their use, and strong citizen engagement in pressuring the nuclear-armed countries to participate in good faith negotiations for total nuclear disarmament, as they are obligated to do under international law.
Nuclear deterrence can fail and does not provide protection, especially to citizens of nuclear-armed countries. Rather, it paints a target on their backs. Arms reductions, which still leave all of us vulnerable, are not enough. What we need is commitment to nuclear abolition and widespread citizen engagement, leading their leaders, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Thus, I remain skeptical about nuclear security, but hopeful that humanity will awaken to the challenge.
This article was originally published by The Hill under the title “Yes, there are fewer nuclear weapons – but they can still wipe us out.”
David Krieger is a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org), and has served as its president since 1982. His latest book is In the Shadow of the Bomb: Poems of Survival.