This article was originally published by UPI.
Concern about the dangers of nuclear weapons is nothing new. But with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland about to nominate Donald Trump as its candidate for president, many people are feeling increasingly trapped — a feeling that was intensified this week when the ghost writer for Trump’s book The Art of the Deal said, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
Regardless what you think about Trump, it is certainly true that the world is getting increasingly dangerous. The Islamic State, sudden coup attempts, instability throughout the Middle East, tensions with Russia and China, strongmen replacing democratic rule — across the board there seems to be cause for concern. One Pulitzer Prize winning historian recently wrote a piece with the despairing title, “Nuclear weapons mess: We’re all in it together but don’t know how to get out alive.”
And the results are unsound.
Take the oft-repeated notion that “you can’t disinvent nuclear weapons.” This is an argument that is rarely questioned and is a key element in the argument that disarmament is impossible. It seems plausible on the face of it, but look closer and you’ll see there’s nothing there. No technology goes away by disinvention. It’s an imaginary process. How is it supposed to work? Does a guy in a white coat sit down at a bench and “disinvent” ancient IBM PCs? Technology goes away because people abandon it. It’s not about technology, it’s about social preference.
Nuclear believers have disguised this argument because they want the assertion that nuclear weapons are desirable dressed up as a law of technology evolution. The disguise is necessary because the idea that “everyone wants nuclear weapons” is easily and powerfully challenged by the facts. More countries have had programs to build nuclear weapons and abandoned them or had actual nuclear weapons in hand and given them up, than have built nuclear arsenals. The “you can’t disinvent nuclear weapons” argument is a trick designed to hide a questionable assumption.
The entire nuclear mindset is like this. Dubious assertions about human nature (“decision makers will be more rational in a crisis because they know the stakes are higher”) dressed up in jargon and arcane theories. Dicey interpretations of history (“nuclear deterrence has never failed”) boldly stated as fact. Of course nuclear deterrence has failed in the past. I know we’ve never had a nuclear war, but that isn’t proof. Imagine that you are driving in your car, your brakes fail, you swerve and weave crazily through oncoming traffic and by some miracle end up unhurt in the field on the other side of the road. Do you then get out of your car and say, “Well, I know my brakes didn’t fail, because I didn’t end up dead.” Just because we’ve never ended up in a nuclear war, doesn’t mean the mechanism of nuclear deterrence has never failed.
It is high time to challenge the nuclear mindset, to understand that nuclear weapons are clumsy, awful weapons rather than “ultimate” weapons, and to see that it’s possible to break free from the dilemma. After all, if nuclear weapons are lousy weapons — too big for any practical purpose — then elimination is just common sense. And as we continue to develop “smart” weapons — tiny, accurate, discriminate drones, for example — a world without nuclear weapons looks increasingly possible. Which would you rather have? Smart, small, discriminate, useful weapons? Or big, clumsy, dangerous, not very useful weapons like nuclear weapons?
There does appear to be dark danger ahead. Increasingly, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” But we can get out of this alive. We are not trapped. As usual, American pragmatism points the way out of the maze. Americans know you don’t have to keep tools that are dangerous and too big for any real-world job. That’s not dreamy utopian thinking. That’s just common sense.
Ward Wilson is director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons project of BASIC (the British American Security Information Counsel) and the author of “Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons.” He is a NAPF Associate.