On a pleasant spring day, Socrates ran into the President while on a stroll through Washington. After exchanging greetings, the following dialogue ensued.
Socrates: What are nuclear weapons?
President: They are the most destructive weapons ever invented by man. They are considered a great technological achievement.
Socrates: What do you use them for?
President: We use them to protect ourselves.
Socrates: How do they protect you?
President: We threaten to use them against anyone who would attack us.
Socrates: And does that keep others from attacking you?
President: I’ve always thought so.
Socrates: How can you know that it was the nuclear weapons that kept someone from attacking you? Perhaps they wouldn’t have attacked you anyway?
President: You have a point, but we think nuclear weapons make us safer.
Socrates: How do they make you safer?
President: We can destroy any country that might attack us.
Socrates: Are there countries that might attack you?
President: Of course, it’s a dangerous world.
Socrates: Would you say that other countries can be divided into two groups, those that are friends and those that are enemies?
Socrates: I suppose that you wouldn’t expect to be attacked by a friendly country, and thus wouldn’t need nuclear weapons to threaten your friends?
President: That’s true.
Socrates: So, it would only be your enemies that you would need to threaten with nuclear weapons?
Socrates: Which enemies are you threatening now with nuclear weapons?
President: Well, there’s North Korea.
Socrates: But hasn’t North Korea offered to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances and development assistance?
President: Yes, it has.
Socrates: Are there other enemies?
President: There is Iran.
Socrates: Does Iran have nuclear weapons?
President: No, but they have the capacity to perhaps develop nuclear weapons in the future.
Socrates: Shouldn’t you then negotiate with them now to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons?
President: That would make sense, but they are hard to negotiate with.
Socrates: Since these weapons are so dangerous, wouldn’t it be worth the effort?
President: I suppose.
Socrates: Isn’t it true that if some countries have nuclear weapons, other countries will desire them?
Socrates: Isn’t it true that in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, nearly all countries in the world agreed to not develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and in exchange the countries with nuclear weapons agreed to negotiate in good faith to give them up?
President: Yes, but the countries with nuclear weapons only said that to get the non-nuclear weapons states to join the treaty.
Socrates: So the nuclear weapons states had no intention of fulfilling their part of the bargain?
President: It would be irresponsible of us to give up our nuclear weapons.
Socrates: But don’t you agree that your nuclear weapons are an incentive to other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons?
President: That makes sense.
Socrates: Will the world be safer if more countries develop nuclear weapons?
President: No, it will be more dangerous.
Socrates: Then shouldn’t the countries with nuclear weapons fulfill their obligation to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons?
President: But a terrorist might develop nuclear weapons, and we need to protect ourselves against terrorism.
Socrates: Did your nuclear weapons protect you against the terrorist attack on 9/11?
Socrates: Could your nuclear weapons have protected you against a nuclear 9/11?
Socrates: You still haven’t located Osama bin Laden. If terrorists attacked you with nuclear weapons, who would you retaliate against?
President: I don’t know.
Socrates: Wouldn’t it be less likely for terrorists to obtain a nuclear weapon if there were far less of them in the world?
Socrates: Isn’t this a reason for nuclear disarmament?
President: Yes. But we would need other countries to join us in nuclear disarmament.
Socrates: How would it be possible to have other countries join you in nuclear disarmament?
President: Someone would have to take a leadership role in convening negotiations.
Socrates: Would it be reasonable for the most powerful country in the world to take such a leadership role?
President: Yes, I suppose it would.
Socrates: Wouldn’t the most powerful country in the world have everything to gain from such leadership?
President: Yes. It could fulfill its obligations under international law, while taking the moral high ground. It could also dramatically reduce the risks of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
Socrates: What are you waiting for?
President: I must hurry back to my office. I’m eager to share these thoughts with members of Congress, and to get the negotiations started right away. Thank you, Socrates. How fortunate it was to meet you today.
David Krieger, who unearthed this dialogue, is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is a big fan of Socrates and an advocate of serious nuclear disarmament.