Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon of terrorism, whether in the hands of a terrorist organization or those of the leader of a country.  They are weapons of mass annihilation that kill indiscriminately – men, women and children.  Most people fear the possibility of these weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organizations, but never stop to consider that in any hands they are terrorist weapons. 

Given the terrorist nature of nuclear weapons and their capacity to destroy civilization, what makes them acceptable to so many people?  Or, at a minimum, what makes so many people complacent in the face of nuclear threats?  These are questions I have grappled with for many decades.  

The acceptability of nuclear weapons is rooted in the theory of nuclear deterrence, which its proponents argue has kept and will keep the peace.  This theory is based upon many assumptions concerning human behavior.  For example, it assumes the rationality of political and military leaders.  It seems quite evident that not all leaders behave rationally at all times and under all circumstances.  The theory requires clear communications and the threat to use nuclear weapons in retaliation must be believed by opposing leaders, but as we know communications are not always clear and misperceptions may inform beliefs.

There is a “madman” theory of nuclear deterrence.  It posits that to be truly believable, the leader of a nuclear armed state must exhibit behavior that appears sufficiently insane to lead opposing leaders to believe that he would actually use the weapons.  Thus, insanity, or at least the impression of it, is built into the system.  At a systems level, can anyone doubt that the reciprocal threats of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) were truly mad, as in insane?

Another aspect of deterrence theory is that it requires a territory against which to retaliate.  Thus, the theory is not valid in relation to a non-state terrorist organization.  If a country has no place to retaliate, there can be no nuclear deterrence.  If a terrorist organization acquires a nuclear weapon, it will not be deterred by threat of nuclear retaliation.  This places a fuse on the nuclear threat, and means that there must be zero tolerance for a non-state terrorist organization to acquire a nuclear capability.

There should also be zero tolerance for states to possess nuclear weapons.  I am not limiting this observation to states that seek to develop nuclear arsenals.  I mean all states and, most importantly, those already in possession of nuclear weapons.  Current nuclear arsenals may be used by accident, miscalculation or intention.  And so long as some states possess nuclear weapons and base their security upon them, there will be an incentive for nuclear proliferation.

Widespread nuclear complacency is difficult to understand.  Most people are aware of the tremendous damage that nuclear weapons can do, but perhaps feel reassured that the weapons have not been used since 1945.  The weapons are largely out of sight and out of mind.  It is also possible that people feel impotent to influence nuclear policy and thus defer to experts and policy makers.  This is unfortunate because until large numbers of people assert themselves on the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, the countries with nuclear weapons will continue to rely upon them to their peril and to the world’s peril.

The New START agreement between the US and Russia is a modest step forward in reducing the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons on each side to 1,550 and the number of deployed delivery vehicles to 700.  The greatest value of the treaty may be in restoring inspections of each side’s nuclear arsenal by the other side.  But these steps provide only meager progress.  At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation we advocate the following next steps forward:

  • Reducing the total number of nuclear weapons – strategic, tactical and reserve – to under 1,000 on each side. 

  • Making a binding commitment to “No First Use” of nuclear weapons and to never using nuclear weapons under any circumstances against non-nuclear weapon states. 

  • De-alerting all nuclear weapons so that there will be no use by accident, miscalculation or in a fit of anger. 

  • Placing limits on missile defense systems and banning space weapons. 

  • Commencing multilateral negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which would ban all nuclear weapons worldwide in a phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent manner.

These steps would be indications that the immorality, illegality and cowardice of threatening to use nuclear weapons were being met with a seriousness of purpose.  It is not necessary for ignorance, apathy and complacency to dominate the nuclear arena.  With due regard for the sanctity of life and for future generations, we can do better than to live with such inertia.  We can eliminate a weapon that threatens civilization and human survival; we can move to zero, the only stable number of nuclear weapons.  This is the greatest challenge of our time, a challenge that we must respond to with engagement and persistence.  It is time to replace Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with Planetary Assured Security and Survival (PASS).