One of the prominent themes throughout this week’s sessions at the United Nations was a nuclear free world. The Security Council passed a resolution today, reaffirming the support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The underlying message, bolstered by President Obama’s remarks, was clear: the guiding policy is to create a world without nuclear weapons. While noble in aim, there are two main questions surrounding the legitimacy of such a policy.
First, there is a question of feasibility. It is highly unlikely that the world community will be able to rid itself of every single nuclear weapon. While many, if not all, nations publically state agreement with this principle, practice is much more difficult. Global insecurity causes hesitation in many leaders. The delicate disarmament negotiations between Russia and the United States are a stark example of this difficulty. Even so, if every party was truly committed to a nuclear free world, the issues of mistrust might eventually be worked out. However, there are many global actors – both state and non-state – that want to possess nuclear weaponry. Terrorist organizations and rogue states would gain much power in a world where the major countries reduce their nuclear stockpiles. The global leaders, such as the US, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China, understand this and are thus hesitant to reduce their arms. The nuclear threat between the US and Russia may be diminishable through negotiations; the nuclear threat from Iran to the US most likely will not be. Furthermore, even if every nuclear weapon is dismantled nuclear technology will still exist. It will be far too easy, and tempting, for countries [particularly when tensions are high] to restart a nuclear program.
The lack of feasibility makes a goal of a nuclear-free world foolish. It is far better to focus on more meaningful controls of nuclear power than disarmament. Nuclear disarmament should be a distant goal behind non-proliferation and increased security measures for nuclear stockpiles. Relatively new nuclear powers, such as Indian and Pakistan, should be assisted in developing internal controls to prevent ‘misplacement’ of nuclear weaponry and technology and failsafes to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in conflict.
Second, it is questionable if it is desirable to have a nuclear-free world. While controversial, there is much support to suggest that nuclear weaponry actually reduces conventional warfare and makes the global community safer. No country has used nuclear weapons since World War II. Conventional wars between major powers have been nonexistent. The threat of nuclear war persuades powerful states to negotiate before launching missiles. The successes of global integration and communication rest on the threat of nuclear destruction. As bad as relationships have been during the past fifty years, the United States, Russia and China have not gone to war with each other.
A nuclear-free world could unravel all of this stability. The threat of a conventional counterattack is not, nor ever has been, significant enough to preclude wars between major powers. While the international and supranational institutions formed over the past 70 years are strong, there is little reason to believe a resurgent Russia would continue to abide by a US dominated system without the nuke as a balancing act. The demise of nuclear power would herald an rise of conventional armies. Our international community would once again see the large scale wars that wrecked havoc across the globe one-hundred years ago.
While seemingly contrary to logic, a nuclear-free world is a lot scarier than one without nuclear weaponry. The presence of nuclear weapons is something the world must accept and work with. Rather than deluding ourselves with utopian views of a nuclear-free world, steps must be taken to create a stable international community where nuclear weapons exist but are not used. A world with few nuclear powers that are stable and in control of their stockpiles is ideal. Any other world is a recipe for disaster.