‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room”. This is a line from the 1964 dark comedy Dr Strangelove, by Stanley Kubrick, which offers a satirical insight into the workings of the United States government during the Cold War and the nuclear threat. From the 1940s, when a team of scientists in the US devised the most powerful bomb known to humans after an accumulation of knowledge by scientists in Europe, up to the present day, we have had to live with the knowledge that there are weapons that could effectively and indiscriminately eliminate vast swathes of human populations.
Is there any real hope of ridding the world of nuclear weapons?
Following the Second World War and during the Cold War period, the debate around arms control focused on deterrence and disarmament. Deterrence was seen as vital during the Cold War years as a way to keep stability in the world — the more weapons a country has, the less likely they’ll be attacked was the general belief. Disarmament was seen as a utopian idea and many believed it would lead to a security dilemma in which uncertainty over a rival’s actions could cause instability and the increased likelihood of military action.
In recent years, movements such as Global Zero, set up in 2008 by former world leaders such as ex-US president Jimmy Carter, have called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. But how possible is this really? As absurd as the existence of globally destructive weapons seems to be, equally absurd, arguably, is the possibility of states leaving themselves vulnerable to attack.
Currently, there are nine states that possess nuclear weapons: US, United Kingdom, China, Russia, France (the five members of the United Nations Security Council), Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. The five Security Council members are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was put into force in 1970. The remaining nuclear states have refused to sign, while Israel has not even confirmed its nuclear arsenal, which remains an issue of contention.
Due to the anarchic system in the world — the fact that there is no overarching power in control of all countries — states are uncertain of the intentions of others. This creates the security dilemma in which states must do what they can to protect their populations and their positions in the global system. Whether this means accumulating weapons for offensive or defensive purposes is the decision of each state, and the conjecture of other states, which exacerbates the issue. This can lead to an arms race, which is what happened during the Cold War. Some ‘realist’ theorists such as the famous Kenneth Waltz believed that this was one of the most stable periods the world had seen in recent years. In the journal Foreign Affairs, in 2012, Waltz wrote: “By reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.”
However, this can lead to a greater potential for accidents if certain countries acquire the bomb. For one, there will be even more nuclear weapons in the world, and they are always embedded in systems that are imperfect, including the US and Russia. It’s extremely risky to allow the spread of weapons to states that may be unable to build effective security and safeguards. What if something should go wrong? According to writer Eric Schlosser, it’s a miracle that we haven’t already seen another tragedy in recent years. His book Command and Control, published in 2013, was made into a documentary last year. Writing in the New Yorker in December last year, he said the danger of nuclear accidents is all too real. “The personnel who operate those systems often suffer from poor morale and poor training ... Today’s command-and-control systems must contend with threats that barely existed during the Cold War: Malware, spyware, worms, bugs, viruses, corrupted firmware, logic bombs, Trojan horses and all other modern tools of cyber warfare.”
This also raises the question of the likelihood of terrorists acquiring such weapons through theft or corruption.
Would states be likely to give up their nuclear weapons if others have yet to do the same? It would leave the state exposed and being exposed in a system of anarchy can lead to the security dilemma, from the realist perspective. Even with various agreements, deals and membership of international organisations to aid in disarmament procedures, it would still leave states vulnerable to other more powerful ones. Also, how are members of the Security Council to deal with ‘rogue’ states such as North Korea if they don’t agree to discuss proliferation, never mind disarmament?
The NPT was signed in 1970 and in 1995 the NPT signatories agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely. The agreement was intended to reduce the effects of the security dilemma and open up channels of discussion and cooperation. But as yet, no state has actually substantially reduced its arsenal. There are currently more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Historically, there have been two attacks using nuclear weapons, both by the US. In August 1945, bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Global Zero has highlighted a plan based on negotiation and a combined effort to reduce the number of weapons with a view to complete disarmament. Some have talked about the ‘devaluing’ of nuclear weapons to shift national identity narratives away from the possession and deployment of nuclear weapons. Seeing nuclear weapons as Cold-War relics could also reduce the effects they have on us and change the way we think about them. There is also the claim by researchers such as Nina Tannenwald that the reason nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 is that there is a ‘taboo’ surrounding them, and a stigma has arisen for anyone that would seek to use them again.
There has been some success in eliminating WMDs [weapons of mass destruction]. South Africa ended its nuclear weapons programme in 1989. But what little hope this may bring to those seeking Global Zero, there is still much uncertainty in the world and conditions that are incompatible with their aspirations. Even if nuclear weapons were wiped out, the knowledge would be more difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate. Terrorist groups could still attempt to acquire the knowledge and create their own WMDs. Getting rid of nuclear weapons entirely may not eliminate the risk completely. How will humans be able to ‘forget’ the knowledge gained from the discovery of nuclear fission and plutonium? And if all states eventually give up their claims to knowledge of the bomb, will they not be able to quickly regain this knowledge in the future? The switch from non-lethal nuclear use to potentially lethal use is a real danger.
Creating a ‘world government’
What about the financial benefits of producing weapons? The arms industry is huge and politicians will fight tooth and nail, particularly in the US, to maintain the jobs and revenue that come with building and supplying in the US and across the world. But the costs of maintaining and creating nuclear weapons are huge and do not come without help from government subsidies, so there is a question of the real value to local economies.
There have also been discussions over the possibility of creating a ‘world government’ to counteract the security dilemma and uncertainty and therefore control and perhaps destroy nuclear weapons. But whether states will be willing to give up their sovereignty is another question. Perhaps this would go some way to resolving the conflicts and uncertainty that blight international relations today. The closest thing we have at the minute is the UN, but that has problems of its own, and no country is under any legal obligation to follow its rules and regulations.
With Donald Trump’s emergence as President of the United States, there has been great concern over the fact that the nuclear codes and the ‘button’ will be under his control, due to his unpredictable behaviour and harsh rhetoric. There is little assurance that Trump will be as forthcoming about disarmament as former US president Barack Obama was, and even wrote on Twitter last month (December 22) that the US “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability”. Although Obama has done little to drastically reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the US, Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric and lack of knowledge of foreign policy is a cause for concern. He has also talked about ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed last year to reduce the likelihood of Iran relaunching its nuclear programme. Agreements such as the NPT go some way to address the need for containment and control, but question marks hang over Trump’s ability to deal with countries that are non-signatories to the NPT. His isolationist talk could also prompt other countries to develop their own nuclear capabilities and boost proliferation, believing the US to be pulling away from its previous role as ‘world policeman’. But who knows, maybe Trump’s blooming relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin will bring some interesting developments, or a Third World War if it all goes awry.
Theories of international relations see states and leaders as acting rationally to protect their people. The mere existence of weapons that can destroy the world multiple times over is irrational in itself. There is indeed a whiff of Dr Strangeloveian absurdity in such rationale. Those states with nuclear weapons have a responsibility to exercise restraint and act reasonably, characteristics that have yet to be seen in Trump.
Christina Curran is a journalist currently studying a Masters in International Relations at Queen’s University, Belfast.