Will Eliminating Nuclear Weapons Make Peace More Likely?

President Barack Obama has committed to a world without nuclear weapons. Although deep cuts in the massive atomic stockpiles of the United States and Russia – with a combined total of 20,000 warheads – are possible and desirable, committing to eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet is good rhetoric but may actually be harmful to peace.

The United States and Russia are now engaged in negotiations for a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that would cut each side’s deployed strategic warheads from 2,200 to between 1,500 and 1,675. The agreement, however, does nothing about the combined strategic 15,000 warheads both countries have in storage or the 3,500 shorter-range warheads (500 U.S. and 3,000 Russian) that the two nations have stockpiled.

Two decades after the Cold War ended, it is time to go even further and negotiate a reduction of such costly and dangerous stockpiles to at most 500 strategic warheads each. With 500 warheads, the United States could take out every possible target in Russia. With no war in Europe likely, shorter-range nuclear weapons have lost their reason for being and could be eliminated all together.

The two biggest nuclear dangers today, albeit fairly unlikely, are that terrorists could steal or build an atomic weapon. The former is more likely than the latter because a large complex is usually needed to process the nuclear material and build a warhead. Having more weapons around, especially the less secure ones in Russia, makes the probability higher that a weapon could be stolen.

Similarly, the more countries with nuclear weapons, the more likely the devices could be purloined. So Obama is correct to be concerned about nuclear proliferation, especially to countries that might sell warheads or nuclear technology or materials to other nuclear aspirants. Trying to buy off nuclear wannabes such as North Korea and Iran, however, is better than threatening them with military attack or economic sanctions. Such threats merely cause them to want the ultimate deterrent all the more and may make them economically vulnerable enough to increase the probability that they will sell nuclear technology abroad to get desperately needed revenues.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty denies signatories without nuclear weapons the right to have them and pledges existing nuclear powers to move to total disarmament. Of course, the problem is that the existing powers, despite Obama’s rhetoric, have no intention of getting rid of all of their nuclear weapons. And for good reason. Even if an agreement by all countries to eliminate their atomic arsenals could be made – highly unlikely since more countries are working on getting the ultimate deterrent, both semi-overtly and covertly – a tremendous incentive would arise to cheat and hide one or two weapons for advantage.

Although it is true that the arsenals of conventional weapons have become more powerful, no nation will really give up all of its ultimate weapons until a more terrible weapon replaces them (heaven help us!).

In addition to dealing with the harsh reality that nuclear weapons can be dramatically reduced but likely not eliminated and the fact that nuclear weapons don’t necessarily have to be weapons of mass slaughter – the U.S. Air Force never followed the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction of cities and has always preferred to target enemy weapons and bases – the peace community also has to deal with the fact that nuclear weapons may have actually helped prevent wars. The number of cross-border wars has declined substantially during the post-World War II period. Researchers have attributed this to the rise of nationalism and nuclear weapons deterring attacks.

The chimera of eliminating all nuclear weapons has an opportunity cost: time and effort taken away from measures designed to lessen the chance of a nuclear war. For example, early warning systems, especially the decrepit ones in Russia, should be fixed or replaced and the U.S. and Russia should each take off hair-trigger alert the 1,000 nuclear weapons that they could fire rapidly at one another. This would dramatically reduce the chances of an accidental launch or nuclear Armageddon by miscalculation. This measure would lessen the chances of nuclear war much more than even deep cuts in warhead inventories.

Finally, the United States should quit pledging to sacrifice its homeland in any nuclear escalation to save rich allies, such as Japan, Taiwan, or the NATO allies, who might get into a scrape with larger powers, such as China and Russia, respectively. Although the takeover of these nations by a hostile power would not be good, the nuclear destruction of America would be far worse. This nuclear umbrella didn’t even make sense during the Cold War, let alone now when tensions are lower and U.S. allies are even richer.

Obama should be more honest in what is achievable in nuclear arms reduction. If he doesn’t, he will merely invite disillusionment around the world when nuclear weapons aren’t eliminated, and he will be diverted from spending his time and effort on promulgating policies that can realistically reduce nuclear dangers.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.