A World without Nuclear Weapons?

 Posted by on 8 January 2010 at 9:00 am  Foreign Policy, Military
Jan 082010

In the Fall 2009 issue of Daedalus, economist Thomas Schelling asks what would happen if President Obama had his way and we had a “A World Without Nuclear Weapons?

Schelling argues that, contrary to the optimists like Obama, the world would become far more unstable and dangerous.

One big problem is that the knowledge of how to create and deploy nuclear weapons wouldn’t disappear. Hence, if the major nuclear powers did decide to eliminate their active stockpiles, any global crisis would create a tremendous incentive for them to reconstitute and/or use their nukes as quickly as possible before hostile countries did the same.

Here are a couple of noteworthy excerpts from Schelling’s article:

Considering that enough plutonium to make a bomb could be hidden in the freezing compartment of my refrigerator, or to evade radiation detection could be hidden at the bottom of the water in a well, I think only the fear of a whistle-blower could possibly make success at all questionable.

I believe that a “responsible” government would make sure that fissile material would be available in an international crisis or war itself. A responsible government must at least assume that other responsible governments will do so.

The natural implication:

…[I]f, at the outset of what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely, there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.

The result would be greater global instability, rather than greater stability:

In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate ; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.

Part of the fallacy behind the desire for a “world without nuclear weapons” is the false notion that the evil resides within the weapons, rather than within the aggressors who would use them against us. (This is just a grander example of the same fallacy that drives many gun-control advocates.)

If a US President truly wanted a safer world, perhaps he should eliminate America’s enemies, rather than eliminating our means of striking against them.

(Link to the Schelling article via Marginal Revolution.)

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