Overcoming the Nuclear Threat

Thankfully the banning of nuclear weapons is back in the news. The global threat from accidental or regional nuclear war is usually relegated to our unconscious, similar to threats from climate change, and it is healthy to have it back in the public eye. This is happening mainly due to US President Obama, who, last April in Prague, spoke of “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” There’s some progress, for this April 8th the US and Russia announced a reduction of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, with thorough inspections; and a week later Obama hosted 47 nations at a Nuclear Security Summit. This isn’t going away, for in May there will be the Review Conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty are on the horizon.

Will Obama’s initiative prove effective in finally removing this scourge from the earth? We can’t answer this without seeing how we got into the mess where 9 nuclear powers have 23,000 weapons and, according to the US State Department, another 50 countries are capable of building them. Certainly the US and Russia can’t credibly appeal to other countries to disarm, or to not develop nuclear weapons, while they have 95% (22,000) of the world’s nuclear weapons. And while their recent Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) agrees to reduce each side’s warheads to 1,550 and delivery systems to 800 by 2017, as a BBC report said, they “can still blow themselves up many times over” They clearly have to make further, massive cuts.


After A-bombing Japan in 1945, nuclear weapons became part of a nuclear threat-deterrence strategy. In 1950 the US threatened the Soviet Union with nuclear attack over its involvement in oil-rich Iran. The US then justified its nuclear build-up as a way to deter the superiority of Soviet conventional forces in Europe. Until the 1960s the US entertained the notion of limited nuclear war, and, after a little sanity returned, we still face the possibility of mutual assured destruction, with the fitting acronym MAD. First-strike policies have not yet been laid to rest.

Sanity has been slow to develop. Mothers protested atmospheric tests after discovering their newborns had radioactive isotopes in their bodies. By the late 1960s the “Ban-the-Bomb” movement helped get a Test Ban Treaty, and soon after, in 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), now endorsed by 184 countries. The first nuclear arms control agreement came in 1972. After a bigger nuclear arms race in the 1980s, which some believe helped implode the Soviet economy, talk of disarmament began. In 1985 President Reagan and Gorbachev agreed “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and a year later, in Iceland, they almost agreed to abolish nuclear weapons.

While these agreements slowed down proliferation, they did not stop it. Some countries with nuclear weapons – Israel, India and Pakistan – still haven’t signed the NPT. Some countries that have signed have helped other countries get the bomb, e.g. in 1974 Canada helped India. Further, the Harper government is now negotiating nuclear and uranium agreements with this renegade nation. Some countries that signed the NPT – North Korea and Iran – seem committed to model the big powers and develop weapons capacity along with nuclear power. And the politics of fear continues to “fuel” this proliferation, for as Jonathon Schell says in The Nation article “Reaching Zero”, “Pakistan fears India, which fears China, which fears Russia, which fears the United States.” Hopefully Obama’s initiatives can help reverse the chain of fear.


After the geopolitical revolutions of 1989-91 and the end of the Cold War many hoped for the dismantling of nuclear arsenals, and redirection of the huge military spending towards human development. But it didn’t happen, mostly because we hadn’t yet changed our thinking. But many of the original “nuclear hawks” have now changed theirs. Before his death past US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called for the elimination of nuclear weapons from NATO’s strategy. Fog of War, the documentary on him which won an Academy Award, is worth viewing. In 2007, writing in the Wall Street Journal, several retired US officials, including former Secretaries of State, Kissinger and Schultz, called for “a world free of nuclear weapons.”

But this will require us being more coherent about the nuclear threat. “Nuclear strategy” is a complete illusion, even an oxymoron. Strategy has to do with clearly linking tactics to achievable objectives. Due to the inherent ecological destructiveness of nuclear warfare it’s impossible to link it to moral or acceptable political ends. Some military heads understand this better than some heads of state. And the NPT was always intended to go hand in hand with nuclear disarmament. But this hasn’t happened. If the US or other nuclear powers can justify keeping their arsenal as a deterrent, then why not all countries! After the invasion of Iraq on trumped-up claims about WMD’s, many smaller countries may think they have to have nuclear weapons to deter big-power aggression. The leaders of North Korea continue to play on national fears of a US invasion stemming from the Korean War. President Bush was already threatening an invasion of Iran, before things bogged-down militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Obama making military threats over non-compliance with the NPT when the US is itself in non-compliance is not helpful or fitting of a Noble Prize winner. Further, it’s still a toss-up what kind of administration will replace Obama.

We must avoid a tipping point in nuclear proliferation. Obama’s initiatives are a start, though the recent Nuclear Security Summit has been advanced narrowly as a way to avert “nuclear terrorism”. Yet, to even do this will require continual nuclear weapon reductions going hand in hand with non-proliferation measures. And it will also require the continual shift toward non-nuclear energy. A normative and ethical shift, which sees nuclear weapons for what they are, a crime against humanity and nature, is urgently required. This is a prerequisite for humanity’s transition to sustainability.

Next week I’ll look at Saskatchewan’s role in nuclear weapons proliferation

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