Although steps have been made to reduce the number of viable nuclear weapons, more work should be done to ensure all countries abandon nuclear weapons completely. The process of reducing the number of nuclear weapons at-the-ready is called nuclear disarmament, with the ideal end result being a nuclear-free world. Proponents of nuclear disarmament claim that reducing the number of nuclear weapons available for use will greatly reduce the chances of nuclear war – especially the chances of an accidental nuclear war. On the other hand, critics of the proposal claim that nuclear disarmament would undermine deterrence and lead to a more suspicious, and hostile, world. Furthermore, critics believe that there is no guarantee that all states will definitely disarm, which could lead to “secret nuclear states” that have the ability to dramatically tip the balance of power. Both sides will be examined in this essay.

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In a 2012 issue of Nature magazine, Scott Sagan, professor of political science at Stanford, writes “we have entered a grave new world where governments believe that shielding themselves with their nuclear weapons will allow them to engage more safely in aggressive action, and increase nuclear proliferation by selling their technology to other governments. And it is a world where nuclear materials and weapons are becoming increasingly vulnerable to theft and use by terrorists.” (Sagan, 30.) His first point, that governments may use their nuclear capabilities as a shield for engaging in aggressive action, is one of the strongest arguments for nuclear disarmament. Although wars being nuclear states have been limited since the advent of the nuclear bomb, nuclear weapons are still viewed as a source of legitimacy on the international stage. When in the hands of so called “rogue states” such as Iran or North Korea, they may be used as a bargaining chip or as a “nuclear shield” to engage in aggressive action against enemies. An example of this is the sabre-rattling by North Korea in early 2013 when it threatened war with South Korea. Nuclear weapons hold such a stigma that it is commonly assumed that they will only be used in extreme circumstances, such as accidentally, by a rogue state, or by a terrorist organization – bringing us to the next argument in favour of disarmament.

The second point made by Sagan involves the ever-changing political make-up of the world away from simple state actors to a global political map composed of states and unaffiliated terrorist groups. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the world has been seen as a different place, made up of different players. Now, not only are states considered global actors with significant influence, but world-wide terrorist and organized crime groups are as well. These groups often hold extreme political viewpoints and do not affiliate themselves with any one state or government. They can be disorganized, disjointed, and are inherently hard, if not impossible, to conduct diplomacy with. Topped with the assertion that (as first commonly put forth by Thather in her relations with the IRA) Western governments do not negotiate with terrorists, a terrorist or crime organization with access to a nuclear weapon would be a terrifying prospect.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for all countries to disarm is the humanitarian effects of a nuclear war. Even a “limited” nuclear war would have catastrophic consequences. Due to the effects of radiation from the blast, any aid response would be nearly impossible, and the lingering radiation would cause burns, disease and death for years to come.

Although the prospects may seem grim, there have been significant steps made even since the first nuclear bomb was tested. In 1963 the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed which prohibited open-air testing of nuclear weapons and limited testing to underground. This was followed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which aimed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Nearly a dozen other treaties followed, the most recent being the 2010 New START Treaty which reduces deployed nuclear warheads by approximately half.

There have been several countries who have given up their nuclear weapons in one form or another, and who remain nuclear free. Several South American states abandoned their efforts to build a nuclear bomb, a handful of former Soviet states transferred their nuclear weapons back to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and South Africa successfully developed, tested, and then dismantled their own nuclear weapon program, proving that countries can abandon nuclear weapons and still remain secure and legitimate players on the global stage.

However, critics argue that the main risk to disarmament lies in the so called “secret nuclear states” risk. This is where a power may claim to disarm, but retains a clandestine nuclear capability. This could have catastrophic consequences for global security and the balance of power. The dominate roadblock to nuclear disarmament is that the world, unfortunately, cannot “unlearn” how to build a nuclear device. Additionally, they argue that nuclear disarmament will crumble the concept of “nuclear deterrence” in that the only deterrent against a nuclear strike is the certainty that the state who launched the first nuclear weapon will be retaliated against almost immediately. The nuclear deterrent has ensured that any nuclear strike is suicidal. In a world with rationally acting states, this is a valid argument. However in a world where nuclear proliferation runs the risk of spreading to non-state actors (or rogue, unpredictable states) the argument falls flat.

All in all, the world would be a safer place without nuclear weapons. However, without the ability to unlearn what we have already learned, it is unlikely that the world will ever be entirely free from the nuclear threat. We have opened Pandora’s box, and inside lies the destroyer of worlds.

  • Dobbs, Michael. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.
  • Healey, Justin. Nuclear Disarmament. Thirroul, N.S.W: Spinney Press, 2010. Print.
  • Sagan, SD. “Policy: a Call for Global Nuclear Disarmament.” Nature. 487.7405 (2012): 30-2. Print.