- A majority of the world’s nations have just joined together to call for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
- Authors: If the US is serious about keeping the world safe from a nuclear attack, then it should have voted yes to the ban
For decades the US has instead based its security policy on the theory of nuclear deterrence — an untested belief that nuclear weapons are so terrible that they keep one nuclear-armed country from attacking any other, for fear of mutual destruction.
Is there any reason to believe such tragically flawed logic from the 19th century will work out better in the 21st? More likely, nuclear weapons, those “peace-producing and peace-retaining terrors,” are simply another horror that given time will grow mundane and familiar — until eventually they are used, this time perhaps in a war that destroys humankind.
And yet we continue to base our security on these “peace-retaining terrors.”
A core assumption of this deterrence theory is that the nuclear-armed states will be led by calm, collected, and well-informed people, who will infallibly respond to crises in a rational fashion.
It is not enough, however, to get this particularly unqualified finger off the button. We need to get rid of the button itself.
Just consider whether anyone could be calm, collected, and reasonable after, say, a nuclear explosion destroys Moscow. It might not be clear for days whether such a disaster was caused by a terrorist, a foreign power, or a domestic accident. As this was being investigated, would the world likely be dealing with a calm, matter-of-fact Russian nation? How quickly might things spin out of control?
The treaty is in some ways a cry of frustration from the rest of the world. The United States, Russia, and other nuclear-armed nations promised more than 37 years ago to work toward total disarmament. That was the bargain of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: We pledged to get rid of our nuclear weapons, in return for others pledging not to seek them.
Yes, the United States can try to ignore this. But as with treaties banning land mines and cluster munitions, declaring nuclear weapons illegal creates a new international norm. It is also a pointed reminder that the US is long overdue to honor a legally-binding promise made 37 years ago to get rid of all of its nuclear weapons.
The new treaty is a call to action, and we should all answer it.
The next step will be to negotiate a convention among the nine nuclear-armed states to abolish these weapons, which as of today are illegal, and have always been immoral. It will not be easy. Such an abolition agreement will have to include a firm timetable for dismantling weapons, involve rigorous verification and enforcement provisions, and satisfy the legitimate security needs of concerned states from Israel to Pakistan.
There is no guarantee we will succeed in this effort. But there is no real alternative to trying, other than wishful thinking that our good luck can last forever. Until we eliminate nuclear weapons, we are living on borrowed time.