Unpacking the Claim that Nuclear Weapons Prevent War

Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

Republished from NPT News in Review.

While I have been researching disarmament and arms control for more than a decade, I have largely concentrated on conventional weapons, like landmines, cluster munitions, small arms and military robotics. I am reminded of this when, in conversations with diplomats of nuclear-armed countries in forums like the ongoing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, I am told that nuclear weapons are “different.”  I am politely informed that my experience working on addressing the humanitarian harm of other weapons is thus irrelevant, because as the line often goes, “nuclear weapons are not for using in war, they are for preventing war.”

This is a rather bold claim and is, of course, empirically incorrect: the US used nuclear weapons in war against Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nevertheless the idea that nuclear weapons somehow prevent war is repeated ad nauseam by nuclear technocrats. I’m tired of hearing this cliché, so I would like to call attention to five key problems with its logic:

  1. Nuclear weapons have a poor record of preventing war and/or escalation. India and Pakistan are nuclear armed, but have engaged in numerous clashes. Israel has been attacked several times since obtaining nuclear weapons. And at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal did not prevent Kennedy from calling their bluff in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ward Wilson’s book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons does a particularly good job of showing how “nuclear deterrence failed to restrain leaders from aggression in any number of nuclear crises.”
  2. If nuclear weapons prevent war, why shouldn’t all states have access to them? Let us for a moment assume that nuclear weapons are a magical war-preventing technology. That to me seems like an argument for proliferation. The claim by the nuclear powers that their weapons promote stability seems to be undermined by their strenuous efforts to prevent other states from getting them. If they prevent war, why be afraid of more nuclear weapons in more hands?
  3. The alarming history of nuclear accidents suggests there are no “responsible” holders of nuclear weapons. The most common response to the rhetorical question in point 2 above is that some states are more “responsible” than others and can be trusted to be good stewards over these planet-threatening weapons. However, researchers like Eric Schlosser document a history of hair-raising near misses and close calls. We have only avoided nuclear weapons accidents – and in some cases outright nuclear war – through sheer blind luck. Satirist John Oliver has also exposed just how poorly the United States has managed its nuclear weapons stockpiles.
  4. The foreign policy elite in Nuclear Weapons States have often overestimated their own role (and underestimate that of smaller states and civil society) in preventing nuclear war. There is a tautological logic in deterrence theory – “we didn’t use nuclear weapons during the Cold War because we had nuclear weapons.” But revisiting Cold War history shows that there was tremendous normative pressure on leaders of the nuclear armed states coming from smaller, non-nuclear weapons states, which passed resolutions in the UN General Assembly, worked to establish Nuclear Weapons Free Zones and pushed for the NPT. Civil society also shaped the political landscape in which nuclear armed states’ leaders operated. Demonstrations – at Aldermaston, Greenham Common and Central Park – kept political pressure on elected officials. Intellectual and artistic products shaped public discourse; President Reagan admitted in his diary that watching the 1983 film The Day After, alerted him to the immense dangers of nuclear war.
  5. Saying that nuclear weapons prevent “war” ignores the other forms of widespread harm they have caused. Over the last couple years, the conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna have highlighted the devastating human and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear testing and mining for uranium has caused terrible medical problems from people in the Marshall Islands, the Southwestern United States and French Polynesia. The costs of maintaining nuclear weapons draw valuable resources from other government priorities like social programs. If we only think of “war” as the large-scale confrontations of great military powers, we miss the more fine-grained and everyday violence caused by nuclear weapons. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Reaching Critical Will project has collected the evidence of this humanitarian impact in their report Unspeakable Suffering.

In reflecting on the discussions at the NPT it strikes me that while nuclear weapons are obviously “different” from many conventional weapons in their scale and capacity for devastation, they are also different in the deep mythology and rationalizations that surround them. But we have banned the other weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological weapons) and several particularly harmful conventional weapons too (dum dum bullets, blinding lasers, anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions). Given the potential catastrophic effects of miscalculation, if we are even slightly uncertain about the supposed magical properties of nuclear weapons to prevent war we must ban and eliminate them too.

Posted with minor corrections to the original version in NPT News in Review.

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~ by Matthew Bolton on 6 May 2015.

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