August 6, 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the first explosion of a nuclear bomb as an act of war in Hiroshima, Japan. The United States of America exploded another a few days later in Nagasaki, soon to be met with the surrender of Japan and the end of WWII. No other country has ever used such a weapon in the course of armed conflict, though several others have developed and come to possess them. At least one war has been instigated in this century (so far) to supposedly stop a country hostile to its neighbors from developing such weapons (Iraq). Other countries have faced harsh international economic sanctions designed to dissuade them from developing nuclear weapons of their own. At least one such nation, North Korea, appears to have developed nuclear weapons despite such sanctions.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5 +1) recently negotiated a deal with Iran which seeks to end any nuclear weapons program in that country in exchange for removing crippling international sanctions against them. The governments involved, as well as the UN Security Council, are in the process of trying to ratify that deal. The US Congress is in the process of a 60 day period during which it will study and debate the proposed deal prior to either ratifying it or voting it down. Much of this 60 day period falls within the August recess for Congress, giving opponents and proponents ample time to hold town hall meetings with constituents to determine popular opinion on the matter.
Enormous effort has been put forth by some members of the international community to ensure that some countries never attain nuclear power status. Other nations seem able to develop them with nary a hue and cry of protest. India and Pakistan, for instance, have each developed these weapons without provoking the sanctions regime visited upon North Korea, Iraq and Iran. The main nuclear powers developed these weapons before other nations had the ability to prevent them. Despite the existence of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the club has continued to grow, with others threatening to develop them in self-defense should a hostile neighbor come to possess them. Most are certain that Israel has possession of some of these weapons in its own arsenal.
The nuclear arms race that ensued after the conclusion of the Second World War was a major contributor to the Cold War between the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and NATO under American leadership. The notion that each side could destroy the other should a nuclear war begin helped to prevent a hot war from starting. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction helped keep the fingers off the nuclear triggers, so to speak. Several rounds of treaty negotiations sought, with some success, to limit the numbers and capabilities that each side would possess. Some even sought and succeeded in reducing the numbers of some of these weapons.
The idea that such weapons should not be possessed by anyone has been widely expressed, but rarely seriously proposed by those countries that possess them. Unilateral disarmament would leave some nations at the mercy of those who choose to keep them. Promises to disarm are met with understandable skepticism with the potential costs of betrayal being so high. Singling out certain countries to prevent from developing them is highly hypocritical. The powers that already possess them, as well as those who don’t, rightfully fear that the power of other nations gaining the capability will lead to mass death and destruction. What makes any country more or less capable of misusing these weapons than any other? What makes these weapons secure from being stolen or otherwise hijacked or hacked by terrorist groups or other forms of societal instability?
In recent years, the US, Israel and other nations have sought to confront regional and local powers at the mere hint of use of weapons of mass destruction. A couple of years ago, we were on the verge of attacking Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people. Another diplomatic option eventually emerged allowing Syria to be rid of its stores of chemical weapons without all-out incursion by US armed forces. That was surely preferable to the non-solution a decade earlier of invading Iraq to eliminate weapons that didn’t exist. There is something to be said for leading by example, rather than bullying under the false premise that might makes right.
No nation should possess nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. The destruction they cause is necessarily arbitrary. Being guilty of crimes against humanity does not make you more vulnerable to their devastation, which normally takes a higher toll on innocent civilians than terrorists or other enemy combatants. Innocence of wrongdoing protects no one from the effects of radiation or poison gas. True, the Iranian government, as well as the North Koreans, have been guilty of saber rattling and otherwise trying to intimidate their avowed enemies. Does that mean that countries which don’t act in such a manner are any less prone to taking actions that lead to similar results? Is the government of Pakistan, for instance, less susceptible to violent overthrow and takeover of its nuclear arsenal than North Korea is to intentionally send nuclear missiles at Tokyo or South Korea? Do the inane pronouncements of some candidates seeking to win the next US Presidential election inspire confidence that this country is immune to the possibility of undesirable outcomes in future conflicts arising from within our own country?
Limiting the spread of nuclear weapons technology as well as that associated with chemical and biological agents is not sufficient to provide the security and safety we deserve as equal members of the human race. Mistakes are made all the time that could and sometimes do result in disasters. Even some of the technology that is meant exclusively for peaceful purposes and medical research can be subject to human foibles and natural disasters. We need to concern ourselves with the main arsenals of these weapons and disarming them, not merely taking steps to secure them. History is replete with examples of people, nations and governments overstepping the limits of human decency and acting in monstrous ways with devastating results. Spending trillions of dollars on destructive capacity in an attempt to achieve an unattainable degree of personal and national safety and security is a fool’s errand that enriches the merchants of death to the detriment of mankind as a whole.
I applaud the P5 + Germany and Iran for reaching an agreement to ease tensions regarding the potential development of nuclear weapons capabilities in Iran. I hope that the agreement will meet ratification requirements in all the nations involved and be adhered to by all participants despite the activities by some aimed at starting yet another shooting war in the region. We will not gain true freedom from fear of mass destruction unless and until we begin to eliminate the weapons designed for that purpose alone. Let Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand alone in history in demonstrating the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
Further Suggested Readings: