MAD World – The Politics of Nuclear Armament
There are about 13,100 nuclear warheads stockpiled today. A single 5 megaton bomb, or half the tonnage of the U.S.’s strongest deployed bomb, can destroy the greater L.A. area in a matter of seconds. There are enough warheads on ‘high alert’ to obliterate nearly every major city in the world in the span of a few minutes. Despite these grim realities, a number of countries are still investing in, expanding, or maintaining nuclear arsenals at world-ending capabilities. Why? And, more importantly, is there still a path to total disarmament?
In less than a century, humanity weaponized nuclear material, used it to end a war, and developed an entire national security infrastructure around them. The process of building up nuclear arsenals is known as nuclear armament. Armament has fluctuated throughout since the end of World War II, along with its corollary, nuclear disarmament, depending on the political flavor of armed states. Today nuclear weapons may fall to the wayside for other types of defense or warfare, but politicians maintain or build arsenals through unique rhetorical strategies. While arms control provides some avenue for avoiding their use, new policies should emphasize disarmament over control and reframe the issue to focus on the immorality of the institution. Nuclear weapons serve no purpose other than destruction or the threat of, but to look to the future we must first understand how we got here.
The allure of nuclear weapons is a clear progression from the rivalry and militarization characterizing the Western world throughout World War II and the Cold War. Yet even early researchers at the Manhattan Project recognized how such weapons could usher in a new era that defied conventional warfare. Today we recognize the nuclear dilemma – how this new era came to be recognized as mutually detrimental with an inability to disarm due to political or security pressures. Clearly military experts and politicians throughout the Cold War recognized the destructive power of nuclear arms, so why did they continue to arm?
The nuclear dilemma mirrors the more well-known prisoner’s dilemma, a theoretical case of two prisoners in separate interrogations. Each can either accuse the other or remain silent, with no communication. Mutual accusations mean both go to jail; one accusation means only the accused goes to jail, and if neither snitch they are both released. The prisoner’s model reflects a scenario in which the most efficient solution, no jail time, is achieved only if both parties act against their best interest, accusing the other to avoid jail. Parallels between the nuclear dilemma are clear: neither side wants to be left disarmed while their partner builds missile stocks, but the most efficient solution is if neither arm. Yet given the surprising lack of nuclear bomb usage since World War II, this model may be incomplete.
Scott Plous, a leading psychologist at the end of the cold war, theorized that perhaps the previous four decades were actually a perceptual dilemma. Such a diagnosis came as Plous realized both the U.S. and Russia prioritize mutual disarmament while assuming their partner is aggressively pursuing nuclear superiority. Neither state trusts the sincerity of the other’s claims to disarmament. As they act on this suspicion, their preconceptions are confirmed by watching the other build their arsenal, creating a feedback loop where each watches the other expand their arsenal. In order to overcome this dilemma, both players must trust each other’s intentions and take a leap of faith towards disarming.
To determine whether Plous was right, we can look at whether changing politics and increasing diplomatic relations between our nuclear superpowers created effective disarmament agreements. An April 2021 report on arms control treaties from the Council on Foreign Relations summarizes the key benefits of formal arms treaties that came about over the past half-century, including START, New START, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The arguments in favor of these treaties’ benefits almost perfectly solve Plous’ dilemma. They increase transparency by means of inspections, decrease risk through technological limitations, and create official channels of communication that clarify intentions and realities. Any mistrust should dispel with proper watchdogs and strong treaties – should.
The New Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (New START), for example, provides a series of beneficial measures including eighteen on-site annual inspections per party and several required notifications on current stockpiles from the U.S. and Russia. Yet it also creates a nuclear ceiling, or a cap on warhead numbers, as well as allowing greater flexibility in the development of new technologies and the deployment strategies for each state. This framing of the treaty as a measure of arms control and not arms elimination is not sufficient to overcome deep perceptual misalignment.
Both the United States and Russia have accused each other of attempting to dismantle treaties like New START or renegotiate them in bad faith. The latest iteration of these political squabbles came just this past year, as Trump and Putin struggled to find acceptable terms for an extension on New START. No-first-strike policies dampen fears of total war, but political tensions work counter to finding mutual understanding.
If these treaties don’t solve the nuclear Dilemma, what else might be interfering? One roadblock is the evolution of political strategies that garner support for national arsenals. Recent public opinion polls reflect these strategies through mixed fears and approvals of nuclear weapons. A 2014 Pew poll identifying the world’s perceived greatest threats found 23% of Americans and 49% of Japanese citing nuclear weapons. A 2015 study found 56% of Americans believed the 1945 nuclear bombings were justified compared to only 14% of Japanese. Something is affecting people’s perceptions of nuclear threats, which means something may also be limiting effective solutions to nuclear dilemma perceptions.
That something may be nukespeak, an intentional rhetorical strategy downplaying nuclear threats to the public. Nukespeak can come in two forms: domestication, which makes nuclear weapons feel less threatening, or bureaucratization, which cloaks them in obtuse language. The United States employs both forms. Robert Soofer, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, claims the intention of the several-hundred-warhead-strong arsenal is to “communicate restraint” and convey that an enemy “miscalculated when it contemplated the use of nuclear weapons”.
Such rhetoric more matches the threat of spraying a cat with water when it misbehaves. The nuclear triad only launches in response to an attack, at which point any restraint or persuasion is left behind in a cloud of radiation. This same restraining triad also consists of planes with “electro-optical viewing sensors, a forward-looking infrared and advanced targeting pods to augment targeting”. None of these specs are lies or misleading, but through bureaucratization they obfuscate the immense destructive capabilities of a single bomber. Therefore, an improper understanding of nuclear power may drive greater approval of their use in national security.
Another limiting factor is the changing function of nuclear armament and the political values it holds. For many states like North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan, the nuclear parity that drove the US-Russia arms race is out of the picture. Instead, as Kim Jong Un put it, the goal is to “defend the rights to independence and existence”. Even a single warhead can put a country on the global stage and defend against any interference with the threat of a missile launch.
Nationalist leaders can thus appeal to nuclear weapons as a strategy to enhance prestige and provide leverage for international negotiations. This factor disrupts the few benefits that formal treaties offer, as still four nuclearized states are non-party to the NPT, a landmark agreement limiting the spread and development of nuclear arms. Such mixed evidence suggests that the perceptual dilemma does exist, though in a much more complex form today that requires new strategies to overcome.
A New Atomic Era
These discussions on arms control treaties and nuclear dilemmas raise an important question seemingly detached from political realities: is there even such a thing as an acceptable nuclear arsenal? In 1961 the U.S. military accidentally dropped two hydrogen bombs over North Carolina. One began arming and only avoided detonation due to, as the Secretary of Defense put it, “…the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross”. The belief that humanity could adequately control those bombs’ payloads came into question, but it did nothing to stop their development. In fact since then, nuclear bombs have only become more powerful.
The immense cost of failure to control nuclear bombs and their pure destructive capabilities are too dangerous for humanity to yield. Currently, the will of a handful of political leaders could leave the Earth smoldering. Ideally, humanity, or at least the few with military power, would come together and recognize their differences pale in comparison to nuclear arsenals’ threat to humanity. But what the world needs is not high-minded rhetoric. Instead we should turn to tangible measures that can bring us closer to total disarmament before tackling the moral issues.
First, nukespeak has become even more dangerous in the 21st century and political rhetoric must change. Few witnesses remain to tell of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet those bombs were only a fraction as powerful as today’s. Rhetoric that cloaks these new powers, either through the language itself or by appealing to national interests, enables nuclear arsenals to remain a key security policy for states like France, Russia, or the U.K. Instead, politicians should reframe these weapons as a relic of the past and focus on de-alerting, or removing warheads from hair trigger deployment. In the short term, these measures will reduce both accidental nuclear blasts and will further decrease the chances they will be used in response to non-nuclear combat. In the long run, changing language and moving nuclear weapons away from the centerpiece of national security will build trust and show the world that nuclearized countries are willing to give up this power.
As for nuclearized states non-party to the NPT, solutions should focus on engaging in meaningful communications that extend beyond arms control. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research recommends expanding the scope of risk-reduction for nuclearized states to include more dialogue on addressing underlying security concerns. Even more than this, however, international institutions and powerful states should engage with these governments on a more informal scale. Framing high level discussions around security interests only further emphasizes the importance of nuclear weapons on the world agenda, which motivated their development in the first place. Fostering deeper relationships through diplomacy, or public diplomacy, can both assist with short-term arms control solutions and long-term total disarmament if all sides commit themselves to transparency.
Finally, total disarmament should enter into the language of a new era of agreements. Yuval Noah Harrari, an Oxford historian, characterizes the contemporary meaning of peace not as an absence of war, but the impossibility of war. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons don’t need war. With just two commands to launch, two nations can wipe each other out. This mutually assured destruction should help frame disarmament as a self-interested objective with the recognition that no good can come of a nuclear attack. Certainly, this goal is the most difficult, as it relies on trust to allow monitoring and relinquishment of power. New policy, however, could flip the issue on its head. Instead of building trust before tackling hydrogen bombs, denuclearization can become common ground for protective reasons and open new pathways for building stronger foreign relations that address underlying security concerns.
In Wargames, a quintessentially 80’s film about a computer nerd accidentally hacking NORAD, a young Matthew Broderick stops the end of the world by teaching the computer controlling U.S. defenses that, in nuclear war, the only winning move is not to play. Certainly launching ICBMs is not a wise move, but neither is ignoring these powerful weapons we already have. Governments and international organizations need to recognize how nuclear weapons today are different than before, both in terms of their technology and their role in politics. The shadow of nuclear bombs looms over all humanity, threatening destruction by our own hands. A bleak diagnosis, but one we must face before working together to solve. The creation of nuclear bombs took the cooperation of thousands and an immense number of resources. To destroy them once and for all, humanity will need to cooperate once more, this time for the benefit of each other.
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