On July 16th, 1945 the world entered the Atomic Age. With the successful detonation of the first nuclear weapon, code name: Trinity, diplomacy would never be the same again. The weapons of a modern nuclear arsenal contain multiple warheads, each with a yield around 20 times as powerful as the early designs. But are nuclear weapons really as deplorable an asset as they are often portrayed and perceived?
Only six countries have conducted nuclear weapons tests. Of these, five are officially recognised as ‘nuclear weapon states’ under terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1968): the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China.
Four other states are known or believed to possess nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan and North Korea have openly tested and declared that they possess nuclear weapons. Israel however is widely suspected of possessing a weapon but operates a deliberate policy of ambiguity with regards to any potential nuclear weapons programme.
It is a highly exclusive club, and one which many countries would eagerly join had they the resources to do so, or the nerve to develop the capability unheeded. They have been a source of international tension since their inception and represent the most advanced pinnacle of our technological violence. Where once empires were won and lost by soldiers in the hundreds of thousands, now the smallest nations – or terrorist organisations – could potentially inflict terrible devastation upon a numerically superior foe.
We have produced enough of these weapons to wipe out civilisation several times over, in large part owing to the Cold War. We have even lost track of some of them along the way.
As of 2014, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation estimates the total number of nuclear weapons in the world to be at 17,105. And those are the ones we know of.
Despite all this – we’re still here. No nuclear attack has occurred since the United States dropped an atomic weapon on Nagasaki in 1945.
Yet consider the possibility that these weapons of mass destruction could in fact be having a positive effect on international relations. Could we in fact be made safer by having more of these devices in our possession? Is it better to live by the concept of the ‘balance of terror’, accepting nuclear weapons as great equaliser on the international playing field?
Suppose that we did not develop the atomic bomb, or any weapon of mass destruction (WMD). It is unlikely that international relations would bear much resemblance to the present day. Strong relationships forged during the Cold War would not have come to fruition through the shared endeavours of the arms race and, conversely, there would not have been as clear a division between friend and foe. Post-war Europe would no longer have been unified by the presence of a shared enemy.
With the war won, and the great evil banished, the focus of nations would of course return to furthering their own interests. Petty squabbles would follow, and eventually history would repeat itself. War would return to Europe as it always has since before the earliest historical records: Tribal warfare, the conquest and subsequent decline of the Roman Empire, the warring medieval kingdoms, the Crusades, the advent of gunpowder and the Napoleonic Wars, Colonial wars around the globe, and finally 20th Century warfare.
It seems an endless cycle, but in Europe we now seem to be enjoying an unimagined period of relative stability. Never in history have so many separate nations coexisted in such close proximity so peacefully. Has the cycle been broken? If so, by what? What has been the defining change in the nature of warfare to facilitate this perceived development? Only one significant technological advancement could possibly account for this. It is naive and a little arrogant to suggest that it can be explained by some alleged enlightenment of our time; that we have evolved and outgrown our warlike, uncouth nature – mankind is every bit the same creature with the talent for war. The most likely explanation is the bomb.
The historian Andrew Robertson once quipped at the time, that if Churchill were to return to the world today, it wouldn’t take the Chief of the General Staff long to brief him as the world had barely changed.
The morality of weapons that have harnessed such power being used against civilian targets must also be called into question, however, such attacks are nothing new even in living history. In Britain, many remember the German bombing campaign across the United Kingdom and the civilian casualties sustained as a result. We hear far less mentioned about the retaliatory strikes made against German cities. Berlin, Dresden, and Hamburg in particular suffered a far greater loss of civilian life and much of the cities were levelled.
These attacks were justified because they were an attack against the state. The civilians are an essential part of the state, they provide the state with resources, finance, manpower, from which a military can be formed and maintained. An attack on an enemy city will have an effect on the ability of that state to support a military, therefore it is a valid target. By this logic, nuclear weapons are no different morally than a strategic bombing campaign. The only difference being the timescales involved. It could even be argued that the instant incineration of tens of thousands of people (the kind of casualties sustained in the cities previously mentioned) would be more humane than exposing those same casualties to the hardships, fear, and cruelty of prolonged bombing campaigns that result in the same loss of life. Humanity has always been capable of such widespread destruction, just not quite as promptly as we are used to today.
For as warlike a species as ourselves – the same species that flung soldiers in their millions to their deaths in not one but two world wars within the space of a generation – only the colossal power of the atomic bomb could keep it in check. A civilisation can survive a military defeat, but nuclear weapons do not solely destroy military targets, they can more easily be used to destroy culture. The threat of a nuclear strike endangers not only civilian lives, but the very history of those people. Their records, architecture, art, music, literature… all can be erased in a moment.
What aggressive manoeuvre, what possible military or political gain could justify the risk of the erasure of your civilisation? Thus a conflict between nuclear powers must end in stalemate, or loss on both sides. This is the ‘Balance of Terror’ – Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
So, do we really need so many of these weapons?
Perhaps we should consider that in reality, just one nuclear weapon isn’t really that effective. Even one of our most powerful thermonuclear weapons today could only play a small role in a conventional war. True, it will annihilate any target that it is directed onto, but a war is not won by the destruction of a single target. It would be possible for a nation to sustain several nuclear strikes and continue a coherent resistance. For a short while in fact, Japan seriously considered this option, even in the face of further nuclear strikes – their capitulation easily had as much to do with Stalin joining the war in Manchuria as the nuclear strikes.
The strength in nuclear weapons lies in numbers. Simultaneous nuclear strikes on a wide range of targets is the only way to guarantee their effectiveness. It is this same characteristic that makes them effective as a preventative measure. The greater the perceived danger, the less likely a nation will be to launch first. So it may seem a little counter-intuitive, but in fact, it is desirable to have more of these weapons in a stable balance than a precarious few.
The acclaimed international relations scholar Professor John Mearsheimer has continually argued throughout his career that countries with nuclear weapons are less likely to be attacked. In 1993 he advocated that Ukraine should hold onto its nuclear stockpile to ensure its new independence was protected, and defended India’s right to have nuclear weapons as a way to balance strategic competition with China and Pakistan. As recently as 2012 Mearsheimer argued that Iran having a nuclear weapon would make US or Israeli attack less likely and thus ensuring stability in the region.
The concept of total nuclear disarmament is unrealistic and would be difficult to adequately enforce. Equally undesirable would be excessive numbers of weapons being churned out in an arms race. There is an optimum range that would provide sufficient force for a deterrent while minimising the costs of building, maintenance and security of the weapons. This seems to be a more useful goal than total disarmament.
In terms of safety and risk of accidental detonation, while it is true that there have been a great many incidents in the early years of the technological development – most notably in the 50’s and 60’s – thankfully, our understanding of the risks involved and the precautions that we now make to prevent such incidents has progressed significantly. The nuclear weapons of today are the safest and most reliable ever produced – and they are here to stay. In any case, if things do get out of hand, we won’t have to live with the regret for long.