Advocates for Total Nuclear Disarmament

Last night on the Charlie Rose show, George Shultz and Mikhail Gorbachev advocated complete nuclear disarmament.  Shultz was secretary of state during the Reagan administration, and Gorbachev was president of the Soviet Union when landmark nuclear arms reduction treaties were signed by the US and the USSR in the 1980s.  According to participants at the Reykjavik summit, Reagan and Gorbachev almost reached an agreement to eliminate their countries’ nuclear arsenals but the deal fell through because of a disagreement about Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense project.  Shultz and Gorbachev said that creating a world free of nuclear weapons would take a long time but insisted that it was possible and the process should be started immediately.  President Obama recently proposed something similar during a trip to Europe.


Pursuing total nuclear disarmament is problematic for several reasons.  One is that it would require the participation of all nuclear powers, and potential nuclear powers, because if one nation possesses atomic bombs then other states will be hesitant to give up theirs. 


Verification would also be difficult given the ability of governments to conceal their nuclear facilities; North Korea and Iran are believed to have underground or disguised facilities but US intelligence officials do not know where they are located.  Even nuclear plants and equipment that are in the open and are purportedly for peaceful purposes such as electricity generation enable states to develop nuclear material that can be used to make bombs.  Furthermore, countries that already have nuclear weapons could hide many of them in bunkers or other difficult-to-find locations. 


Getting rid of nuclear arsenals could also increase the possibility of conventional conflicts because rival nations would no longer possess a nuclear deterrent, which many argue dissuades states from going to war because of the possibility of catastrophic escalation.  The situation regarding India and Pakistan, which fought three major wars after achieving independence from Britain but have essentially remained at peace since they both acquired atomic bombs, is cited as an example of this effect.


Even if the goal of making the world free of nuclear weapons is achieved it is uncertain how long such a situation would persist given the fact that the knowledge of how to build such weapons will continue to exist.  Atomic bombs cannot be un-invented just like guns cannot be un-invented.


Although the idea of getting rid of the most destructive weapons ever created may sound like a good idea, it is unlikely that leaders will be able make that happen.  It could easily be argued, and has been, that it would be irresponsible, even reckless, for a head of state to eliminate his nation’s nuclear deterrent and thereby jeopardize its national security.  Because it is almost impossible to know if other states have truly abandoned their atomic arsenals, governments will naturally be extremely reluctant to take such a risk.  Therefore, the dream of total nuclear disarmament is probably just a pipe dream.


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