The potential perils of a world without nukes

Paul Raven @ 01-04-2009

nuclear fallout shelter signEven though we no longer live under the Cold War shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction (at least, not at the moment), there’s a whole lot of nuclear weapons sat around gathering dust, still just as lethal as they always were before.

I think many people would agree it’d be nice to be rid of nukes completely; the Obama administration seems keen on the idea, anyway, which – even if it’s just a symbolic political palm frond – is a reassuring change from the gung-ho realpolitik of the last decade.

But disarmament carries its own set of risks, as George Dvorsky points out:

There are a number of reasons for concern. A world without nukes could be far more unstable and prone to both smaller and global-scale conventional wars. And somewhat counter-intuitively, the process of relinquishment itself could increase the chance that nuclear weapons will be used. Moreover, we have to acknowledge the fact that even in a world free of nuclear weapons we will never completely escape the threat of their return.

[snip]

The absence of nuclear weapons would dramatically increase the likelihood of conventional wars re-emerging as military possibilities. And given the catastrophic power of today’s weapons, including the introduction of robotics and AI on the battlefield, the results could be devastating, even existential in scope.

So, while the damage inflicted by a restrained conventional war would be an order of magnitude lower than a nuclear war, the probably of a return to conventional wars would be significantly increased. This forces us to ask some difficult questions: Is nuclear disarmament worth it if the probability of conventional war becomes ten times greater? What about a hundred times greater?

And given that nuclear war is more of a deterrent than a tactical weapon, can such a calculation even be made? If nuclear disarmament spawns x conventional wars with y casualties, how could we measure those catastrophic losses against a nuclear war that’s not really supposed to happen in the first place? The value of nuclear weapons is not that they should be used, but that they should never be used.

It’s a tricky question; Dvorsky points out that he himself is very much in favour of disarmament, but the situation is not clear cut by any means. Idealism is shaky ground from which to argue against the destructive force of nuclear weapons. [image by brndnprkns]

Perhaps it will take some Watchmen-esque global existential threat to make the whole world put aside its differences at the same time as its nuclear arsenal… but the cynic in me suspects that the opposite would occur. After all, climate change hasn’t yet encouraged everyone to pull in the same political direction, has it?

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One Response to “The potential perils of a world without nukes”

  1. Booth Sterling says:

    That was a good point about climate change not bringing us together. Perhaps what we need is a threat of a genuine catastrophe, such as an asteroid bigger than Apophis that is due to hit us in the next 5 years. A genuine threat would at least get everyone on the same wavelength.

    A lot of people who claim to worry about overpopulation could easily solve their problems by killing themselves. Those who worry about the planet warming could go on an Arctic expedition and refuse rescue from all agents of evil globalist empires. Their particular problems solved! And so on. Persons often whine when they are afraid of actually doing something.