It is not our psychology that leads us to consider the need for nuclear weapons; it is the interpretation of our need for security that ought to be revised when we think of the supposed necessity of those weapons.
The need for security has been a human concern throughout history. It was either about hostile creatures, about the elements or about the possibility that others may take a liking to our possessions - our basic needs are not necessarily things of assumed value. Security also involved environmental concerns.
In a modern, complex society, security no longer implies the need to safeguard against wanton occupation - we ought to have learned the shear idiocy of that after World War II. Security for a complex society implies safeguarding trading patterns and access to resources.
Do nuclear weapons guarantee these? Some people claim that nuclear weapons prevent war - at least between major states. Others point to the cost of the continuous escalation to refine those weapons and the increasing complexity of the delivery systems. But even if, say, the oil supply is threatened and there is the chance of disruption to major economies (as happened when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990) the response was to use conventional force. The use of nuclear force would not be countenanced.
We can assume that because nuclear weapons require constant maintenance, complex construction and handling the people who are in charge and control these processes are all sane and balanced individuals. It is unimaginable that these individuals would consider the pre-emptive use of these weapons: simply because of the consequences on the environment of their own citizens, let alone if anyone else retaliates. Therefore, to consider the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons would be unmitigated madness. This was elucidated by the theory of mutually assured destruction (stated by Robert McNamara during President Kennedy’s administration).
On April 22, 2008, during the presidential primary campaign in the United States, Senator Hillary Clinton was reported to have warned Iran of severe nuclear retaliation if Iran ever considered attacking Israel with nuclear weapons. This may have sounded a disproportionate and unnecessary threat. On the other hand, it may have been a timely reminder to an aspiring and relatively puny nuclear state of the need to desist from even contemplating the use of nuclear weapons.
In a way, it also highlighted the futility of nuclear weapons. If the most powerful states desist from using nuclear weapons, just what are those weapons for? If we consider the possibility that just one or two nuclear weapons are used by a small nuclear state (worse still, if a non-state organisation used a nuclear weapon) before the major states could intervene to stop the escalation, the uncertainty created in the financial system would be immense. Our present financial crisis would be seen as a relatively minor event compared to the uncertainty created by the detonation of a nuclear device in any conurbation. This in turn would cause serious economic dislocations, which would lead to unpredictable social consequences.
The use of nuclear weapons by the major powers as a mode of warfare would spell the end of us all. Everyone is aware of these facts, especially those who control these weapons. They are, after all, weapons of mass destruction. There may be “collateral damage” in a battle, but killing millions of innocent civilians cannot be dismissed as such.
The International Court of Justice arrived at the same conclusion when the World Court Project (through the World Health Organisation) challenged the legality of nuclear weapons. In July 1996 the World Court, after long deliberation and against much pressure from the Nuclear Weapon States, found that the threat or use of nuclear weapons was generally against international humanitarian law. The Court declared unanimously that all states have an obligation to “pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament”.
What can be done?
Undoubtedly, the issue of security is very complex, and nuclear states will do their utmost to delay any negotiations for meaningful nuclear disarmament. We have to acknowledge that the present nuclear powers will not give up their nuclear arsenal voluntarily, or unilaterally. The negotiations regarding nuclear non proliferation treaties (NPT) or anti ballistic missile (ABM) agreements, or comprehensive test ban treaties (CTBT) may reduce but will not eliminate nuclear weapons.
At present, possessing nuclear weapons is like a surreal poker game. (Strobe Talbot, who was Deputy Secretary of State from 1994 to 2001, referred to it as Deadly Gambits.) We have no other way of providing the territorial security, access to resources and to trading patterns (euphemistically called the vital interests) that nations are legitimately concerned about.
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