May 16, 2017
Last March negotiations began at the United Nations in New York to produce a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading toward their total elimination.” The United States and most of its close allies are not taking part in the talks, leading at least two proponents of the talks to conclude that “their refusal to participate is flawed on substance and probably in breach of their NPT obligation to promote nuclear disarmament. It is also a self-defeating tactic as they are rejecting the opportunity to influence the debate and shape the text of the eventual treaty.” (Globe and Mail, March 27, 2017). Perhaps the real difference between the U.S. and its close allies (including Canada) and the other nations taking part in the discussions is that the former know that nuclear weapons are inevitably and completely here to stay, while the rest of the nations represented at the talks simply like to send self-important delegations to fancy hotels and even fancier restaurants in the pretence that they are doing something useful to make the world safer.
The world’s nine nuclear weapons states – the UN Security Council’s Big Five – have been nuclear-armed for decades. None of them would give up their nuclear weapons because to do so would diminish their status as veto-wielding countries and undermine the only real defence against nuclear weapons, which is deterrence. The newer members of the nuclear club – India and Pakistan, North Korea and probably Israel – have their own reasons for having gone nuclear. For Pakistan, it’s because India developed them, and for Israel it’s the ultimate deterrent – especially now against Iran. North Korea sees nuclear weapons as a means of raising its status from a poor undeveloped nation to one whose every twitch makes the world’s genuine great powers twitch at every turn.
Ironically, nuclear weapons themselves do not pose significant real-life danger because of the deterrent factor: you hit me and I’ll hit you back. This kept nuclear peace during the last Cold War. More dangerous is the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and their combination with precision-guided munitions in an attempt to make them “safer” to actually use in a conflict. When a small nuke can take out an army base without endangering the safety of whole populations, the temptation to use such weapons will soar. And so will the possibility that crossing the nuclear threshold will inevitably lead up Herman Kahn’s ladder of escalation to city-busting and the annihilation of tens if not hundreds of millions of people.
It’s way too late to eliminate nuclear weapons. The best course at this point is to try to get existing nuclear powers to refrain from the development of super-small nukes they would be tempted to use for tactical purposes. In nuclear war, the word “tactical” would lose all meaning.
David Bercuson is Research Director of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.