On April 5, 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obama called for a “world without nuclear weapons.” There have only been two other instances in which American presidents have echoed this call. President Harry S. Truman told the UN in 1946 that all nuclear technology should come under the control of the international community and be devoted solely to peaceful purposes. And at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, Ronald Reagan and Russian General Secretary Gorbachev came close to reaching an agreement calling for full nuclear disarmament of both countries.
Obama’s declaration appeared momentous and it re-sparked debate on the issue of non-proliferation, but evidence suggests that rather than eliminating all nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation brings about more peace.
After Obama's speech, non-proliferation organizations, such as The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, immediately launched a series of campaigns promoting nuclear disarmament. These groups played upon the irrational fears of the public to gain support for their goals and objectives. As a result of their rhetoric, segments of the American population are convinced that more nuclear weapons across the globe will certainly lead to nuclear annihilation. Nuclear proliferation will lead to the acquisition of this deadly technology by irrational and irresponsible states or worse yet, terrorists, who are less capable of self-control. Therefore, nuclear proliferation is not an option for a secure world.
Unfortunately, while the fear of proliferation is pervasive, it is unfounded and lacks an understanding of the evidence. Nuclear proliferation has been slow. From 1945 to 1970, only six countries acquired nuclear weapons: United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, and Israel. Since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into effect in 1970, only three countries have joined the nuclear club: India, Pakistan, and North Korea. In total, only .05% of the world’s states have nuclear weapons in their possession.
Supporters of non-proliferation seem to overlook the fact that there are states currently capable of making nuclear weapons and have chosen not to construct them, which illustrates the seriousness with which states consider their entrance into the nuclear club. Included on this list are such actors as: Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Iran, South Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa.
The attraction of nuclear weapons is multifold. Nuclear weapons enhance the international status of states that possess them and help insecure states feel more secure. States also seek nuclear capabilities for offensive purposes. It is important to point out that while nuclear weapons have spread very slowly, conventional weapons have proliferated exponentially across the globe. The wars of the 21st century are being fought in the peripheral regions of the globe that are undergoing conventional weapons proliferation.
What the pundits of non-proliferation forget to mention are the many lessons that are learned from the nuclear world. Nuclear weapons provide stability just as they did during the Cold War era. The fear of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) loomed heavily on the minds of nuclear powers through out the Cold War and continues to be an important consideration for nuclear states today. States do not strike first unless they are assured of a military victory, and the probability of a military victory is diminished by fear that their actions would prompt a swift retaliation by other states.
In other words, states with nuclear weapons are deterred by another state’s second-strike capabilities. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union could not destroy enough of the other’s massive arsenal of nuclear weapons to make a retaliatory strike bearable. Even the prospect of a small number of nuclear weapons being placed in Cuba by the Soviets had a great deterrent effect on the United States.
Nothing can be done with nuclear weapons other than to use them for deterrent purposes. If deterrence works reliably, as it has done over the past 60 plus years, then there is less to be feared from nuclear proliferation than there is from convention warfare.
Despite Obama’s commitment to a nuclear free world, he seems to understand the importance of possessing nuclear weapons. His recommended budget for nuclear weapons spending in 2011 calls for a full 10% increase in nuclear weapons spending.
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