We Are Living at the Edge of a Nuclear Precipice

With nuclear weapons, what could possibly go wrong? The short answer is: Everything.

Nuclear weapons could be launched by accident or miscalculation. There have already been several close calls related to false warnings nearly leading to actual launches, which would most likely have led to retaliatory responses. These false warnings are all the more dangerous for the US and Russia knowing that each side keeps hundreds of nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to be launched in moments of an order to do so.

The mere possession of nuclear weapons and the prestige in the international community associated with such possession is an inducement to nuclearproliferation. There are currently nine nuclear-armed countries. How much more dangerous would the world become if there were 19, 29 or 99?

Nuclear weapons are justified by a hypothesis about human behavior known as nuclear deterrence. It posits that a nation (with or without nuclearweapons) will not attack a nation that threatens nuclear retaliation. But nuclear deterrence is not foolproof and it does not provide physical protection. The security it provides is entirely psychological. It fails if one side does not believe that the other side would really engage in nuclear retaliation. It fails if one side is not rational. It fails in the case of a terrorist group in possession of nuclear weapons that does not have territory to retaliate against and additionally may be suicidal.

Nuclear deterrence may provide some weak, uncertain and unreliable protection against other states, but it provides no protection against terrorists. Thus, terrorists in possession of nuclear weapons are any state’s worst nightmare, including nuclear-armed states. In light of such dangers, it would make sense to seek to reduce nuclear arsenals to the lowest possible number of weapons (on the way to zero) so that any that remained could be more effectively guarded and kept from the hands of terrorist groups.

It is also true that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires the 190 parties to the treaty to negotiate in good faith for effective measuresto end the nuclear arms race at an early date and to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. The obligation to negotiate in good faith for nucleardisarmament also applies to the four nuclear-armed countries that are not parties to the NPT (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) through customary international law.

Since it is clear that much could go wrong with nuclear weapons, including some weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, it is surprising that there is so much complacency around the issue. This complacency is fuelled by apathy, conformity, ignorance and denial. Without citizen engagement, pushing on political leaders to act, it is likely that the world will witness nightmarish nuclear terror, either of the state variety or that actually brought about by terrorists in possession of nuclear weapons. Apathy and denial have the potential to corrode and dissolve our common future.

For the present, the nine nuclear-armed countries all have plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals, despite the immorality, illegality and waste of resources involved in doing so. The US alone is planning to spend $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. Where is the humanity in seeking to devote resources to improving nuclear weaponry and delivery systems when there are so many human needs that are going unfulfilled?

Nuclear weapons are not a solution to any human problem, and they raise the specter of the devastation of civilization and the doom of the human species. What could possibly go wrong? Shouldn’t good citizens just ignore nuclear dangers and leave them in the hands of whoever happens to be leading the nuclear-armed countries? That would actually be a continuation of the status quo and would be no solution at all.

We must recognize that we are living at the edge of a nuclear precipice with the ever-present dangers of nuclear proliferation, nuclear accidents and miscalculations, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. Instead of relying on nuclear deterrence and pursuing the modernization of nuclear arsenals, weneed to press our political leaders to fulfill our moral and legal obligations to negotiate in good faith for the prohibition and elimination of nuclearweapons. That is, we need to break free of our acidic complacency and commit ourselves to achieving a nuclear zero world.