Nuclear threats from North Korea, the faltering Iranian Nuclear Deal, and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to the anti-nuclear weapons group ican, demonstrates how heavily the threat of nuclear annihilation weighs on the minds of the world’s population. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war has waned while fears of a nuclear confrontation had largely disappeared. The primary concern became the proliferation of nuclear material, which could be used by extremist groups or rogue states to recreate the nuclear threat. When the US and Russia clashed over the Russian seizure of Crimea and the broader Ukraine Crisis, however, the prospects of a nuclear war suddenly become a realistic nightmare.
Given Russia is estimated to have 7,000 nuclear weapons and the US is estimated to have 6,800 nuclear weapons, along with the 215, 300, and 80 nuclear weapons of close US allies United Kingdom, France, and Israel, tensions between Russia and US present a global threat. Sporting 140, 130, 270 nuclear weapons, perpetual rivals Pakistan, India, and China create a very real and pressing threat to Asia as well as the rest of the world. In comparison, North Korea’s arsenal of an estimated 10 nuclear weapons and Iran’s zero nuclear weapons does not appear to pose much of a threat. It is not, however, the numbers that drive fears of a nuclear confrontation. It is the attitudes of those who control nuclear arsenals and those who seek to build nuclear arsenals of their own.
To the human conscience, nuclear weapons represent a horror like no other. Where a bullet can kill a man in a fraction of a second, a nuclear weapon can erase any evidence of an entire civilization in a flash. In many respects, nuclear weapons are a manifestation of mankind’s greatest fears. Not only do they unleash an unstoppable force that can render everyone and everything we know back to cosmic dust, their fallout will slowly consume the flesh of enemies and allies alike, literally turning them into the living dead. Nuclear weapons are a power that leaves the Peoples of the world powerless against those willing to use them. They are a curse to those who must bear the burden of choosing not to use them.
Sadly, the apocalyptic nature of nuclear weapons was beyond the imagination of most men before two relatively small nuclear bombs were dropped on the Peoples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unfortunately, the failure of younger generations to comprehend the now historic references to the use of nuclear weapons imperils the world. Throughout the Ukraine Crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin had teased the world with his command of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Putin’s government even announced plans to acquire 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would allegedly be capable of overcoming any antimissile defense system. Putin’s response was to dismiss fears by proclaiming the acquisition of these nuclear upgrades was simply a part of an effort to modernize the Russian military.
What makes Putin so much more dangerous than his predecessors, who were constantly at odds with American leadership during the Cold War, is that he and his narrowing inner-circle appear to have no respect for the devastating power of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the provocative hardliners who have seized control of the Kremlin act less like the rulers of a world power and more like the leadership of an insecure rogue state, such as North Korea. North Korea uses its military might to intimidate its neighbors and the rest of the International Community. North Korea also relies on its nuclear arsenal to compensate for the inability of its traditional armed forces to match the power of US and its allies. In short, the Putin government threats nuclear weapons like tools that have a regular application instead of a serious threat to human survival. Regrettably, this mindset appears to be shared by hardliners in numerous governments.
To the military mind, nuclear bombs save lives. They save the lives of fellow soldiers. They save the lives of fellow citizens. They save military resources, require little sacrifice, and nullify almost all of a faceless enemy’s defense. They compress years of bloodshed, agony, and terror into mere moments of loss. In short, they are an efficient, sanitary, and humane means of waging war. The reality of nuclear war is, however, far more devastating and far crueler. It is easy to see history through rose tinted glasses, yet far harder to comprehend the scope of a nuclear strike. Even if modern people could walk through the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of the nuclear attacks, we would still struggle to understand the threat of normalizing nuclear weapons. We have lived with nuclear weapons for so long that we have become desensitized to their power.
The United States and Russia have struggled to ease the burden of their arsenals, because they cannot risk giving the other side the upper hand. Unfortunately, the US and Russia are not the only nuclear rivals. As several countries have been able to achieve nuclear power status since the end of the Cold War, the risk has become even more unmanageable. With multiple threats, nuclear powers must be able to retaliate against attacks from a growing list of potential aggressors, which means every nuclear power is a threat to the world’s population. Where militarily weak countries view nuclear weapons as a blessing, they are actually a curse to those who have them.
In a 2012 Foreign Affairs article, Kenneth N. Waltz made the case for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. He argued that a nuclear Iran could bring peace to the Middle East, because it would make Iran more secure while balancing Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The fault of the Waltz argument was, of course, that he relied on the short history of the Cold War as proof that a nuclear war would never happen. More countries with nuclear weapons translates into a higher probability that a nuclear conflict will occur, creates greater opportunities for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons, and empowers rogue states ruled by tyrannical governments to act as they please.
Iran’s internal stability comes from the brutal oppression of its people. Just as much of the Middle East suffers from instability following the Arab Spring revolutions, Iran will eventually face those same forces. Iran has used its military might to shield itself from the consequences of the instability it promotes throughout the region. A nuclear Iran would have even greater impunity. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology alone likely means that Iran already has nuclear weapons pointed at it. As nuclear and ballistic technology takes time to advance, those pointing nuclear weapons at Iran’s leadership are likely not threatened by Iran’s nuclear technology. Consequently, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology does not serve as a deterrent to those who actually threaten it.
Looking at North Korea, its nuclear program has failed to give it any real leverage over the outside world. If anything, the North’s nuclear arsenal has generated greater support for isolating the Communist regime, resulted in greater isolation, created new enemies, derailed any chance at peace, pushed away allies, and wasted huge sums of money the country desperately needs. Just as Russia and Iran are actively using their military might to force the International Community to appease their domineering behavior, Kim Jong-Un of North Korea mirror their behavior, which is particularly problematic for South Korea and China.
Consequently, the blunt truth is that world powers cannot defend the pursuit of nuclear weapons while nuclear powers cannot rationalize the existence of their nuclear arsenals. Nuclear weapons are a threat to everyone. Unfortunately, the will of the International Community is meaningless, unless it is enforced by nuclear powers. For countries like the US, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, their traditional military are sufficient to maintain a balance of power between these states over time. They will not, however, give up nuclear weapons, because the lack of a nuclear arsenal upsets that balance. For countries like North Korea and Iran, nuclear weapons are a means to neutralize traditional military power.
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