Trump and the Importance of Nuclear Disarmament

SFL Staff

Trump advocated further nuclear proliferation, failed to identify the three components of the nuclear triad, and  reportedlyasked an adviser why the United States has nukes if it can’t use them. Hillary Clinton raises similar concerns since staking out out an aggressive stance toward Putin and his attempts at projecting Russian power. Some, including Trump, worry about a possible confrontation between Russia and the United States if Clinton is elected. People are rightfully scared by both candidates’ rhetoric and the prospect that one of them could soon have the power to end life on Earth as we know it. But that just raises the question: why aren’t we more worried about the fact that we have a nuclear arsenal that could possibly be used to destroy the world?

It’s not as if nobody is aware of the threat the existence of nuclear weapons poses. Nuclear war is almost universally recognized as one of the most likely sources of a potential doomsday. Throughout the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war was almost omnipresent; one looks at the popular culture of America in the late twentieth century and is almost in awe of how casually most Americans accepted the fact that they could, probably for reasons they don’t entirely understand, be vaporized some time in the near future. At severalpoints, the United States came within inches of nuclear war — the Cuban Missile Crisis being only the most famous example.

We know all of this. So why are so many people perfectly fine with letting it continue? How has the fact that human civilization could be totally destroyed at any minute become so normalized? What are the arguments in favor of allowing this constant, existential threat to continue to hover over us?

The United States’, and other countries’, hesitance to disarm can be explained, in part, by their continued commitment to a doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the idea of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attack, incentivizing peaceful cooperation between nuclear states in order to avoid global death and destruction. Though the U.S. military has never officially, openly accepted this doctrine, its influence on the public view of nuclear weapons and its near universal acceptance by America’s politicians has clearly had a tremendous effect on policy.

Here’s what’s wrong with MAD: as those who clamor for war with Iran and North Korea (supposedly to stop nuclear proliferation) have pointed out, MAD assumes that the people holding nuclear weapons are sane, rational actors who know and care that the use of those weapons would lead to armageddon. What those voices usually haven’t pointed out is that the same principle applies to the leaders of the United States — if the President is someone who doesn’t care that using nuclear weapons could end up killing everyone, MAD goes out the window, and so, potentially, does the entire human race. As this election proves, the chance of someone like that being elected is not small.

The second problem with this doctrine is that it is literal terrorism. To accept MAD as a policy is to communicate to the entire world that, under the right circumstances, your administration would prosecute a war that would destroy civilization, and furthermore, to leverage that knowledge as a tool for international decision-making. As long as a country holds a nuclear stockpile large enough for MAD to be a viable strategy, it holds the entire world hostage.

Contrary to mainstream political discourse, nuclear disarmament is not nearly as far off a goal as it might seem. The Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation actually calls on its signatory parties to negotiate a plan for “general and complete disarmament” as quickly as possible, and the International Court of Justice has unanimously interpreted it as obligating signatories to “pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.” Prior to his election and throughout his administration, Barack Obama has paid lip service to the idea of disarmament, calling several times for aworld without nuclear weapons.”

Yet the United States is still no closer to dismantling its thousands of nuclear warheads than it was the day Obama was sworn in. At the beginning of the Obama administration, the United States government held a stockpile of 5,113 nuclear warheads. The most recent estimates put the current number around 4,670, demonstrating almost no progress in the disarmament process. In fact, the United States government has recently worked against attempts to hasten disarmament. Foreign Policy calls their current opposition to a recent United Nations proposal to ban nuclear weapons entirely an “aggressive campaign.”

This policy reversal is not only shocking, it’s dangerous. As long as the United States continues stockpiling weapons that can be used as tools of mass murder at best and instruments of total human annihilation at worst, it threatens us all. Regardless of who the next president is, the United States government owes it to humanity to dismantle its nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. If they won’t do it themselves, then maybe we ought tomake them.