After nearly seventy years since the last use of a nuclear weapon, the world has changed significantly. Fortunately, we no longer live in a society where Cold War-style duck-and-cover drills are needed. Even so, in his new budget, President Obama has proposed rebuilding of the United States nuclear arsenal at an estimated cost of $355 billion over ten years and possibly as much as $1 trillion over 30 years. These proposed increases would increase spending on nuclear warheads at a faster rate than many other Department of Defense programs, with FY2016 spending for nuclear warheads representing over an eight percent increase from current spending levels. Russia has proposed a similar plan that would modernize the Russian arsenal to compete with NATO and presumably cling to some semblance of superpower status amid a dismal economic backdrop.
Although the conventional wisdom has long been that nuclear weapons, with their deterrent value, impose a pacifying effect on world politics, some argue that nuclear weapons are not only irrelevant, but also expensive. With more “millennials” entering the halls of government and being tasked with maintaining these weapons that they had no hand in creating and – frankly – little interest in, it’s important to revisit the question: do nuclear weapons still matter?
A leading voice for nuclear irrelevancy has been John Mueller, a political scientist and Chair of National Security Studies at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. According to Mueller, nuclear weapons “do not seem to have been necessary to deter World War III, determine alliance patterns, or to cause the United States and the Soviet Union to behave cautiously.” Rather, he proposes that there are other explanations for the “long peace,” the term used to represent the lack of major power conflict since World War II. Mueller argues that the memory of World War II, rather than the nuclear weapons, serves as enough of a deterrent to prevent conflict. In addition, he argues that the superpowers were satisfied with preserving the postwar status quo and feared escalation; whether or not the escalation involved nuclear or conventional forces does not matter.
A notable counterargument to this claim comes from Robert Jervis, political scientist and professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, who argues that nuclear weapons are relevant. Jervis argues that nuclear weapons have important political effects. For instance, they distort the calculus of war to make military conflict way too costly. Every state simply knows, regardless of the context, that nuclear war cannot be won and therefore not worth attempting. This sentiment was famously articulated by President Ronald Reagan when he said, “nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.” Essentially, no strategic objective can justify the existential threats posed by nuclear warfare.
While there is some merit to Mueller’s argument, particularly with regards to escalation, the historical record has heavily favored the conventional wisdom reiterated by Jervis. One need look no further than the 1960s and the crises that did not result in nuclear annihilation. The Berlin Crisis of 1961, in which the Soviet Union demanded that Western armed forces leave West Berlin and ultimately resulted in the city’s partition through the building of the Berlin Wall, for example, would surely have escalated in the absence of nuclear weapons. The United States, thousands of miles from home while the Soviets were essentially in their own backyard, would have certainly been overrun by the Soviet army and pushed out of Berlin. Nobody can know for certain what the result would have been, but it’s difficult to imagine the United States fighting a major war over half of a German city. Fortunately, this never happened. Instead of fighting, the two sides met at the famous “Checkpoint Charlie,” engaged in a standoff, and eventually backed down. Two years later, President Kennedy could certainly have behaved more aggressively during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the absence of looming mushroom clouds. Separated by two huge oceans, the United States could have pushed the Soviets out of Cuba entirely, and although it may have led to escalation in other parts of the world, both countries would not have faced the threat of total destruction to their homelands. Within the context of the Cold War, it’s hard to fathom both of these crises reaching the same result in the absence of each superpower’s nuclear arsenal.
Even today, it is patently obvious that nuclear weapons still matter. Iran would not be willing to endure crippling sanctions and global isolation for an insignificant Cold War relic. As Matt Kroenig, associate professor of International Relations at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, has demonstrated, the consequences of a nuclear Iran would be terrible for both international and US national security, and deterring a nuclear Iran would be extremely costly. It would empower them to be much too cavalier in their actions, both throughout the region and beyond, including support for terrorism and other regional actors. For a country with leaders that have openly called for the annihilation of Israel, a very close ally of the United States, this would be a devastating security concern-one that every American should care about.
Nuclear weapons are also the primary reason why the international community tolerates the alleged actions and reprehensible human rights violations of the North Korean regime. Despite the massive humanitarian and international security benefits that regime change in North Korea would bring, the fact that they have managed to develop a number of nuclear weapons has made the costs of intervention far too high. Because of this, the world community has no choice but to manage the equivalent of an international hostage crisis. Unfortunately, in the absence of North Korean nuclear disarmament, the actions of the international community will likely stop at sanctions and condemnation.
Despite those who argue for their irrelevancy, the historical and modern contexts make it obvious that nuclear weapons are both relevant and extremely consequential for international and US national security. Although we live in a post-Cold War generation, and the number of total nuclear weapons has decreased substantially, the dangers that these weapons present are still serious. We may one day live in a world where nuclear weapons are irrelevant. Unfortunately, that day has not yet arrived.
Author’s Note: This entry was adapted from an exam question in a class on the topic of nuclear security. While various edits were made to include necessary citations, much of the work is the same. I strongly encourage my peers to consider sharing similar work. Sometimes, the most thoughtful insights emerge when the computer is turned off and the books are closed.