Challenging the myth that we need nuclear weapons

Challenging the myth that we need nuclear weapons

Marianne Hanson: Thank you very much, Richard, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen. As Richard said, I’m going to be addressing the topic of the myths, the continuing reasons that are put forward for why we apparently need nuclear weapons. Why is there still a belief among so many people that we need these nuclear weapons, that they actually serve a useful purpose? Well, let’s just look at where we are at, at the moment. If nuclear weapons were primarily aimed at deterring the use of nuclear weapons between the superpowers during the Cold War, why is it that 20 years after the Cold War ended we still have around 25,000 or so of these weapons in existence, and many of them on hair-trigger alert?

Well, this is perhaps one of the most sobering examples of a human tendency to inertia, to complacency, of allowing the status quo to stand. It is after all easier to do nothing than to take the very active steps that are needed for real change. But this public inertia… you’re all exempted of course, but for the most part there seems to be a real sense of complacency.

But this isn’t the only reason. This inertia is supported by persistent fears among governments and military figures that nuclear weapons are useful, that they must be kept. But this is built very much on a mindset, and Gareth Evans alluded to that mindset. It’s a perception that these weapons actually still have a real utility and this is why they’ve got to be kept.

So what does this mindset consist of? I’m going to put forward five reasons; five main reasons that are generally listed as why we have to keep nuclear weapons, and then I’m going to address those.

  1. We need nuclear weapons to deter wars between the major powers.
  2. We need nuclear weapons to continue the purpose of nuclear deterrence, in other words to deter against others nuclear weapon use.
  3. We need nuclear weapons to deter against chemical weapons or biological weapons attack, and especially terrorist attacks.
  4. We need them as a security blanket in case of any future threat; a vague and ill-defined threat… “let’s just keep them because we never know what’s around the corner.”
  5. Well, we can’t move to zero, we can’t eliminate nuclear weapons because what if somebody cheats? In other words, we need a nuclear weapon to respond to what is called “breakout.” In other words, if we were to get to the point of abolition, and a state or a sub-state group covertly designed and produced a nuclear weapon, how are we going to respond? Well, we better keep our nukes because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to respond to that factor of cheating or breakout.

All right, let’s look at these in turn. First of all, that nuclear weapons are useful because they’ll keep the peace between the major powers. Now, that might have been the case during the Cold War. But in fact, there are very many other reasons why the major states did not go to war with each other, and are unlikely to go to war with each other now and in the future.

There is a range of economic and political reasons why the major powers are highly unlikely to go to war with each other today. We cannot really put forward the argument that it is nuclear weapons which have kept the peace in the past, and which are necessary for keeping the peace in the future.

The second argument, and this is related to that first one, that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter the use of other nuclear weapons. In other words, the deterrence argument, and others will be speaking on this at greater length later, but let me just address this very briefly.

Rolf Ekéus noted that the Canberra Commission and a number of other statements have said, well, there might be some continuing utility in this. In other words, as long as nuclear weapons exist, some states will feel that they need to retain their nuclear weapons so that they will deter the use of nuclear weapons against them.

But if we eliminate nuclear weapons, then this logic no longer holds, and it is a far better state to be in to have zero nuclear weapons than to continue to rely on the very unpredictable and indeed dangerous nature of nuclear weapons. So what we have here is a case or a reason that might still have some small utility, but which in fact there would be no logic in this once we reach the point of elimination.

What about the third reason I listed, that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter terrorist acts or chemical weapons attacks, biological weapons attacks. Well, the possession of nuclear weapons by the United States did nothing to deter the terrorist attacks on that country in 2001. The possession of nuclear weapons does not make a state secure.

We’ve seen far too many examples of where indeed a state can be attacked and has been attacked despite the possession of very large arsenals of nuclear weapons. In other words, possessing these weapons is no guarantee that a state can achieve security. Moreover, keeping these weapons to respond to any such attack is equally fruitless.

Even if we were able to detect a terrorist cell, something which is in any case difficult to do, we don’t need a nuclear weapon to respond to the threat of terrorism. We’ve seen in the past, indeed in the very recent past in Indonesia, conventional weapons have been used against terrorists.

The Federation of American Scientists, in a very well respected report, noted that if even a very, very small nuclear weapon, one of the bunker busters, had been used, let’s say in Iraq to take out an alleged terrorist cell or to penetrate where there are suspected chemical or biological weapons, if these bunker busters, even one bunker buster had been used, we would likely have seen 25,000 civilian deaths.

Now, this is something that we are not prepared to accept. And no government in its right mind would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons to take out a terrorist cell, knowing that we are likely to have such high, such enormously high civilian casualties. We simply don’t need a nuclear weapon to respond to terrorism.

The fourth argument is that we need to keep them as a security blanket against any sort of threat that might come up or might be a problem that we need to deal with at the moment or in the future. Well, what are the kinds of threats to security that we see at the moment?

We see the threat of environment degradation and climate change. We see economic meltdown. We see world hunger and poverty. We see the rise of piracy in certain parts of the world. Yes, these are all new threats to security or the threats that are defined as non-traditional security issues.

But can we say that nuclear weapons would be of any use whatsoever in addressing those threats? Clearly not. Nuclear weapons serve no purpose in responding not just to terrorism but to climate change, to global hunger, to economic crises and all of the other very real challenges that are posed today.

And then finally, the argument that we need nuclear weapons to respond to breakout or cheating. Again, using a nuclear weapon against a suspected state or sub state group that has built a nuclear weapon covertly where we have reached a position of zero nuclear weapons is simply not tenable. We have the conventional capabilities to respond to any such case of breakout. We do not need nuclear weapons to respond to any case of cheating in the future.

My conclusion then is that we really need to think carefully, and we need to challenge people who argue that we must have nuclear weapons, we must retain them because of the various reasons, some of which I’ve listed. We don’t need them to respond to these challenges, and indeed as others have noted, keeping them only encourages other states to acquire them and continues the risk that they will one day be used, either deliberately or accidentally.

About Marianne Hanson

Dr Marianne Hanson is Reader in International Relations, School of Political Science & International Studies, University of Queensland.

She presented this speech at a public forum on nuclear disarmament, Who Will Stop Nuclear Next Use? The forum was organized by the Nautilus Institute at RMIT. It was held on Sunday 20 September 2009 at RMIT Storey Hall.