Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nuclear Free Follies

Apparently part of the rationale behind awarding Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize was to support his efforts at ridding the world of nuclear weapons. This has been a theme in some of his keynote speeches as President, like his address to the United Nations last month; other commentators like Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund have regularly been campaigning for a nuclear-free world he specifically in numerous posts at the Huffington Post.

But on this topic, I'll defer to Rush - the band, not the blowhard. Their song about the development of the nuclear bomb "Manhattan Project" contains this line, which I think sums up the current debate nicely:
The big shots tried to hold it back,
Fools tried to wish it away...

I don't mean to imply that Obama, Cirincione and others in the disarmament campaign are fools, but they are pursuing a goal they'll never attain. Mind you, I wish that disarmament would happen, I remember as a child being scared witless by the movie "The Day After", a made-for-TV film on ABC that showed the aftermath of a limited nuclear war by following a collection of average people in Kansas. An estimated 100 million people watched that movie, even Ronald Reagan said the effects of nuclear war depicted in the film left him feeling "greatly depressed." So yeah, I'd love to see a world free of nukes, I just know that it won't ever happen.

As for the why, let's take a quick look at the world's nuclear powers, starting with Russia. Russia sees itself as one of the world's great powers, but its military is a shell of the mighty Red Army thanks to a couple of decades of neglect and underfunding. The one area where Russia can still claim superpower status though is in its nuclear forces, estimated to be either the world's first or second largest nuclear arsenal depending on the source you use. Russia will agree to reductions in their nuclear forces - largely because they have thousands of warheads nearing or past their effective lifespans that need replacement - the fewer they need to replace, the more money they will save. It's naive to think though that the Russian military will totally give up the one thing that makes them a formidable force.

Then there's India and Pakistan, two nations which in their post-British Empire history have fought three wars, though none since Pakistan officially became a nuclear power in 1998. The two states are mutually suspicious of each other, therefore it's again naive to think either side would believe claims that the other had disarmed, thus it's impossible to imagine either giving up their arsenal.

China views both India and Russia as potential competitors for influence among the nations of Central Asia, so it's hard to imagine the Chinese giving up their nukes so long as Russia and/or India keep theirs (or so long as the United States has its arsenal). And then there's Israel, a country that won't even admit to having nuclear weapons in the first place. Israel's nukes are their ace up the sleeve - a last resort should they ever face another Six Day War scenario, where a pan-Arab army is moving against them on several fronts. Israeli planning dictates that if such a conflict were going badly, it could be quickly ended by use of nuclear weapons (it's also the reason they're so dead set against Iran ever getting the bomb).

So there you have Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel - five nuclear powers all of whom, despite what the anti-proliferation side argues, will never totally give up their nukes since each will argue giving up nuclear weapons will leave them weaker in the face of potential adversaries. And don't think the Pentagon will sign off on a plan to eliminate America's nuclear arsenal either, so long as a half-dozen or so countries are keeping theirs - or that a president will order the Pentagon to fully disarm under those circumstances, no matter how many Nobel Prizes they're awarded.

And there's something the disarmament proponents never discuss, let's call it the Japan Option, which is this: just because you get rid of all your nuclear weapons, that doesn't mean that you immediately forget how to make more. While Japan isn't a nuclear state, it's generally admitted by the folks in the nuclear weapons field that Japan could have a nuclear arsenal if they wanted one: Japanese industries produce some of the world's most advanced electronics, while decades of using nuclear power have left Japan with several tons of plutonium, a by-product of operating nuclear power plants, and also the raw material of choice for making an A-bomb.

Let's imagine for a moment then that tomorrow we were to wake up and all of the world's nuclear arsenals had disappeared. The bombs might be gone, but the knowledge of how to make them would not. And it's hard to believe that some country wouldn't start up production again, especially if they thought it would give them a quick advantage over everyone else.

The nuclear genie is long out of the bottle and sadly she can't be stuffed back in. It would be great to think there could be a world where a city might not be snuffed out in the glow of a mushroom cloud, but realistically that's not the world in which we live. There are some huge issues facing the world, one's that need the international community to come together to address. Maybe it would be best then for our leaders to focus on the problems they can solve, rather than ones - like nuclear disarmament - that they can't.
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