The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.
On Friday, Oct. 6, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize. ICAN’s goal is to abolish nuclear weapons, and it campaigned for a United Nations treaty to ban nuclear weapons which has recently been signed by over fifty countries.
This prize amounts to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the Nobel Peace Prize, scolding all states that continue to possess nuclear weapons. However, getting rid of nukes is impossible because all nuclear states boycotted the vote on the aforementioned treaty. Even if abolishing nuclear weapons was possible, it would be a bad idea because it ignores how peace is actually maintained in the nuclear age.
Some nuclear powers like Russia and North Korea are led by power-hungry dictators. There is every reason to think these despots pursue their interests without considering the harm they cause to others. For example, Putin has invaded two of his neighboring countries, Georgia and Ukraine, in the past decade, and has done everything in his power to destabilize liberal democracies including meddling in elections to support candidates who oppose the liberal world order and Western alliances. There is little reason to expect that these authoritarian states will give up their nuclear weapons anytime soon. Countries that developed nuclear weapons in violation of international law due to distrust of neighbors, such as Israel, Pakistan and India are similarly reluctant to give up their nukes. Because universal nuclear disarmament is not on the table, deterrence is the next best option.
Nuclear deterrence is the idea that if enemy countries have nuclear weapons, they won’t use them out of a mutual desire for self-preservation. This policy works because the consequences of using a nuclear weapon are so high that their use is rationally unjustifiable. It is not clear that even a small-scale nuclear war could be kept from escalating out of control. The one time the bomb was used was when only a single country had them. To be sure, as long as the world has nuclear weapons there is always a chance they will be used, with all of the devastating consequences the weapons are famous for. There are actors besides rational governments interested in self preservation. Kim Jong Un may be mad enough to use them even if it means he and his country will be turned into radioactive ash in retaliation. U.S. deterrence policy involves hoping that future leaders understand the policy and are stable enough to never wander into an avoidable nuclear war. Donald Trump’s election has shown that even powerful liberal democracies such as the United States are not immune to being taken over by ignorant and chaotic leaders. Trump believes that the United States should withdraw from the world, even if more countries obtain nuclear bombs as a result. He also opposes the post-World War II order, as shown by his skepticism about NATO’s mutual defense treaty. Nuclear deterrence relies on ideologies like this not taking over democratic nuclear-armed countries, which are supposed to be a bulwark against nuclear-armed dictators.
There are steps we can take to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons without abolishing them; for instance, an important step should be taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, a system allowing nuclear bombs to be launched in minutes, because deterrence today is about restraining influence rather than deterring an imminent nuclear threat like it was during the Cold War. This would slash the chance of mistakenly starting a nuclear war. Arms reductions treaties should also be pursued between the United States and Russia, which both still have more nuclear weapons than needed for deterrence. Contrary to the views of ICAN, the United States having nuclear weapons actually makes the world more peaceful. The United States has treaties promising to use our nuclear arsenal to protect countries like South Korea and NATO countries from nuclear attacks. This means these countries have not felt a need to invest in their own nuclear weapons, and as a result, there are fewer countries with these bombs. Minimizing the number of nuclear-armed states keeps to a minimum the chance these weapons will be used.
Opponents might argue that dependence on the United States for protection amounts to U.S. imperialism. This worry isn’t entirely unfounded. The United States, as a superpower, has not always used the power it wields over countries ethically. However, to end U.S. deterrence policy by abolishing our stock of nukes and to withdraw from the world would open the door to countries like Russia or Iran to gain influence. U.S. power is preferable to Putin’s human rights abuses.
I agree with ICAN that because of the lingering chance of nuclear weapon use it is not sustainable in the long term to have any nuclear weapons. If they exist and thereby have any nonzero chance of being used, the chance of a nuclear war approaches 100 percent over long time scales. If human civilization is to survive indefinitely, it is important that we someday live in a world free of nuclear weapons. However, as long as nondemocratic states with selfish dictators have nuclear weapons, banning nuclear bombs would be harmful even if it were possible. This year’s Nobel Prize therefore awarded a group that does nothing to promote peace and in fact actively opposes the means by which peace is maintained.