Why nuclear realism is unrealistic

By Benoît Pelopidas | September 26, 2013

Thirty years ago this week, on September 26, 1983, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov prevented the use of nuclear weapons by doing nothing. Going against the early-warning procedures in place at the time, he did not report the signals of five American missile launches he saw on his radar screen. On this uncelebrated anniversary of Petrov’s disobedience, national security experts might say that he made a realistic assessment of the threat: Had NATO actually launched a nuclear first strike, it would have used more than five missiles. Even when success entails disobedience and failure, later claims of success in nuclear weapons policy often turn, retrospectively, into praise for realism.

But adopting the point of view often called "nuclear realism"—the notion that technology and careful management will keep us safe—is a dangerous course, akin to putting on blinders. It’s a shortsighted way of looking at the world that misunderstands the history of the nuclear age, the present situation, and the long-term challenges of a nuclear-armed world.

The stance called nuclear realism has been counterproductive since the early days of the Cold War, when it was considered “realistic” for the United States and the Soviet Union each to build ever more nuclear weapons, so as not to fall behind in the arms race with the opposing country. Realism has become the reigning ethos of both of these nuclear superpowers, and it has led would-be critics of the nuclear build-up to censor themselves—when they were not silenced—for fear that they might be politically embarrassed by not looking tough enough on defense.

In the United States, an early example of this phenomenon is provided by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who asked the US Congress for more land-based missiles and missile-carrying submarines in December 1961—after he had learned that the missile gap John F. Kennedy had emphasized in his presidential campaign was nonexistent, and that the US arsenal was in fact larger than the Soviet Union’s. This kind of realism—which has more to do with granting veto power to the most hawkish national security players than with the actual world security situation—allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to construct almost 70,000 nuclear weapons, most of them far more destructive than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This so-called realism was actually fatalism, an acceptance of a senseless, expensive, and dangerous nuclear arms race as unavoidable.

The quest for a realistic nuclear outlook is shortsighted today when it portrays the bleak prospects for a new round of US-Russian nuclear arms reduction as the definitive verdict of the “real” world. In the face of that kind of realism, some in the pro-disarmament camp fall into silence, and the pro-nuclear weapons camp declares victory. But both forget that support for nuclear arms control and disarmament has come in waves, each of which has led to achievements as well as disappointments. This self-portrayed realistic view of the world assumes that the latest wave must be the last one, carrying a definitive verdict about the possibility of future nuclear arms levels. This so-called realism actually is present-ism.

This quest for nuclear realism is misleading when confronted with long-term challenges. Let us not forget that humanity has a common goal that has a uniquely stringent requirement: Avoidance of the use of nuclear weapons until the end of days. If that goal is to be accomplished, the international community has to fight for a world that is very different from the one now in existence. So-called realism is either a faith in a lucky future or a resignation to the use of nuclear weapons.

After all, there are only two possible futures to work toward: one with and one without nuclear weapons.

On the one hand, to avoid nuclear weapons use in a world moving toward global nuclear disarmament, the international community will have to manage a process to verify that nuclear warheads have been dismantled and then, as numbers of nuclear weapons approach zero, enforce a nuclear weapon-free world. To bet on that future does not require a belief that people will turn into angels; it only requires those future people to handle a large, unprecedented management problem.

On the other hand, to expect that no country (or non-state actor) will use nuclear weapons in a world that contains them for an indefinite period of time is not as safe a bet as it looks when it is called realism: It is at least as unrealistic as a belief in a peaceful and stable, nuclear weapon-free world. Nuclear weapons use might be avoided if the leaders of countries were not emotional, if nuclear technology were fail-safe, and if the nuclear weapons operators always followed the rules. The more we examine the past and the further we look into the future, however, the more utopian such expectations seem. It is true that human or technological failure can, ironically, keep us safe: A nuclear detonation has been—and might in the future be—prevented by a technological failure, or by an officer refusing to do his or her duty, as seems to have been the case with Col. Petrov three decades ago.

But to find failure and disobedience in regard to nuclear weapons reassuring, supporters of nuclear deterrence must believe that there will not be too much failure or disobedience; there must be just enough failure and disobedience to keep the world safe from an accidental nuclear detonation, without undermining the perceived reliability of nuclear arsenals that is at the heart of nuclear deterrence. How realistic is this faith in an endless, lucky, and very precise dose of technological failure and human disobedience?

Almost all American presidents since Harry Truman have given speeches referring to the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament; this repetition suggests more than mere lip service. It points to an awareness, at the top of the government of the world’s superpower, that a nuclear-armed status quo is not indefinitely sustainable.

The quest for so-called nuclear realism is a walk into a blind alley; it underplays the risks of the status quo and assumes that it is endlessly sustainable. When such a quest leads to fatalism, a short-sighted focus on the present, and resignation to a future in which nuclear weapons will continue to exist and eventually be used, lucidity and responsibility require the world to be clear about the bet that it’s making, or to embrace another way. Whichever way one chooses, the belief that humans will avoid using nuclear weapons for the indefinite future requires a leap of faith that adherents of nuclear realism misleadingly deny. It is time to decide which future the world ought to have and start working toward it, without pretending that the status quo is a possibility. 

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