No first use: keeping nuclear weapons inside the box

By Tal Solovey | September 23, 2016

“Do not open until first disagreement,” said the note on a wedding gift from the bride’s great aunt. As the couple tells the story, they had two children and plenty of disagreements and arguments during the nine years after their wedding but never opened the box. They wanted to open it, but they didn’t dare. They feared that they might have a worse fight further down the line, with their surprise no longer waiting inside the gift box. Moreover, the couple had a strong dedication to their marriage, and the opening of the box became a symbol of defeat. Giving up was not an option, so the box remained unopened while the couple disagreed and made up, yelled and hugged, and became a stronger family with each up and down.

Many proponents of nuclear weapons today believe that nuclear weapons serve a similar purpose. In the debunked doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, nuclear weapons are like that dusty, old box—reminding us to work harder to resolve our differences. The idea makes sense initially, and soothes the public’s fears. However, upon closer inspection, cracks begin to appear in this old box. President Barack Obama recently voiced an interest in instituting a “no first use” policy—which would be one more step toward ridding the world of that dangerous box that we’ve created, a box that cannot be opened because doing so would only lead to world destruction.

Still married. If nuclear weapons are ever used again, there is a very large probability that much of humanity won’t be around to see the sun rise the next day. In a similar fashion, the married couple put off opening their gift because they felt that, if they did, it could spell the end of their marriage. In a world where countries such as North Korea, Iran, and others are constantly threatening to use nuclear weapons—and where potential leaders such as Donald Trump talk openly of using them—such weapons have to be taken out of the hands of humankind forever.

Getting a divorce. Unfortunately, states that possess nuclear weapons are not a married couple with the goal of staying together and loving each other. There are many groups that would be much happier if their rivals vanished from the face of the Earth. Throughout history, states have fought and tried to conquer each other with that very goal. Such a violent “marriage” cannot be trusted with the nuclear box, because the partners might actually think it will solve their issues—and it doesn’t take a psychology degree to understand that they’re fooling themselves.

The “other” woman (or man). Finally, putting aside states that hold nuclear weapons—which are known and monitored, with efforts being made to smooth over relations enough to avoid nuclear war—there are also terrorist groups to consider. Terrorists are not part of any marriage, good or bad; they are outliers who actively try to break the marriage and kill the couple. To them, the box holds no meaning—though they’d be interested in stealing it from the couple and using it themselves, or acquiring the means of production by gathering scientists and materials. Because terrorist groups operate in small cells rather than as traditional states with borders and large civilian populations, a state’s nuclear arsenal is no deterrent against them; it is impossible to retaliate against a terrorist nuclear attack with a state’s nuclear arsenal.

The above three points disqualify not only the first use of nuclear weapons—the promise that “I won’t open the box before you do”—but also their value altogether. We, as a world, must throw away this wedding gift without opening it, knowing that it will not solve our problems once we resort to it. Experts are becoming aware that nuclear weapons no longer serve the purpose they once did, as plausible deterrents—at least not between competing states. Countries such as Russia and China can do what they wish and not fear that nuclear weapons will be used against them—though other weapons, such as conventional or cyber, might be used in full force. Against terrorists and rogue states that fund terrorist groups, the US nuclear arsenal poses no threat either, because the terrorists’ main goal is to produce a nuclear weapon in secret, smuggle it into a targeted area, and cause havoc without presenting a clear nuclear target in return.

President Obama is said to be considering a no-first-use policy as one of his last gifts of hope and change—not only to the people of the United States, but also to humanity as a whole. This nuclear policy would be a step in the right direction. After years of fear, it is time to stop worrying—and to no longer love the bomb.

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