No, Mr. Stephens, the United States doesn’t need more nuclear weapons

By Matt Korda, August 17, 2019

One day after the Nagasaki bombing. Photo credit: Yosuke Yamahata.One day after the Nagasaki bombing. Photo credit: Yosuke Yamahata.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published here on the Federation of American Scientists website.

Last week, on the 74th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, many took time to reflect upon the destruction caused by the only uses of nuclear weapons in wartime. But not the New York Times’ Bret Stephens, who took the opportunity to argue in favor of building more nuclear weapons.

In an op-ed entitled “The U.S. Needs More Nukes,” Stephens laid out his case against arms control: “the bad guys cheat, the good guys don’t,” and all the while, the US nuclear arsenal is becoming “increasingly decrepit.”

It’s a simple narrative; it’s also false. In fact, Stephens’ article is largely littered with bad analogies, flawed assumptions, and straight-up incorrect facts about the nature of nuclear weapons and arms control.

As examples of arms control agreements where the “bad guys cheat” and the “good guys don’t,” Stephens cites the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (from which the United States withdrew in 2002), the Iran Deal (which was working until the United States withdrew last year), and the Treaty of Versailles (which famously isn’t an arms control agreement), among others. None of these involved significant cheating on the part of the “bad guys,” unless you count the Trump administration’s violation of the Iran Deal in 2018.

Stephens also cites the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as a prime example of an arms control agreement gone wrong. Yes, it appears that Russia likely violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by developing and deploying a banned ground-launched cruise missile; however, as we’ve written previously, Trump’s decision to pull out of the treaty makes the United States needlessly complicit in its demise and frees Russia from both the responsibility and pressure to return to compliance. Contrary to Stephens’ thesis, when someone breaks the law, you shouldn’t throw away the law.

And contrary to the title of Stephens’ piece, the United States doesn’t need more nukes. As we explain in our latest US Nuclear Notebook, the Trump administration wants to develop two new ones––a low-yield warhead and a sea-launched cruise missile––both of which are dangerous, and neither of which are necessary. Aside from lowering the threshold for nuclear use, the “low-yield” aspect of the low-yield warhead is a misnomer; it’s roughly one-third the yield of the Hiroshima bomb that killed 100,000 people. And the new sea-launched cruise missile is a concept brought back from the dead: the United States had one until 2013, when the Obama administration retired it because it was pointless, wasteful, and politically controversial.

In addition to his well-established denialism of issues like systemic hunger, rape culture, and climate change, Stephens is known for his hawkish––and often inaccurate––takes on nuclear issues. In 2013, he claimed that the Iran Deal was worse than Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938. In 2017, he argued in favor of regime change in North Korea. Later that year, he derisively referred to ICAN––the group that won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons––as “another tediously bleating ‘No Nukes’ outfit.” In June, he wrote that “If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy.” Remember, this is coming from a guy who awarded Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz “Man of the Year” in 2003 (The runners-up? Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush).

Furthermore, in last week’s piece, he erroneously stated that Iran repeatedly violated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a claim which the International Atomic Energy Agency—the international organization charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance––has continuously rebutted. Noticeably, Stephens linked to Mark Fitzpatrick’s work to back up his claim, but when Mark tweeted out that his article didn’t say anything of the sort, the link was changed. It now references David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, who is known for his hawkish views on Iran.

Stephens’ columns are clearly emphasizing ideology over accuracy. And publishing a pro-nukes article on the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing––without acknowledging the human cost of nuclear weapons, or even the anniversary itself––demonstrates that he is clearly not guided by empathy.

But perhaps most evidently, Stephens’ piece is driven by fear. And understandably so: we’re currently locked into an ever-increasing nuclear arms race with no signs of it slowing down. If you’re not afraid, you’re probably not paying attention. However, crying “more nukes” without articulating any kind of strategic vision isn’t going to get us out of this mess. 

In reality, the best way to get out of an arms race is by refusing to play. The United States shouldn’t base the size of its nuclear arsenal in response to how other countries are tweaking theirs––this only makes sense if you believe that nuclear weapons are for fighting wars. But to quote Reagan’s old adage, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Instead, as explained in Global Zero’s Alternative Nuclear Posture Review, the United States should move towards a “deterrence-only” nuclear posture, which would allow for sizable cuts to the US nuclear arsenal without changing the strategic balance.

Very simply, we need to start enacting ambitious solutions that are equal to the problems that we face. Not just reflexively demanding more nukes.

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


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David Wargowski

The Stephens’ piece is driven by fear, but it relies on our current society’s ignorance of nuclear weapons to influence its readers’ views and opinions. It was carefully written taking this unfortunate ignorance into consideration. 74 years later, the ownership of a nuclear weapons arsenal remains the ultimate male ego performance enhancement—a “nuclear Viagra” addiction with no effective treatment option. We need to begin educating our future generations about nuclear weapons: their science, history, and evolution to the present day. We must be frank about it. There is nothing politically correct about the destructive effects of using nuclear weapons, so… Read more »