Better to bear the ills we have

By Polina Sinovets, February 16, 2017

Up to a certain point, nuclear arms control and disarmament walk hand in hand. But when they encounter the issue of deterrence and its utility, they quickly part ways. This is the central point that my roundtable colleague Joelien Pretorius made in her third essay, and I concur with it. But why exactly do arms control and disarmament part ways? I believe it’s because these two approaches to nuclear weapons depend on fundamentally different worldviews.

Nuclear disarmament seeks to destroy the most inhumane tools of war and thereby save humanity from annihilation. Once disarmament is accomplished, human beings will perceive it as a benefit—and carefully maintain world peace.

Arms control starts from the idea that human beings are bellicose by nature. Peace will not result from eliminating tools of global destruction. To the contrary—nuclear disarmament might lead straight into World War III. Humanity could face the risk of terrible devastation without nuclear weapons.

Pretorius’s prescription for achieving disarmament depends heavily on stigmatizing nuclear weapons. But even if stigmatization leads to elimination, the knowledge that underlies the production of nuclear weapons cannot be forgotten. Moreover, there always will be somebody who is less concerned with the ethics of warfare than with acquiring power—which could lay the groundwork for one or a few states that don’t care if nuclear weapons are inhumane to establish a nuclear dictatorship. One needn’t search far for leaders who could be capable of exerting nuclear blackmail—or even of using nuclear weapons, never mind the stigma. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against both Iran and his own people and long sought to develop biological weapons—though both activities carried the stigma of inhumanity. More recently, Syria is widely believed to have used chemical weapons against its own people.

Here’s another danger: Disarmament could shunt nonproliferation to the periphery of politics. Today the international community exerts close control over nuclear weapons. If it reduced the attention it pays and the control it exerts, rogue states and terrorists with little concern for ethics or morality might find it easier to gain access to nuclear technology.

Even if most people prefer to resolve their disputes through peaceful dialogue, the course of history is often determined by the few individuals who would gladly gain influence through aggression. It’s naïve to suggest that stigmatizing nuclear weapons will eliminate the lust for power. Indeed, nuclear weapons can easily be considered a barrier to aggressive behavior. Where preventing violence is concerned, fear may be more effective than common sense.

If humanity gets rid of the Bomb, it may free itself from the fear that war can lead to global extinction. This may not be a good thing. The world could return to a time when warfare was a routine and even acceptable way of conducting politics. It could return to the old, familiar search for an “ultimate weapon”—that’s how gunpowder and air power and eventually nuclear weapons came to exist. After nuclear disarmament, what kind of weapon would be next? Would it possess the same deterrent force that nuclear weapons possess today?

Perhaps it is better after all, as William Shakespeare had Hamlet say, to “bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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