President Obama has stated that his aim is a world free of nuclear weapons, beginning with a treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the US and Russia. Dismantling some of the thousands of nuclear weapons which both countries are paying a fortune to maintain, while they multiply the risk of an accidental launch by thousands of times, is very wise and very possible.
However achieving the aim of a world free of nuclear weapons is likely to be as impossible as the medieval papacy’s attempts to ban crossbows though. Crossbows did eventually fall out of use, but only when they were made obsolete by newer technologies. The analogy with crossbows doesn’t highlight the much greater threats faced by countries attempting to give up nuclear weapons.
In theory every country in the world could make a mutual agreement to destroy all its nuclear warheads, but the technological know-how to create more would still exist and sooner or later someone - governments or terrorist groups (probably both) – would build new ones. Those countries which had given up their nuclear deterrents would then be at best vulnerable to blackmail by those possessing such weapons – and at worst would be in the position of Japan at the end of World War Two, facing massive nuclear attacks on their people merely in order to make an example of someone to show that those possessing nuclear weapons were willing to use them.
There’s also the question of how the ban on nuclear weapons would be enforced. By sanctions of the kind that led to the deaths of millions, including hundreds of thousands of children, in Iraq in the 1990s? ; By wars like the Iraq war?
When Bush and Blair began the fear-mongering for war on Iraq in 2002 opponents of the war were able to point to the British, American, French and Israeli nuclear deterrents and the way they had deterred Saddam from using chemical and biological weapons when he did have them - in the 1991 Gulf war.
If there were no nuclear deterrents though it would be that much easier for unscrupulous politicians to whip up fears of WMD or nuclear attack – and in fact they might even turn out to be pointing to genuine threats in future, which wouldn’t be threats if we had nuclear deterrents. We might well see another Iraq war every couple of years as part of enforcing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. How many soldiers and civilians would die in those? How many civilians would die in the increased terrorist attacks created by them?
Most of Obama’s foreign policy is a break from the Bush administration’s, but it's not clear yet how different it is from the Clinton administration's. Obama seems to have said that rendition may continue - but not to countries which practice torture. Interviews given by Obama and the new head of the CIA leave some room for uncertainty on this though. Obama, while condemning the collateral damage caused by the over-use of air strikes due to insufficient ground forces in Afghanistan, also continues Clinton’s disastrous policy of trying to assassinate Taliban and Al Qa’ida leaders by cruise missile strikes, using intelligence provided by the highly unreliable Pakistani ISI military intelligence.
These conventional missile strikes, like terrorist attacks, kill civilians along with combatants. In fact they’ve killed far more people in the last few decades than nuclear weapons have (excluding Depleted Uranium shells used by NATO and coalition forces which, again, Obama makes no mention of). Since most countries acquired nuclear weapons there have been no new Hiroshima’s or Nagasaki’s, because those were only possible when only one country had nuclear weapons. An attempt to eradicate nuclear weapons entirely could bring that nightmare scenario back along with millions of deaths.
Obama, unlike Bush, will talk to Iran – but, like Clinton, only to hector it about giving up its nuclear weapons programme or facing sanctions at the least, even though Iran was attacked with chemical and biological weapons by Saddam, who had funding and support from almost every other government in the world. Iran has no nuclear deterrent and no reliable ally to provide it with cover by providing a nuclear umbrella to them. While the US under Obama has ended threats to attack Iran for now Israeli governments have continued to threaten Iran with air strikes, while Obama says he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
Obama’s rhetoric on nuclear disarmament may also be merely a return to the Clinton-era doctrine of using diplomacy to put pressure on opponents and gain greater international support for sanctions and air and cruise missile strikes. Obama has condemned Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programmes and missile tests respectively, but made no mention of Israel’s large nuclear arsenal, which has broken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for Decades, nor Pakistan’s, nor India’s active nuclear programme, nor the leaks suggesting the Saudi monarchy are developing nuclear weapons.
If Obama put as much pressure on his allies to give up nuclear weapons as on his country’s enemies his ‘world free of nuclear weapons’ speeches might carry more weight, but they would still fail to explain what we would do if we had given up our nuclear weapons and someone else then produced some; and how we would enforce the ban without constant wars?
There is the option of developing some kind of nuclear missile shield of the kind proposed by the Bush administration and then providing every country in the world with it, thus making ICBM nuclear weapons obsolete. This is a very attractive idea but it faces three serious and probably insurmountable problems.
First no-one has managed to develop any weapons system capable of reliably shooting down high speed missiles travelling across vast distances. Second, even if they did technologies could be developed to counter them and get missiles past them (and such technologies are being developed now).
Third, nuclear weapons don’t have to be delivered by missiles either (though these are the fastest and so most effective deterrent). They can be dropped by planes as bombs – and more advanced ‘stealth bombers’, not to mention bombers capable of space flight and orbital weapons systems in space, are being developed all the time. The Pentagon and NASA are at the cutting edge on these technologies and the US has the most advanced aircraft and highest military research and development budget in the world.
So while it would definitely make sense to dismantle some of the thousands of missiles the US and Russia currently maintain, a world without nuclear weapons is something we’re unlikely to see unless new weapons make them obsolete – and an attempt to free ourselves of nuclear weapons might cost many lives without saving any.