Making the world safe for nuclear weapons

Adam Lowther Contributor
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Significant discussions are currently taking place within the military as the Department of Defense attempts to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent while moving from 2,200 nuclear warheads in 2008 to 1,550 under the recently ratified New Start Treaty. However, the discussion does not end there. Many are also contemplating how to maintain deterrence while moving to zero nuclear weapons.

The very fact that “a world free of nuclear weapons” is receiving serious contemplation within the Pentagon is astonishing to many long-time proponents of nuclear deterrence. One key event that opened the door for such discussion was the unexpected conversion of Cold War luminaries such as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz — who now advocate a move to “global zero.”

By some accounts, the principal reason for the conversion of Kissinger, Shultz and others is a belief that the addition of nuclear states such as North Korea, Pakistan, India and possibly Iran will inevitably lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

While the historical evidence actually suggests that the acquisition of nuclear weapons makes a state more — rather than less — risk averse, nuclear abolitionists are adamant that the risks of a nuclear holocaust are too high to take the chance.

Those who support the continued existence of the nuclear arsenal do not help their own cause when they cede the moral high ground to abolitionists by lamenting the very creation of nuclear weapons. Even the staunchest of nuclear weapons proponents will often say, “I too wish nuclear weapons had never been invented.” This is then followed by a sigh and, “But, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

As someone who values human life and abhors war, I am very thankful that nuclear weapons exist. They are likely the single greatest tool of peace man has invented.

You may be asking, why are nuclear weapons so valuable in promoting peace and stability?

Nuclear weapons play a significant role in the 90% reduction in wartime fatalities that began in 1945 and continues to the present. Let me explain.

According to an analysis conducted by the U.S. Strategic Command, between 1600 and 1945 an average of 1-2% of the world’s population perished in war every year — combatants and civilians. After the invention of the atomic bomb, that percentage declined to around 0.3% of the global population (see graph).


While there are a number of variables that can affect wartime fatalities, the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons is likely the single most important variable.

The simple fact is nuclear weapons deter their possessors from waging war against one another. They not only deter nuclear war, but conventional war as well. Since 1945 there has been a conspicuous absence of large-scale conflicts.

The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons does not end with nuclear powers. The United States and the Soviet Union, for example, often exerted a strong influence over their allies, preventing smaller-scale conflicts from expanding or preventing them altogether. As a result, the past seven decades have seen a significant decline in interstate conflict.

Nuclear weapons give otherwise optimistic political leaders pause when it comes to waging any form of war. The psychological effect nuclear weapons have also causes nuclear powers to restrain their allies — preventing additional conflicts.

Simply stated, nuclear weapons deter conflict and save lives.

Nuclear weapons have another positive effect. They enable countries to spend less on defense and more on the welfare of their citizens.

For example, during the Cold War, Europe’s NATO countries were able to maintain a conventional force that was inferior to the Soviet Union’s. This was made possible by the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which provided an umbrella of protection to NATO. It effectively deterred the Soviet Union from using superior conventional forces for an invasion of Western Europe. Thus, Western Europe was able to focus on post-war recovery and improving the daily lives of average citizens.

Had the atomic bomb never been invented, the nations of Western Europe would have spent far greater treasure on conventional military capabilities after World War II. This would have squeezed spending in areas such as education, healthcare and housing.

The U.S. has also benefited from a cost-effective nuclear arsenal. With the highest estimates suggesting an annual cost of $61 billion (2010), the entire nuclear enterprise equals a mere 10% of the U.S. defense budget. By preventing World War III for less than 0.4% of the nation’s gross domestic product, the nuclear arsenal has allowed the United States to focus federal spending on education, national parks, roads and elsewhere.

For those who advocate the abolition of nuclear weapons, I have one question. How much blood and treasure will we once again sacrifice in a world that is safe for conventional warfare?

Dr. Adam Lowther is the author of “Challenging Nuclear Abolition.”