The dropping of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is now almost 70 years behind us and, current rhetoric over Ukraine aside, the Cold War ended almost a quarter-century ago. This is how we now understand nuclear weapons – as a threat of the past, more important in history class than in the headlines. But this is not the case. While we have made admirable progress on disarming and dismantling, particularly the arsenals of the US and Soviet successor states, thousands of nuclear weapons still exist and progress on disarmament is too sporadic for comfort. The threat of nuclear proliferation is high and many current nuclear weapons exist within hostile regions or on trigger alert. Nuclear risks are more prevalent than we’d like to believe. Whether we like or not, accidents can happen.
The dramatic decrease in public awareness and engagement in the nuclear weapons debate since the 1980s poses a risk to our future, as younger generations and future policy shapers are less familiar with the challenges posed by nuclear weapons and will be as they start to take over the reins of governance. But nuclear weapons are too dangerous for a disconnect of this magnitude.
It wasn’t always this way
We haven’t always been so disconnected from the bomb. US arms control expert William Hartung describes:
There was a time when nuclear weapons were a significant part of our national conversation. Addressing the issue of potential atomic annihilation was once described by nuclear theorist Herman Kahn as “thinking about the unthinkable,” but that didn’t keep us from thinking, talking, fantasizing, worrying about it, or putting images of possible nuclear nightmares (often transmuted to invading aliens or outer space) endlessly on screen.
Perhaps it was the imminent threat during the Cold War that compelled millions across the world to actively protest against nuclear weapons. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established in 1981 to protest the deployment of US nuclear-armed cruise missiles at the Greenham Common Air Force base. While in June 1982 in the United States, one million people came together in New York’s Central Park to call for an end to the nuclear arms race in the “Nuclear Freeze” protest.
The looming nuclear threat seemed to fade away after the Cold War. Progress on arms control led to complacency with the international treaties that were in place to protect us against nuclear dangers. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), for example, the nuclear weapon states (UK, US, China, France, Russia) are obligated to work towards disarmament. However, as absurd as it sounds, there is no universal agreement on what that would quite look like, or how to get there.
Moreover, we’ve witnessed three countries become overtly nuclear armed states since the Cold War: India, Pakistan and North Korea. It’s a small percentage in comparison to states that don’t have the bomb, but when it comes to nuclear weapons, even a small percentage is a terrifying one.
International norms of non-use and the “nuclear taboo” have led us not to worry about that small percentage of states. Eric Schlosser’s recent book Command and Control, however, alarmingly points out that there have been several nuclear “near misses” in the United States alone that we as a public have little to no knowledge of. Schlosser writes:
Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away, every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work.
Is it simply that the public is in denial about nuclear weapons? A diverse range of psychological studies conducted in the 1980s – including Nuclear attitudes and reactions: Associations with depression, drug use, and quality of life; Nuclear War as a Source of Adolescent Worry; and Gender, sex roles, and attitudes toward war and nuclear weapons – demonstrate a desire to understand society’s feelings about nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War.
In more recent years, there have been similar studies conducted in reference to climate change, another somewhat abstract and imminent global threat. And yet, while the nuclear threat is the still around, we’re not as concerned about nuclear weapons as we were 30 years ago. It could be, as Schlosser suggests, denial. It seems that we have forgotten, don’t understand, or are simply indifferent.
Why we should care
Beyond the obvious threat of obliteration posed by nuclear weapons, they also undermine essential international co-operation between states and become a liability in certain situations. For example, in the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, many media sources were keen to point out that any Western military intervention would put nuclear armed states up against each other. It could be argued that the diplomatic actions taken towards the crisis, resulting in economic sanctions and a recent shift of the G8 meeting away from Sochi, can be partly attributed to the looming presence of nuclear arsenals. As such, the continued presence of these weapons will continue to affect the cooperation and relationship between Russia and the West, for better or for worse.
Nuclear weapons, or efforts taken to prevent their proliferation, can also affect a range of industries and economies. The threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran led to the implementation of economic sanctions that affected trade in a range of countries (including the UK, US and other European states) and a range of industries such as banking, insurance, oil, pharmaceuticals, and food. UN Resolution 1540 also calls upon states to implement export controls and regulations on materials that could be used for WMD proliferation, which affects such industries as shipping and transport, and manufacturing firms.
It is naïve to assume that any spending on nuclear weapons or related programmes would or could be simply or entirely allocated to spending in other areas, such as healthcare or other threat reduction initiatives, but the stark contrast in the spending is noteworthy: In 2002, the World Bank estimated that $40-60 billion USD annually would be enough to meet the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals, which range from providing universal primary education to eradicating poverty and hunger. Between FY2008 – FY2013, the US spent $77 billion to address global climate change in total, with the President’s request for $11.6 billion for FY2014. At the same time, it was estimated in 2012 that the US was on track to spend an average of $64 billion per year on nuclear weapons and related programmes over the following decade.
Continued reliance on nuclear deterrence is a divisive issue. Whether one believes that it brings security and stability, or that the risks (and monetary costs) are too high, reliance on nuclear weapons for security is among the most pressing issues of our time and we need to be aware that the decisions we make today will have implications on the future and the uncertain threats that we will face. With public interest in nuclear issues waning, policy shapers and the emerging leaders of tomorrow are increasingly focusing their attention elsewhere. As a result, nuclear policy is being pushed back to those who have been making these decisions for decades and the circular debate rooted in Cold War perspectives continues. Fresh perspectives and a renewed interest in the nuclear debate are needed to address these security challenges of the future.
The way forward
Now is the time to engage the next generation on these issues if we are ever going to find a long term solution to this long term problem. The debate on nuclear weapons needs new ideas and help to shift nuclear weapons out of their isolated silo and back to the heart of security debate. This requires building a security narrative that includes nuclear weapons in a broader context, approaching them as a part of a bigger problem, and not as the problem itself. This also involves bringing in a wider range of disciplines into the nuclear weapons debate including businesses, creative communities, environmental and health groups, and social scientists, because nuclear weapons have an effect on all of us.
If we are going to make progress on the nuclear weapons debate, we need continued engagement from all sides, along with a deeper understanding of the motivations behind what drives people to think about (or not think about) nuclear weapons. In essence, we need to reconnect with the nuclear debate and start thinking about a sustainable future.
BASIC has launched a new Next Generation project to inspire a next generation of thinking on nuclear weapons.
Rachel Staley is currently the Programme Manager for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in their London office. Since 2011, Rachel has managed the operations of the office and assisted in developing the organisation’s programmes working on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in the Middle East, as well as engaging directly in the Trident renewal debate in the United Kingdom. Rachel holds an MA with Distinction in Non-Proliferation and International Security from King’s College London and a BA with Honours in International Affairs and Anthropology from Northeastern University.