Why are There Still Nuclear Weapons?


I recently received a letter from long-time nuclear disarmament activist from Sweden, which he began by quoting something that I had said earlier this year: "A powerful state, such as the US, has everything to lose and very little to gain from the possession of nuclear weapons." He indicated his wholehearted agreement, and then posed these questions that he has wrestled with: "Why are there still nuclear weapons? Or, more philosophically: To what need in society, in citizens and in leaders are nuclear weapons the answer?" I think that these are important questions, for which there are no easy answers, but they are certainly questions worthy of our time and thought.

I would begin by arguing that there are still nuclear weapons because US elites are not enthusiastic about nuclear disarmament and have not provided necessary leadership to achieve it. Of course, this leads to the question: Why hasn’t this leadership from US elites been forthcoming? To this question I would offer the following reflections:

1. US elites remain caught up in old patterns of thinking, such as, "The more powerful the weapon, the greater the security it provides."

2. US elites continue to think and act as though nuclear weapons provide security as well as leverage in the international system. Nuclear weapons may be viewed by elites primarily as weapons of last resort. But they may also be viewed by elites as weapons easy to pull out for more mundane threats, and the very fact of their existence is likely perceived as sufficient in most circumstances to keep another country in line.

3. US elites are caught up in the false notions that there is prestige in possessing these weapons and that they contribute to the national image of "the superpower" state.

4. US elites may be influenced by the concept that technology is non-reversible; once created it cannot be "uncreated." Or, as it is sometimes put, "The genie cannot be put back in the bottle."

5. US elites may not understand or believe in leadership that is not based on force, threat of force or economic manipulation.

6. These elites may also be distrustful of nuclear disarmament efforts due to concerns with potential cheating by other states. They currently seem to be distrustful in general of verification measures.

7. Certain corporations and individuals continue to profit from maintaining the US nuclear arsenal.

8. There remains no substantial public or outside pressure on these elites to change US nuclear policy, even policies that threaten preemption or prevention. Consequently, there is little impetus to change.

One psychological concept that may be worth further consideration is that nuclear weapons are seen by elites as a tool of dominance between countries. Much like a master-slave relationship, nuclear weapons are tools of absolute power. They may represent the whip once held by the master. The whip, once its use has been demonstrated, need only be threatened to assure obedience from the slave population. Of course, slavery in general and the whip in particular breeds anger, resentment and rebellion in the oppressed population.

In a time of terrorism, as we have seen repeatedly, this anger may take the form of attacks against vulnerable elements of the population. There is also a psychological tendency in the oppressed (for example, the abused child) to adopt the methods of the oppressor and thus terrorist groups seek to obtain nuclear weapons.

The worst nightmare of US elites would be an attack or potential attack with nuclear weapons by a suicidal, unlocatable terrorist organization, against which US nuclear weapons would have no deterrent value. Perhaps a blind spot in the psyches of US elites and citizens results in an inability to understand that reliance on nuclear weapons and failure to provide leadership for nuclear disarmament is moving the world in the direction of nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear disaster.

DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.


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