Ronald Reagan’s assertion back in 1984 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought” seems to have become accepted across the political spectrum in the U.S. and abroad. The level of destruction that would result would at best make it impossible for medical systems to respond adequately and at worst lead to climate change on a global scale. Reagan continued: “The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
Thirty years later, the paradox of deterrence—nine nuclear powers with weapons kept absolutely ready for use so that they will never have to be used—is far from resolved. Meanwhile 9-11 bent our imaginations toward suicidal nuclear terrorism. The possession of even our large and varied arsenal of nuclear weapons would not deter a determined extremist. Fear became so powerful that it motivated not only the grotesque proliferation of information-gathering agencies but also assassination and torture. Anything became justified, including trillion dollar stalemated wars, to preempt the wrong adversary from getting their hands on a nuke.
Are there flashpoints where systems designed for reliable and eternal deterrence blur into a new landscape of deterrence breakdown? The example du jour is Pakistan, where a weak government maintains a stable—we hope—deterrent balance of nuclear forces against India. At the same time Pakistan percolates with extremists with possible sympathetic connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence services. This focus upon Pakistan is conjectural. It may be unfair. A nuclear weapon could just as easily fall out of state control in regions like the Caucasus or—who knows?—even at some U.S. base where security was lax. The point is that fear of such scenarios distorts our thinking as we struggle to respond creatively to the reality that nuclear deterrence doesn’t deter.
To see the fruits of this fear comprehensively invites seeing the process across time, including future time. The familiar argument that nuclear deterrence has kept us safe for many decades starts to break down if we simply imagine two possible worlds: a world toward which we are heading hell-bent if we don’t change course, in which self-escalating fear motivates more and more nations to acquire nuclear weapons, or a world where nobody has them. Which world do you want your children to inherit?
Cold War deterrence was aptly called the balance of terror. The present mythic division of irresponsible extremists and responsible, self-interested nation-states encourages an Orwellian mental contortion: we conveniently deny that our own nuclear weapons are themselves a potent form of terror—they are meant to terrify opponents into caution. We legitimize them as tools for our survival. At the same time we project this denied terror upon our enemies, expanding them into perverted evil giants. The terrorist threat of a suitcase nuke overlaps with the revived threat of the Cold War turning hot as the West plays nuclear chicken with Putin.
Peace through strength must be redefined—to become peace as strength. This principle, obvious to the many smaller, non-nuclear powers, is reluctantly perceived and quickly denied by the powers that be. Of course the powers that be are not unhappy to have enemies because enemies are politically convenient to the robust health of the arms manufacturing system, a system that includes a prohibitively expensive refurbishment of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that wastes resources needed for the looming challenge of conversion to sustainable energy.
The antidote to the Ebola-like virus of fear is to begin from the premise of interrelationship and interdependence—even with enemies. The Cold War ended because Soviets and Americans realized they had a common desire to see their grandchildren grow up. However death-obsessed, cruel and brutal extremists seem to us, we can choose not to dehumanize them. We can keep our perspective by recalling the brutalities in our own history, including the fact that we were the first to use nuclear weapons to kill people. We can admit our own part in the creation of the villainous nest of murderousness in the Mideast. We can dig into the root causes of extremist thinking, especially among the young. We can support vulnerable but worthy initiatives like the introduction of a compassion initiative in Iraq, led by an Iraqi poet. We can emphasize how many challenges we can only solve together.
In the early stages of the U.S. presidential campaign, candidates are unusually accessible—an opportunity for citizens to ask probing questions that penetrate beneath scripted answers and safe political bromides. What would a Middle East policy look like if it were based not in playing multiple sides against each other but rather in a spirit of compassion and reconciliation? Why can’t we use some of the massive pile of money we plan to spend to renew our obsolete weapons on securing loose nuclear materials around the world? Why is the U.S. the top arms dealer? As president, what will you do to help our nation live up to its disarmament obligations as a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.