Nuclear Weapons: President Obama's Pledge to Rid the World of Atomic Bombs Is a Waste of Breath. but Not for the Reasons You Might Imagine

By Mueller, John | Foreign Policy, January-February 2010 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Weapons: President Obama's Pledge to Rid the World of Atomic Bombs Is a Waste of Breath. but Not for the Reasons You Might Imagine


Mueller, John, Foreign Policy


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"Nuclear Weapons Are the Greatest Threat to Humankind."

No. But you might think so if you listen to world leaders right now. In his first address to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. President Barack Obama warned apocalyptically, "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city--be it New York or Moscow, Tokyo or Beijing, London or Paris--could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And it would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life." Obama has put nuclear disarmament back on the table in a way it hasn't been for decades by vowing to pursue a nuclear-free world, and, with a handful of big treaty negotiations in the works, he seems to think 2010 has become a critical year.

But the conversation is based on false assumptions. Nuclear weapons certainly are the most destructive devices ever made, as Obama often reminds us, and everyone from peaceniks to neocons seems to agree. But for more than 60 years now all they've done is gather dust while propagandists and alarmists exaggerate their likelihood of exploding--it was a certainty one would go off in 10 years, C.P. Snow authoritatively proclaimed in 1960--and nuclear metaphysicians spin fancy theories about how they might be deployed and targeted.

Nuclear weapons have had a tremendous influence on the world's agonies and obsessions, inspiring desperate rhetoric, extravagant theorizing, and frenetic diplomatic posturing. However, they have had very limited actual impact, at least since World War II. Even the most ingenious military thinkers have had difficulty coming up with realistic ways nukes could conceivably be applied on the battlefield; moral considerations aside, it is rare to find a target that can't be struck just as well by conventional weapons. Indeed, their chief "use" was to deter the Soviet Union from instituting Hitler-style military aggression, a chimera considering that historical evidence shows the Soviets never had genuine interest in doing anything of the sort. In other words, there was nothing to deter.

Instead, nukes have done nothing in particular, and have done that very well. They have, however, succeeded in being a colossal waste of money-an authoritative 1998 Brookings Institution study showed the United States had spent $5.5 trillion on nukes since 1940, more than on any program other than Social Security. The expense was even more ludicrous in the cash-starved Soviet Union.

And that does not include the substantial loss entailed in requiring legions of talented nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians to devote their careers to developing and servicing weapons that have proved to have been significantly unnecessary and essentially irrelevant. In fact, the only useful part of the expenditure has been on devices, protocols, and policies to keep the bombs from going off, expenditures that would, of course, not be necessary if they didn't exist.

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"Obama's Plan to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons Is a Goof One."

Not necessarily. Obama's plan, unveiled before the world in a speech in Prague last April, represents an ambitious attempt to rid the world of nukes. Under the president's scheme, developing countries would have access to an internationally monitored bank of nuclear fuel but would be barred from producing weapons-grade materials themselves. Existing warheads would be secured, and major powers such as Russia and the United States would pledge to scale back their weapons programs. In September, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution in support of Obama's proposal, giving his massive project some institutional backing.

But all of this is scarcely needed. Nuclear weapons are already disappearing, anti elaborate international plans like the one Obama is pushing aren't needed to make it happen. During the Cold War, painstakingly negotiated treaties did little to advance the cause of disarmament--and some efforts, such as the 1972 SALT Agreement, made the situation worse from a military standpoint. …

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