On Eliminating WMD

By Ferguson, Charles D. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

On Eliminating WMD


Ferguson, Charles D., Harvard International Review


Reading the wise words of Dr. Hans Blix ("A World Without WMDs? Modern Challenges to Nuclear Non-Proliferation," Fall 2007), I was reminded of the famous advertising slogan, "When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen," which encouraged people to pay attention to the advice from the E. F. Hutton brokerage firm. While this firm is now defunct, Dr. Blix thankfully is still serving the role of gadfly. I generally agree with Dr. Blix's points in the interview. However, I would like to address two important issues that were not discussed, but will affect Dr. Blix's goal of eventually achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. These issues are the connection of US conventional military dominance to certain countries' interest in nuclear weapons and the connection of an increased and more widespread use of nuclear energy to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Concerning the first issue, even if the United States were to eliminate its nuclear arsenal tomorrow, it would still retain its conventional military superiority over the rest of the world. The United States surpasses the combined conventional forces of the leading military powers, including China, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's 2006 Yearbook on Armaments, the United States spends 48 percent of the world's total expenditures on conventional militaries. But military spending tells a limited and one-sided part of the story. More importantly, in terms of power projection, only the US military can relatively rapidly cover every point on the globe.

With respect to nuclear non-proliferation, US conventional military superiority cuts two ways. First, it reassures allies such as Japan, South Korea, and NATO countries that the United States can back their security even if it were to slash its nuclear arsenal to low levels. Thus, allies have felt less pressure to acquire their own nuclear weapons or large conventional militaries. The double edge, however, undercuts security by offering a rationale for countries such as Iran and North Korea to acquire nuclear arms because they have felt threatened by the United States. Therefore, nuclear weapons are great equalizers to compensate for a country's conventional military weakness. …

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