The bomb is bad, but a ban would be worse

What are the prospects for a denuclearized world? How likely is it that the United States and the Soviet Union would agree to such a ban? Even if Washington and Moscow could agree on a plan for nuclear disarmament with verification, would other nuclear weapon states go along? Would the French? Or the Chinese? Neither country has yet signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty or the Non-Proliferation Treaty far more modest steps than total nuclear disarmament.

Even if we set aside the problems and assume that every nation in the world would agree to ban nuclear weapons now and forevermore how stable would such a system be?

In a denuclearized world every nation which once possessed nuclear weapons would still have scientists and engineers with the know-how to build a bomb. Many other states which never joined the nuclear club could construct their own nuclear weapons if they made the political decision to do so. The incentives to cheat would be enormous.

Given the vast size of US and Soviet nuclear arsenals today, 100 more warheads on one side or the other would make little difference to the strategic balance. But in a world ostensibly rid of nuclear bombs, 100 weapons aimed at an adversary with none could make all the difference in the world.

A global agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons would be inherently so fragile that every responsible nation would take steps to protect itself against the reasonable prospect that the bargain would collapse. Each state would be prepared to break out, and if need be, build its own nuclear capability as rapidly as possible. In such an unstable world, any crisis, any shift in alliances, any rumor of nuclear acquisition might set off a chain reaction of treaty abrogations and a nuclear arms race.

This time the arms race would be a real one. The weapons would be hastily constructed and primitive, without the permissive action links and fail-safe devices which guard existing weapons against accidental or unauthorized use. Worse yet, diplomatic relations between states would be more tense, anxious, and unpredictable.

Would such a world really be a safer place? Is international politics in the nuclear age so burdensome that we would prefer the uncertainties and instabilities of a nonnuclear world?

For over a generation the US and the Soviet Union -- two ideologically hostile, ambitious, and enormously powerful nations -- have coexisted, if not at peace, then at least without going to war with each other. You don't have to love nuclear weapons to acknowledge that there has been some silver lining on the mushroom cloud.

Calls for nuclear disarmament by starry-eyed visionaries might be passed off as naive. But when issued by religious leaders, presidents, or responsible diplomats, such pronouncements can have serious and undesirable policy implications.

First of all, by setting an impossible goal, proponents of total nuclear disarmament make realistic and worthwhile attempts to restrain the arms race look either trivial or cynical. At its best, strategic arms control can only stabilize the nuclear balance and direct it away from more dangerous avenues. It will never, under any conceivable circumstances, rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Measured against such an expectation, any SALT agreement is bound to be seen as a disappointment or a fraud. The SALT process certainly had its shortcomings , but it was a realistic effort to impose modest constraints on the nuclear arms competition. It was a far more useful dialogue than the propaganda exchanges on "general and complete disarmament" that took place in the early 1960s, and to which some people would have us return.

Nuclear disarmament also casts suspicion on force modernization improvements which may be necessary to maintain a stable nuclear balance. The neutron bomb and the proposed deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing IIs in Western Europe are efforts belatedly undertaken by NATO to redress the striking military advantages the Soviet Union has built up over the past decade. People attracted to the notion of nuclear disarmament will not be inclined to think seriously about steps which might be necessary to ensure nuclear peace in the absence of disarmament.

Finally, pleas for total nuclear disarmament give unintended aid and comfort to supporters of unilateralm nuclear disarmament. This latter goal is, sad to say, a far more likely prospect. Unilateral nuclear disarmers believe that the West has more to fear from itself than from the Soviet Union. This proposition may be fashionable among some leftists in Western Europe, but no political or religious leader would probably care to dignify it with his support.

Most of us wish dearly that nuclear weapons would go away.But the bomb is here to stay, a gloomy but permanent feature of international political life. World peace will be far better served if we set our minds to thinking about ways to restrain the nuclear genie rather than trying to wish it back into the bottle.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.