Breaking out of nuclear thralldom

Leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union agree that an all-out nuclear exchange would be a uniquely terrible, possibly irretrievable, disaster. Yet they pursue a nuclear arms race that daily increases the chances of nuclear war.

To enable the leaders and peoples of the world to break out of their nuclear thralldom requires that the unprecedented destructiveness of nuclear weapons be kept constantly before them -- while at the same time calling to their attention the opportunities that are as new as the weapons for reducing mutual fears and fostering cooperation. These include audiovisual communication by satellite, by means of which TV and radio can reach virtually everyone on earth simultaneously , and the growing number of urgent worldwide problems, such as air and water pollution, that can be solved only by international cooperation.

But today's national leaders have all climbed to power in a world of conventional weapons. Their feelings of security rest on their mastery of the prenuclear international game of negotiations, deterrence, and was ar the final resort. Since the nation possessing more and better arms almost always won, the appropriate national behavior was to try to outarm one's rivals, in the hopes of deterring them from resorting to force and defeating them if deterrence failed.

However, beyond a point long since passed by the US and the UUSR, adding to nuclear stockpiles increases the insecurity of all nations, including the possessor. The more persons who have hands on these weapons within and among nations, the greater the likelihood that one will be fired by malice or by accident, thereby triggering the computers poised to launch a strategic nuclear exchange.

With such nuclear weapons, the effort to achieve meaningful superiority is futile. As former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown put it, "Comprehensive military supremacy for each side is a military and economic impossibilit."

Nevertheless, national leaders cling to the illusory hope of achieving superiority, because this worked in the past, and pursuit of this goal reduces the anxiety created by nuclear weapons. When humans are faced with a novel danger, they are motivated to perceive it as a familiar one and to cling to behavior that overcame an apparently similar threat in the past, thereby preserving their feeling of security.

To this end, leaders conjure up innumerable scenarios of limited nuclear wars which stop by mutual agreement when "our" side is ahead. These dreams fly in the face of history. Even with prenuclear weapons, wars involving approximately equal powers have always escalated until each side has thrown every weapon it possessed at the other.

Al that has saved humanity so far has been that even the most powerful weapons were relatively weak. Nuclear weapons have removed this safeguard.

Unfortunately, thinking and behavior are guided not by actually, but rather by actuality as we preceive it. So as long as the world's leader perceive nuclear weapons as simply bigger conventional ones, the courty that has a smaller or less technically advanced stockpile will feel weaker and will be seen as weaker by its opponents and allies. So it will act as if it actually were weaker; that is, it will let itself be more easily intimidated, will act less decisively in crises, and will be in danger of losing its allies and tempting its opponents to seize the initiative.

Therefore, the pursuit of illusory nuclear superiority is in reality more a race for prestige than actual strength as the source of security. The nuclear arms race is an especially costly and dangerous form of psychological warfare.

The fundamental need is for intensive study and promulgation of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution in which leaders can have confidence, as exemplified by the proposed National Peace Academy. In conjunction with the measures mentioned at the beginning this would offer some hope that the relentless march to nuclear disaster could be halted and eventually reversed.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.