Eliminating nuclear weapons is a costly distraction

President Barack is expending political capital on trying to eliminate nuclear weapons. I do not think his endeavour is unrealistic, as he understands his vision is a long-term one, but I do think there are far bigger threats to human security than nuclear weapons.

The problem with prioritising the elimination of nuclear weapons and their trade is that they are largely irrelevant. The reason Mutually-Assured Destruction, or MAD, existed was because, if one of the superpowers shot the other with nuclear missiles, the other would have enough time to retaliate. If one country retaliated, the other would follow up with most of its nuclear arsenal and millions would be killed on both sides. No one wanted to risk millions of lives from their own side, so they could not use their nukes. MAD still exists today. None of the nuclear powers is likely ever to use its weapons for fear of the consequences on its own soil. Nuclear weapons have such devastating impacts that they are simply not worth using.

The case of North Korea is particularly pertinent. While it seems like an irrational rogue state with a desire to explode large bombs everywhere, my guess is the North Korean government understands international politics. If North Korea actually killed people with a nuclear weapon, it would be bombarded and flattened. Kim Jong-il can ride the bomb to the moon if he likes, but he has no option to use it down here.

Moreover, because of MAD, and because most of the major powers and some minor powers have nuclear weapons, it is possible that the continued existence of such dangerous tools mean a more peaceful world. Nuclear weapons could be the reason there was never a direct conflict between the US and the USSR, or the US and China, or the USSR and China, or interstate violence in Europe during the Cold War. It has not eliminated war, of course, but it has led nuclear powers to some careful stepping when in conflict with each other.

(Of course nuclear weapons are not a perfect deterrent. It was believed that massive militaries among European powers before World War One would prevent war, and in fact it led to war. But nuclear weapons are far more destructive than any number of soldiers in trenches.)

While Barack may help to reduce nuclear arsenals, and even set the treads rolling to bulldoze them all, he may want to spend more time and money cleaning up the world’s most dangerous places. The real worry is not that governments have nuclear weapons, but that apocalyptic religious extremists could. They seem to be the only ones that would use them, and the ones who would be too difficult to retaliate against. Shoring up governmental controls over nuclear technology where it exists would help keep the bombs out of the hands of non-state extremists.

If Barack wants a more peaceful world, he should change his priorities. If we are going to eliminate any weapons, let us start smaller. Barack would be better off focusing on small arms and landmines than nuclear weapons. Guns wielded outside warzones cause 200,000 deaths a year, and millions are produced every year. Arms embargoes, the hobbling of commercial weapons makers, and addressing conflicts individually are all answers to reducing firearm death statistics. Landmines caused 7000 deaths and casualties between 2003 and 2005, most of which were in just four countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Colombia. The worldwide landmine ban and disarmament movement could be given a shot of adrenaline by a president eager to set a name for himself as a man of global peace.

There are other preventable problems that kill. Malaria kills over 1m people a year, AIDS 2m, TB 2m, diarrhea 2m, and so on. Nuclear weapons have a pretty clean record next to disease. So why not switch priorities? Bolster efforts to provide vaccines, water sanitation technology, mosquito nets, condoms and education and you will greatly reduce the instances of death by preventable disease, especially among children. We have all these options to help people that I believe are immensely more urgent than nuclear disarmament.

Destroying stockpiles of nuclear weapons may feel good, but it will probably not solve the real problems, and it might even create new ones.