We live in uncertain and dangerous times. As if climate change, terrorism, and economic instability were not enough, humanity also faces the prospect of nuclear war and the untold destruction it would bring. The current tensions between the United States and North Korea, and the possibility of the United States withdrawing from the nuclear agreement reached with Iran last year, have meant that the possibility of nuclear conflict is arguably higher than it has been since the end of the Cold War. In this context, the decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is both timely and welcome. Set up a decade ago, and made up of hundreds of NGOs working together around the world, ICAN works to achieve its goals by lobbying governments and educating people about the horrors of nuclear weapons. As they and other supporters of nuclear disarmament have constantly and consistently pointed out, the perceived, if not entirely imaginary, benefits of using such weapons are grossly outweighed by the undeniably horrific costs of doing so.
When listening to the rhetoric coming out of Washington and Pyongyang in recent weeks, it easy to come to the sad and tragic conclusion that unfortunately, ego and insecurity play a not insignificant role in fomenting antagonism between states. While it is (hopefully) the case that the combative posturing by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is underpinned by more calm and rational calculations by their respective security establishments, the cavalier manner with which both leaders have threatened to rain nuclear death upon each other’s citizens should be cause for considerable concern. Either they do not understand the full consequences of such actions, or know full well and simply do not care. Both choices are depressingly frightening.
In South Asia, where India and Pakistan both possess hundreds of nuclear warheads, the public discourse about these weapons has long been dominated by swaggering jingoism and bellicosity. The national mood on both sides was perhaps best captured by how people in cities across the subcontinent were united in joy as they distributed mithai to celebrate the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998. That they were potentially celebrating their own annihilation in the event of a nuclear conflagration between the two states was a point that was lost on them. Then, as now, the existence of nuclear weapons was justified using a familiar set of tropes; nuclear weapons are a deterrent against war, the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) means they are unlikely to ever be used, and they can act as an incentive to pursue diplomacy once war is definitively taken off the table.
The reality is that these rationales are all premised on relatively flimsy assumptions that have been exposed time and again. As the Kargil conflict demonstrated just a year after India and Pakistan opened the nuclear Pandora’s Box, the existence of weapons of mass destruction in South Asia did not impede conventional war and may have even emboldened military actors on both sides to engage in adventurism that they might not have otherwise considered. Similarly, as shown by the aftermath of the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai in 2008, war between India and Pakistan was a very realistic possibility despite the existence of a nuclear ‘deterrent’. Even contemporary claims of cross-border ‘surgical’ strikes by India and repeated rounds of shelling across the international border persist amidst the threat of nuclear retaliation and destruction. That these weapons might yield some kind of diplomatic dividend has also proven to be wishful thinking.
The problem is not restricted to India and Pakistan. While it is tempting to treat Trump and Kim Jong-un as anomalies, the truth is that even during the Cold War, the USA and USSR barely averted nuclear disaster on several occasions despite the existence of sophisticated mechanisms and procedures to secure their nuclear arsenals and strictly regulate their use. But for the level-headedness of individual men like Vasili Arkhipov, who refused to endorse his commander’s decision to use nuclear weapons at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Stanislav Petrov, who decided not to act on what proved to be a false alarm triggered by a computer error in 1983, the world may have been reduced to a radioactive cinder. Over a dozen near-misses like these took place during the Cold War, and it is easy to see how poor decisions and misunderstood signals could trigger a chain of events ending in catastrophe.
The simple fact of the matter is that the very existence and proliferation of nuclear weapons makes their use possible, and it is difficult to envisage any scenario in which this might be justified. More often than not, those who support these weapons have little understanding of, or concern for, the devastating effect that they can have. Can it really be argued that it is alright to rain fiery death upon tens of millions of people to resolve conflicts that might be averted altogether through a more sagacious and serious use of diplomacy? Is there any cause that merits poisoning the land, sea, and air for centuries? What greater purpose is served by the destruction of entire cities and the crippling of multiple generations? Can we really expect fallible humans and flawed systems to safeguard us against the possibility of accidental nuclear annihilation? What exactly will have been achieved by the ‘victors’ who gaze upon the charred remains of their people and their countries in the aftermath of a nuclear war?
Nuclear weapons are a scourge, an unthinkable abomination whose use is unfathomable but whose existence is premised on the idea that they might nonetheless have to be used. This is an unsustainable paradox, and it can only be resolved by recognizing, as ICAN does, that the future of mankind can only be made safer and more secure by the repudiation of these terrible weapons.