Why nuclear arms control is dead

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States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

This year the MacArthur Foundation said it will cease funding anti-nuclear weapons efforts by 2023. That means the largest foundation working in the nuclear weapons field is throwing in the towel. Ten million dollars a year of scholarly research, diplomatic conferences, track II meetings, and other work to limit nuclear weapons will disappear within two years. 

Why would MacArthur do such a thing? They aren’t doing it because nuclear weapons have been eliminated. Perhaps it is because of a loss of faith in the cautious, step-by-step effort to slowly limit the number of nuclear weapons and, over time, work down to zero. 

If MacArthur’s board decided that the step-by-step approach isn’t working, they wouldn’t be the first to come to that conclusion. The John Merck Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the Compton Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Skoll Foundation — all these funders evidently have concluded the same. And a report in the Washington Post last week seems to confirm that they are right. 

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies — an institute of Middlebury College — announced that he and Decker Eveleth had used commercial satellite images to identify more than 100 new missile silos being built in China. It is a clanging alarm bell. Following Russia’s announcement that it is building new kinds of nuclear weapons, the United Kingdom’s announcement that it will expand its number of nuclear weapons, growth in the Pakistani arsenal, and work by all the other nuclear-armed states (including the United States) to upgrade their nuclear forces, the news from China confirms what some long have suspected: The second nuclear arms race is on.

What this means is that we are entering a new and dangerous era of international competition and tension. The Cold War may have ended 20 years ago, but arms races often signal impending hot wars — and a nuclear arms race is the gravest of signs. Time is short. The cautious, step-by-step approach of arms control, with the minimalist goal of “limiting” nuclear weapons, indeed has failed.

The need for a more aggressive approach ought to have been obvious, if for no other reason than the rest of the world already has given up hope for arms control. In 2017, more than 60 percent of the world’s nations — 122 countries — voted for a United Nations treaty not to limit, not to “one day” eliminate, but to abolish nuclear weapons now. If the apparent loss of faith in arms control by funders isn’t enough, the loss of faith by much of the world ought to be unmistakable proof.

Clearly, a more muscular approach is needed. Continuing to try long-term, careful approaches to the problem guarantees that efforts to oppose nuclear weapons eventually will wither and die. It is time for a stronger, more aggressive strategy — and past time to directly challenge the fundamental beliefs of nuclear weapons advocates. The arms control approach clearly has failed. 

It has failed because it took the claims and assumptions of nuclear weapons advocates at face value. Nuclear weapons experts said that nuclear weapons were the “ultimate guarantee” of safety, and arms control nongovernmental organizations and scholars then tried to work within that assumption. “How can we convince people to give up the ultimate guarantee of safety?” they asked themselves — which is, of course, the wrong question. The right question, and argument, is: “How can nuclear weapons advocates call themselves realists? Any self-respecting realist knows that there are no guarantees in life, not about national security or anything else. Only dreamers think there are guarantees.”

Nuclear weapons advocates said that nuclear weapons will always exist. Arms control advocates timidly asked themselves, “How can we convince people that disarmament will work for a weapon that will never go away?” The right question, and argument, should be: “Given that the invariable life cycle of all technology is invention, adoption and eventual abandonment, how can nuclear weapons advocates say that this one technology will be the sole exception that will last forever? That’s not realism. That’s wishful thinking.”

Nuclear weapons advocates say that nuclear weapons are the “ultimate weapon.” Arms control advocates asked themselves, “How can we persuade people that a ban on the ultimate weapon would ever work?” They should have asked: “Isn’t utility the measuring stick of a weapon? How can a weapon be the ultimate weapon if it’s never used? Isn’t it possible that nuclear weapons are too clumsy, too poisonous, too dangerous to be useful? Isn’t it possible that they aren’t used because they aren’t militarily useful? And isn’t that why nearly 75 years have passed with them sitting idly in silos?”

Arms control is dead. The second nuclear arms race is on. The hour is late — but it is, perhaps, not too late to aggressively challenge the Cold War assumptions and the blinkered mindset that have kept us from seeing the reality of nuclear weapons.

Ward Wilson is executive director of RealistRevolt, a Chicago area nonprofit that offers pragmatic arguments against nuclear weapons. He has been a senior fellow at several think tanks, including the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the British American Security Information Council, and the Federation of American Scientists. The author of “Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons,” he has spoken at the Pentagon, State Department, United Nations and the governments of several countries. Follow him on Twitter @WardHayesWilson.

Tags Nuclear arms race Nuclear weapons Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

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