The use of nuclear weapons is perhaps the most dangerous threat one state can make against another. Dropping a single bomb can kill millions of civilians, destroy cities and cause massive economic damage. When the U.S. dropped the Atom bomb on Nagasaki, it destroyed approximately 40 percent of the buildings in the city. In Hiroshima, approximately 140,000 people were killed as a result of the explosion. While it only takes one weapon to cause such substantial damage, currently over 17,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world today. Although this might seem like a large amount of these ultra powerful weapons, it is actually a large decrease from the 52,000 nuclear weapons that existed at the end of the Cold War.
This decrease indicates a positive trend towards a planet free of nuclear weapons. International treaties, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and START Programs, have become quite successful in reducing the amount of nuclear weapons worldwide. And while numerous nuclear armed states including the U.S. and Russia have vowed to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, will a world without nuclear weapons be possible?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Nuclear-enabled states will never trust each other enough to reduce their nuclear stockpiles to zero.
The basis of complete nuclear non-proliferation is trust; countries must trust each other to agree and implement complete nuclear disarmament. However, nuclear weapons are somewhat of a trump card in international politics. Those that hold them are automatically more powerful than those that do not. States that agree but fail to implement full nuclear disarmament hold a large advantage over nuclear-free states. Therefore, if nuclear-armed states do not trust each other to implement full disarmament, then nuclear-armed states will not implement themselves.
While certain nuclear states share trust over non-proliferation implementation, not all nuclear-armed states share this same trust. The U.S., Britain and France are in good relations with one another, but none of them is in great relations with Russia or China. In addition to residual Cold War tensions, both Russia and China’s frequent exercise of regional hegemonic power, including Russian actions in Ukraine as well as Chinese claims over the South China Sea, have drawn harsh criticism from the West. Additionally, both Russia and China have criticized U.S. actions in the Middle East. While it is possible to relieve these tensions, such a task will be quite difficult and may not guarantee a trustful relationship.
Even if all of these states became concrete allies tomorrow, tensions between two other nuclear-armed states, Pakistan and India, need to also be reduced. Unfortunately, the current contentions over the Kashmir region, as well as religious differences, create massive tension between India and Pakistan. These tensions reduce trust between these states. Additionally, all nuclear states, with the exception of China, do not trust North Korea to implement full disarmament.
While tensions between states are certainly not static, trust over nuclear disarmament is extremely difficult to attain due to the power associated with the weapons. And while it is possible that NATO and the U.N. may offer economic incentives to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles to zero, this is unlikely without trust. States will concede certain powers for economic benefit, such as army posts or even sovereignty limitations, but the coercive power of nuclear weapons is just too important for a few extra dollars.
Imposing sanctions on nuclear-armed states who refuse or haphazardly implement non-proliferation is possible, but these sanctions would likely be ineffective, given the potential nuclear armed conflict that might ensue. While sanctions against states seeking nuclear weapons, such as Iran, have been effective, Iran has not yet acquired a completed weapon, and therefore they do not hold much leverage in the global sanctions.
Furthermore, sanctioning nuclear armed states for non-compliance will cause global economic problems. If Russia does not comply and becomes sanctioned, natural gas prices in Europe will skyrocket. If China or India is sanctioned, manufacturing prices will increase. If Britain or France were sanctioned, the European economy would collapse. And if the U.S. was sanctioned, the world economy would collapse. Sanctioning states to force their compliance will negatively affect the global economy tremendously.
As you can see, full nuclear disarmament will be almost impossible to attain. The weapons are extremely powerful tools. And without trust between nuclear states, complete disarmament goes against a state’s best interest. While this argument is slightly narrow in scope, one thing is certain: when the U.S. launched the first atom bomb on Japan, it probably never realized that it would be creating a problem that mankind will be dealing with for centuries.