Most everyone agrees that humanity needs to get rid of its nuclear weapons. It's only through complete relinquishment that we can eliminate the threat of deliberate or accidental nuclear war and the ongoing problem of proliferation. But at the same time, a strong case can be made that these apocalyptic weapons have eliminated the possibility of global-scale conventional warfare — what has arguably resulted in the long-standing peace between all the great powers since the end of the Second World War. The elimination of these weapons, therefore, could actually result in a complete disaster.
The top image is from the nuclear test Operation Upshot-Knothole, carried out by the United States in April of 1953.
Indeed, the ongoing presence of nuclear weapons is the single greatest threat to the survival of humanity.
To put the problem into perspective, there are currently 26,000 nuclear warheads ready to go — 96% of which are controlled by the United States and Russia. These two countries alone could unleash the power of 70,000 Hiroshimas in a matter of minutes. In the event of an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, it is estimated that as many as 230 million Americans and 56 million Russians would be killed by the initial blasts. The longer term impacts are incalculable, but suffice it to say human civilization would be hard pressed to survive.
Given the end of the Cold War and the establishment of the START Agreements, the idea of a deliberate nuclear war seems almost anachronistic. But the potential nightmare of an accidental nuclear exchange is all too real. We have already come very close on several occasions, including the harrowing Stanislav Petrov incident in 1983. We are living on borrowed time.
The assertion, therefore, that we need to completely rid ourselves of nuclear weapons appears more than reasonable; our very survival may depend on it. In fact, there are a number of initiatives currently underway that are working to see this vision come into reality. And early in his presidency, Barack Obama himself urged for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
But before we head down the path to disarmament, we need to consider the consequences. Getting rid of nuclear weapons is a more difficult and precarious proposition than it may appear. It's important, therefore, to look at the potential risks and consequences.
There are a number of reasons for concern. A world without nukes could be far more unstable and prone to both smaller and global-scale conventional wars. And somewhat counter-intuitively, the process of relinquishment itself could increase the chance that nuclear weapons will be used. Moreover, we have to acknowledge the fact that, even in a world free of nuclear weapons, we will never completely escape the threat of their return.
The Bomb and the end of global-scale wars
The first and (hopefully) final use of nuclear weapons during wartime marked a seminal turning point in human conflict. The development of The Bomb and its presence as an ultimate deterrent has arguably preempted the advent of global-scale wars. It is an undeniable fact that an all-out war has not occurred since the end of World War II, and it is very likely that the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) has had a lot to do with it.
The Cold War is an excellent case in point. Its very nature as a "war" without direct conflict points to the acknowledgment that it would have been ludicrous to engage in a suicidal nuclear exchange. Instead, the Cold War turned into an ideological battle largely limited to foreign skirmishes, political posturing, and espionage. Nuclear weapons had the seemingly paradoxical effect of forcing the United States and the Soviet Union into an uneasy peace. The same can be said today for India and Pakistan — two rival and nuclear-capable nations mired in a cold war of their own.
It needs to be said, therefore, that the absence of nuclear weapons would dramatically increase the likelihood of conventional wars re-emerging as military possibilities. And given the catastrophic power of today's weapons, including the introduction of robotics, weaponized nanotechnology, and AI on the battlefield, the results could be devastating. As we recently argued, a World War III fought with conventional weapons represents and existential threat.