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.


This forces us to ask some difficult questions: Is nuclear disarmament worth it if the probability of conventional war becomes ten times greater? What about a hundred times greater?

And given that nuclear weapons are more of a deterrent than tactical weapons, can such a calculation even be made? If nuclear disarmament spawns x conventional wars with y casualties, how could we measure those catastrophic losses against a nuclear war that's not really supposed to happen in the first place? The value of nuclear weapons is not that they should be used, but that they should never be used.


Upsetting the geopolitical balance

Today's global geopolitical structure has largely converged around the realities and constraints posed by the presence of apocalyptic weapons and by the nations who control them. Tension exists between the United States and Russia, but there are limits to how far each nation is willing to provoke the other. The same can be said for the United States' relationship with China. And as already noted, nuclear weapons may be forcing the peace between India and Pakistan (it's worth noting that conventional war between two nuclear-capable nations is akin to suicide; nuclear weapons would be used the moment one side senses defeat).

But should nuclear weapons suddenly disappear, the current geopolitical arrangement would be turned on its head. Despite its rhetoric, the United States is not a hegemonic power. We live in a de facto multi-polar geopolitical environment. Take away nuclear weapons and we get a global picture that looks startlingly familiar to pre-World War I Europe.


Additionally, the elimination of nuclear weapons could act as a destabilizing force, giving some up-and-coming nation-states the idea that they could become world players. Despite United Nations sanctions against invasion, some leaders could become bolder (and even desperate) and lose their inhibitions about claiming foreign territory; nations may start to take more calculated and provocative risks — even against those nations who used to be nuclear powers.

There are also so-called "rogue states" to consider. It's no secret that the United States and Israel are contemplating strategic strikes against Iran as it works to develop its own nuclear weapons and threaten the region. It will only be a matter of time before Iran and North Korea develop intercontinental ballistic capability — the ramifications of which are difficult to assess. Perhaps counterintuitively, it could actual work to stabilize both regions.


But that assumes the presence of self-preserving rational state actors — what can never be guaranteed.

That said, the composition of a nuclear-free world would be far more unstable and unpredictable than a world with nukes. Relinquishment could introduce us to an undesirable world in which new stresses and conflicts rival those posed by the threat of nuclear weapons.

Nukes could still get in the wrong hands

It should be noted, however, that nuclear weapons do nothing to mitigate the threat of terrorism. MAD becomes a rather soft deterrent when "political rationality" comes into question; rationality can be a very subjective thing, as is the sense of self-preservation, particularly when nihilism and metaphysical beliefs come into play (i.e. religious fanaticism).


Indeed, even in a world where nuclear weapons are eliminated it would not be outlandish to suggest that fringe groups, and even rogue nations, would still work to obtain the devices. The reasons for doing so are obvious — a grim turn of events that would enable them to take the rest of the world hostage.

Consequently, we can never be sure that at some point down the line, when push comes to shove for some countries or terrorist groups, they'll independently work to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Dangers of the disarmament process

Should the nuclear capable nations of the world disarm, the process itself could lead to a number of problems. Even nuclear war.


During disarmament, for example, it's conceivable that nations would become distrustful of the others — even to the point of complete paranoia and all-out belligerence. Countries would have to work particularly hard to show concrete evidence that they are in fact disarming. Any evidence to the contrary could severely escalate tensions and thwart the process.

Some strategic thinkers have even surmised that there might be more incentive for a first strike with small numbers of nuclear weapons on both sides, where the attacking nations could hope to survive the conflict. As a result, it's suspected that the final stage of disarmament, when all sides are dismantling the last of their weapons, will be an exceptionally dangerous time. Consequently, disarmament, quite paradoxically, may increase the probability of deliberate nuclear war.


And in addition, concealing a few nukes at this stage could give one nation an enormous military advantage over those nations who have been completely de-nuclearized. This is not as ridiculous as it might seem; it would be all too easy and advantageous for a nation to conceal a secret stockpile and attempt to gain political and military advantages by nuclear blackmail or attack.

A dramatic reduction in stockpiles

None of this should be construed as opposition to nuclear disarmament. Instead, these arguments point to the potential challenges that such a process would bring. If we're going to do this we need to do a proper risk assessment and adjust our disarmament strategies accordingly (assuming that's even possible). We may be able to get rid of nuclear weapons — it's just that our nuclear exit strategy will have to include some provisions to alleviate the potential problems already described.


And at the very least we need to dramatically reduce the number of live warheads. Having 26,000 active weapons and a stockpile the size of Mount Everest is sheer lunacy. There's no other word for it. It's a situation begging for disaster.

All this said, we must also admit that we have permanently lost our innocence. We will have to live with the nuclear threat in perpetuity — even if these weapons cease to physically exist. There will never be a complete guarantee that countries have completely disarmed themselves and that re-armament won't ever happen again in the future.

But thankfully, a permanent guarantee of disarmament is not required for this process. The longer we go without nuclear weapons, the better.


Source not cited within the article: Global Catastrophic Risks.

This article originally appeared at Sentient Developments.

Other images: Shawn Talbot/shutterstock, the U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps, Wall Street Journal, Urbanhostingmedia.