Nuclear disarmament agreements haven't worked. Is there another solution?by Matthew Harries / January 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Barack Obama was a cautious president, given to the odd audacious speech. In 2009, he stood on a podium in Prague’s Hradcˇany Square and declared America’s commitment to a world free from nuclear weapons. “Human destiny will be what we make of it,” he said.
A presidency later, Russia is using its nuclear arsenal to intimidate its neighbours. China is putting nuclear submarines on patrol. India and Pakistan teeter on the brink of conflict. North Korea has just carried out its fifth and most powerful nuclear test, and it may soon have a long-range nuclear ballistic missile. Now the United States itself is getting ready to spend several hundred billion dollars on modernising its own nuclear weapons. And all this before we even consider the incoming US president Donald Trump—an impulsive man who has tweeted a promise to “greatly strengthen and expand” the US arsenal.
Seen this way Obama’s words in Prague may sound not merely lofty, but delusional, as he leaves behind a world of increasing nuclear danger. Yet our judgement should not be too harsh. Obama managed some real achievements, most notably the deal to hold back Iran’s nuclear programme. But that deal is now in peril from Donald Trump and a new administration full of its critics.
Nuclear weapons draw strong reactions: from hawks who are convinced they can be relied on to keep the peace; from world-weary realists who sigh that there is no point in pretending they can be disinvented; and from moral absolutists who say the threat of indiscriminate slaughter on which deterrence relies is unconscionable, and so demand unconditional disarmament. But there have always been, too, those who have tried to steer a middle course, grappling with the realities of power politics to try to at least restrict the spread, and on occasion actually reduce the world’s stock, of nuclear arms.
Obama may have represented the last best hope of that pragmatic tradition. But he was swimming against the tide, and since the marked worsening of US-Russian relations after the Ukraine crisis flared in 2014, the struggle has appeared increasingly hopeless. For anyone concerned about the murderous and annihilating capacity of nuclear warfare—as every civilised human being should be—the question of whether disarmament will ever be possible therefore presses with fresh intensity.