Taking Disarmament Seriously

MELBOURNE – People sometimes forget that the boy who cried wolf ended up being eaten. True, nobody has been killed by a nuclear weapon since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 65 years ago this month. And, with Cold War tensions long past, it is all too easy for policymakers and publics to resist the doomsayers, be complacent about the threats that these weapons continue to pose, and to regard attempts to eliminate them, or contain their spread, as well-meaning but futile.

But the truth is that it is sheer dumb luck – not statesmanship, good professional management, or anything inherently stable about the world’s nuclear weapon systems – that has let us survive so long without catastrophe. With 23,000 nuclear weapons (equivalent to 150,000 Hiroshimas) still in existence, more than 7,000 of them actively deployed, and more than 2,000 still on dangerously high launch-on-warning alert, we cannot assume that our luck will hold indefinitely.

We know now – with multiple revelations about human error and system breakdown on both the American and Russian sides during the Cold War years and since – that even the most sophisticated command and control systems are not foolproof. We know that some of the newer nuclear-armed states start with systems much less sophisticated than these. And we know that, across the spectrum of sophistication, the risk of destabilizing cyber attack beating cyber defense is getting ever higher.

So it should be obvious that maintaining the status quo is intolerable. Moreover, there is the real risk of proliferation, especially in the Middle East, multiplying the dangers that nuclear weapons will be used by accident or miscalculation as well as design.