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How to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons: Part IV

Imagining an alternative world.

Words: Ward Wilson
Pictures: John Towner

So far we’ve looked at the lack of factual support for our ideas about nuclear weapons. We’ve examined the severe limitations on their military utility. And we’ve seen that nuclear deterrence is almost certain to fail over the long run. This might seem like an undeniable case for the elimination of nuclear weapons. But one last hurdle remains.

Advocates for nuclear weapons will say that even if you assume everything we’ve said here about nuclear weapons — we don’t know much about using them in war, they have pretty limited uses militarily, and deterrence is riskier than government officials sometimes admit — you still have to keep nuclear weapons. Because, they say, there’s no alternative. As long as the other side has them, as long as there’s one madman leader in charge of a nation that can build them, we’ve got to have them. We can’t, they argue, let an adversary have nukes while we have none. The problem with schemes of nuclear elimination like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, they say with a touch of condescension, is that they’re not realistic. You can’t disinvent nuclear weapons, they say. Keeping them is simply a risk you have to run.


From a certain perspective, this argument seems entirely persuasive. After all, the truth of it is undeniable: you can’t in fact disinvent nuclear weapons. But if you look closer, this argument could easily stand as a representative for all of the arguments used to justify keeping nuclear weapons. “Disinvention” is a process that doesn’t exist. Saying nuclear weapons will always be with us because they can’t be disinvented is like saying I will always be alive because I can’t be reverse-born. Both are true, but reverse-birth and disinvention are imaginary processes.

The reason that advocates for nuclear weapons find themselves relying on a made up process to justify their beliefs is that they are trying to defend a mirage. They are arguing for a sort of technological determinism. What they are trying to say here, apparently, is that nuclear weapons can never be done away with because as long as the knowledge of how to build them exists, the weapon will always exist. According to them, inventing weapons is a sort of one-way process where the crucial step is the moment of invention. Once that line has been crossed, there is never any going back.

Again, there is a certain superficial plausibility to this. After all, it’s almost always the case that once knowledge is created, it rarely goes away. But there is a crucial difference between knowledge and technology. Human beings just don’t keep technology around the way they keep knowledge around. Even seemingly useless knowledge — say, obscure ancient religious practices — is faithfully and reverently preserved. But useless technology is treated differently than knowledge. Once something is no longer useful, it unceremoniously gets the boot.


To understand now nuclear weapons might be eliminated, let us look for a moment at how technologies generally go away. This is where we must step away from theory toward real life practices, and those whose livelihoods depend on getting the evolution of technology right — venture capitalists.

People who risk their money on innovation are aware that new technologies don’t become permanent the moment they’re invented. And they understand that technologies don’t disappear because they’ve been disinvented. Their financial well-being depends on having a realistic understanding of the lifecycle of technology. They know that the two endpoints of technological evolution are not birth and death, but adoption and abandonment.

The good news is that the problem of eliminating nuclear weapons is primarily a psychological one and — under the right circumstances — people can change their minds rather rapidly.

A new invention, or a new piece of technology, can be as brilliant as you want but if it isn’t widely used, it will never matter. The key moment in the growth and importance of a new technology is not invention, it is widespread adoption. In the same way, technology doesn’t live on forever once it’s invented. (If you don’t believe it, just try to get tech support for a device that is more than five years old.) Technology goes away when a large enough group of people realize that it is either dangerous or not very useful — or both.

Imagine a salesperson came to your house and offered to sell you a new, expensive stove and told you that it was the stove that everyone wanted, that it was the absolute latest in stove technology, and that all your neighbors would be impressed once they found out that you had one. Imagine you said you were tempted but you were going to think about it. Then you went online and found that a fair number of people complained that this type of stove, although it was very sleek and made from expensive and good looking materials, wasn’t actually very good at cooking things. One person wrote in exasperation, “I can’t even get it to boil a pot of water.” Would you still be tempted to buy that stove? Now imagine that you found another website — one that the company was doing its best to suppress — where a number of people talked about their stoves randomly and unexpectedly exploding. One person’s house burned down and she lost everything. Would you buy that stove? Of course you wouldn’t.

The takeaway is: no one wants technology that is dangerous and not very useful.

Consider the hand mortar. Developed in the 1600s, these guns (sort of like a sawed off, wide-barreled shotgun) were intended to fire an exploding grenade at an adversary. At the time, however, triggers that could explode a device on impact had not yet been developed. So the hand mortar relied on a somewhat complicated process: you primed the gun, set it down, grabbed the grenade (carefully), lit its fuse, stuffed it in the gun’s muzzle and shoved it all the way down the barrel, picked up the gun, aimed, and fired. In theory, hand mortars ought to have been effective weapons. But there were several things that could go wrong. The fuse could come in contact with the grenade and detonate it in the barrel. The fuse could get doubled up on itself as you stuffed it down the barrel, shortening the burn time, and detonate in the barrel. The gun could misfire, leaving the grenade in the barrel — where it would eventually detonate. The shock of firing the gun could separate the fuse from the grenade, making it no more deadly than a thrown rock. If you estimated the amount of powder needed to fire the grenade out of the gun incorrectly, it could either deposit the grenade at your feet or just a few yards away among your own troops, or it could send it sailing far over the heads of your adversaries. And so on and on.

In theory, hand mortars were useful weapons. As a practical matter there were too many things that could go dangerously wrong with hand mortars, and ultimately killing a knot of enemy soldiers wasn’t, apparently, worth the many risks involved. Even though hand mortars had been invented, even though any madman who wanted to could have armed his forces with them, they had a negligible impact on war fighting. They did not have to be banned, they simply fell out of use. Because they were technology that was both dangerous and not very useful.

Nuclear weapons, according to the second and third essays in this series, seem to meet these two criteria. They are certainly dangerous (if, for example, nuclear deterrence is sure to fail one day and lead to a catastrophic nuclear war). At the same time they are not very useful (if they have very limited military uses). So why isn’t it possible to imagine that once this reality is driven home, they will be abandoned — just as any technology would be quickly dropped that is dangerous and virtually useless?


How would this “driving home the reality” work? When someone says “nuclear weapon” people reflexively see a giant mushroom cloud rising in their mind’s eye, imagine god-like power, and forget to think realistically. Even though they see the practical difficulties of using nuclear weapons in any wartime setting, somehow the image of the all-powerful nuclear weapon stays fixed in their brains.

The fact that some people are stuck with what amounts to a vision in their heads is both bad and good news. The bad news is that some people find it hard to shake a preconceived notion. The good news is that the problem of eliminating nuclear weapons is primarily a psychological one and — under the right circumstances — people can change their minds rather rapidly. For example, there was resistance to the notion that smoking caused lung cancer, but once the facts were clear, people and governments took positive steps to meet the problem. (Of course, not everyone quit smoking. But it’s not necessary to convince everyone. All that’s needed is to convince a large percentage.) The work that needs to be done with nuclear weapons is similar to the smoking problem: convincing people that nuclear weapons are virtually useless, have few real benefits, and are dangerous. The cure, therefore, is a strong dose of reality.

What would such a process look like? The first step would be widespread public education in nuclear-armed states. The small group of experts who shape nuclear weapons policy in most of these states are unlikely to change their minds. They are, for the most part, convinced that anyone who disagrees with them is a fuzzy-minded idealist who is simply wrong. They know they’re right. So it’s necessary to bypass them and begin a widespread educational campaign among ordinary citizens. Large numbers of ordinary citizens can vote political leaders out of office. That tends to get their attention.

In this first move, no concrete changes in arsenals would be on the table. The goal would be simply to change minds — to trigger the realization that nuclear weapons are dangerous and not very useful. The history of technology says that once people accept that a piece of technology is useless, it’s a pretty rapid fall into oblivion from there.

After enough people in one of the nuclear-armed states understand the danger and disutility of nuclear weapons, the next step is official recognition. The president issues a statement saying, “We hereby declare that nuclear weapons are obsolete technology. We’re not going to change our arsenals, but we will henceforth do everything in our power to convince other nations to face reality and join us in working toward eliminating these weapons.” Various other policy changes could also be used to signify a genuine change in belief. For example, alliances that depend on nuclear weapons (like NATO, the US/Japan alliance, the US/South Korean alliance, and so on) could be rewritten as conventional alliances. No First Use policies could be instituted and other policies that would increase their “last resort” quality.

Imagine that the United States declared nuclear weapons obsolete and sought support from its allies. The United Kingdom currently spends 10% of it’s military budget on nuclear weapons — money that many would prefer to spend on conventional military forces that can actually be used. The British might be persuaded to join with the United States. India, possibly, might also be interested in such an effort. Their history of nonviolence, their clear initial reluctance to build nuclear weapons — they tested a nuclear device in 1974 but didn’t build actual weapons until 1998— and their plentiful conventional forces might make them open to joining such an effort. Perhaps other states would also join.

Imagine a core group of nuclear-armed states backed by some European countries (many with populations that polling shows do not like nuclear weapons) and all of the states that have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (81 so far) throwing their weight behind the argument that nuclear weapons are clumsy, dangerous, obsolete weapons. Imagine them proselytizing in international forums about the uselessness of nuclear weapons, the value of denuclearizing NATO, and pressuring other countries to face reality in the same way they had. Making arguments like, “The truth is that the future of warfare is not big, blundering weapons. The fact that the biggest weapons haven’t been used in three-quarters of a century shows that they’re just not that useful. The weapons that are being acquired and used are small, smart, discriminate weapons. The future lies in swarms of intelligent weapons, not one giant one. Remember: David beat Goliath.”

We have been living on a kind of nuclear death row for decades — stoic, uncomplaining, never discussing our fate, but knowing that explosions and ashes could be just over the horizon — and every year losing a little bit of confidence.

Once most of the mainstream nuclear-armed states had been brought on board, the few holdouts could be gently (or not so gently) coerced. China could lean on North Korea; the United States could lean on Israel. Negotiating a treaty would not be a painful, decades-long process. The experience of negotiating treaties to ban chemical and biological weapons shows that once a technology is seen as unwieldy and dangerous, the process of banning it proceeds relatively rapidly.


Some people say that such a treaty would never last. If someone could build nuclear weapons (and it’s always possible to break the rules) no treaty could restrain them. Some rogue leader would always be trying to build a bomb in secret. This sort of argument seems persuasive to people who imagine that a madman with the bomb could rule the world. But that notion is a fantasy. To begin with, any such arsenal would be a wasting asset. As soon as the “secret” facilities were found (and uranium and plutonium — luckily — leave very obvious telltale signs) or the leader’s intentions became clear, every former nuclear-armed power would begin rebuilding their arsenal. This would probably take most countries no more than about six months (depending on the terms of the agreement banning nuclear weapons), but it might be as little as 90 days. What could you possibly do in 90 days against a world full of armed and hostile nations? Even if every country meekly submitted (which they wouldn’t), the sheer logistics of trying to effectively occupy every potential nuclear-armed state in 90 days is clearly impractical.

But the greatest difficulty would be trying to take on all the world’s powers at once. Our hypothetical madman would have to keep his nuclear weapons stored in such a way that they wouldn’t be vulnerable to stealth bombers, cyber attacks, or attacks from, say, the combined forces of the United States and China. Informed estimates put the number of weapons that could be developed in secret at no more than 100. If you faced the world with 100 weapons, how would you use them? Against approaching invasion flotillas? Against land armies? Against enemy air bases? Or against economic targets? Do you attack the United States? Russia? Or China? What about the French? Or India’s massive conventional forces? As a practical matter, weapons are not magic. A lone country cannot defeat the world, no matter what weapon it is armed with.


We have been living on a kind of nuclear death row for decades — stoic, uncomplaining, never discussing our fate, but knowing that explosions and ashes could be just over the horizon — and every year losing a little bit of confidence. Foregoing with a sigh the big ambitions that once lifted our hopes and drew us on to remarkable accomplishments. We have lived so long in the nuclear prison we almost don’t notice it.

But there is a way back. There is a pathway to elimination that we have been ignoring, telling ourselves it isn’t realistic, when all the time we could be striding down it toward a different future. The impenetrable walls that hold us fast are no more than a Matrix-like illusion.

Of course, we can’t simply walk out of our self-made prison. It’s not quite that easy. But with work, with effort, we could emerge back into the sunlight — free.

That is the promise of reconnecting with reality. If we leave our dark fever dream of power and supposed safety, if we agree to live again in the cold winds of the world as it actually is, if we accept the reality that there are no guarantees — we might be able to find a little room to maneuver. We might discover a future that holds possibilities.

Ward Wilson is the executive director of RealistRevolt

This is the last of four articles examining the state of the assumptions at the root of nuclear weapons thinking. The first urged us to change our perceptions of nuclear weapons. The second examined the belief that nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon. And the third challenged the assumption that nuclear deterrence is a safe and stable way to protect ourselves in the long run.

Ward Wilson

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