With the Trump administration having withdrawn from a major Cold War-era nuclear weapons treaty, a prominent anti-nuclear campaigner has called any resurgent faith in nuclear deterrence “nonsense”.
“I don’t believe that nuclear weapons keep us safe. And I certainly don’t think the theory of nuclear deterrence keeps us safe either. It only takes one nuclear weapon to destroy a city,” said Ray Acheson, director of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s (WILPF) disarmament programme.
Speaking with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Acheson said the notion of nuclear deterrence is outdated and dangerous.
“Even as more countries are acquiring these weapons, this idea somehow that they were upholding security … should have been exposed for the nonsense that it is,” she said, referring to countries that have acquired nuclear weapons relatively recently, such as India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Acheson said the theory of nuclear deterrence is actually contributing to a proliferation of smaller conflicts. “If we look around the world today and look at the conflicts and the violence that we see, it’s all a manifestation of this idea that weapons provide us with security,” she said.
It’s been almost 75 year since the United States carried out the world’s first and only nuclear strikes on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the Pacific War. Since then, proponents have argued that deterrence and the theory of mutually assured destruction have prevented nuclear powers from engaging in another major conflict.
“People sort of felt that with the end of the Cold War, the problem was going to go away. But instead, this sort of theory of deterrence really kicked in again,” said Acheson, who leads her organisation’s campaign for a complete nuclear weapon ban treaty.
The question of the effectiveness of deterrence has taken on a greater urgency since the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia on 2 August, after accusing Moscow of violating it, a charge dismissed by the Kremlin. The treaty prohibited land-based missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, limiting the ability of both powers to launch a nuclear strike at short notice.
Today, there are almost 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, 1,800 of which are in a position where they are ready to launch, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). An accord aimed at the complete elimination of nuclear arms – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – has been signed by 70 states and ratified by 26, but not by any of the world’s current nuclear-armed states.
According to ICAN, nine countries currently have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The United States possesses 6,185 warheads, while Russia claims 6,500 warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2019 Yearbook. France keeps most of its nuclear weapons on submarines and has some 300 warheads. It’s worth noting that many of today’s nuclear weapons are more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
“I think our best hope for overcoming this problem,” Acheson said, is “really thinking about how we want to live, how we want our security to be governed and what role we think violence and weapons play in that. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons offers an alternative future, leading to nuclear abolition and international peace and security.”