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Can the existence of nuclear weapons really be justified?

Can the existence of nuclear weapons really be justified?

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75 years on from the bombing of Hiroshima, proponents of nuclear weapons continue to vehemently defend the existence of nuclear weapons as important tools of deterrence and self-defense in international relations. 

For instance, one major reason offered for the maintenance of nuclear weapons is their role in deterring wide-scale major conflicts. This is perhaps best visible in the case of the subcontinent. Refusing to adopt a no-first-use policy, Pakistan has successfully kept India’s numerically superior conventional forces at bay ever since the development of the bomb in Jinnah’s nation. Yes, there have been skirmishes here and there and there was also the Kargil Conflict, but, proponents of the bomb argue that it is because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons that neither side escalated any conflict into full-blown war. 

Pakistan’s policy cites the role of nuclear weapons as a tool for “minimum credible deterrance”. The implication there is that, when faced with any existential threat, Pakistan would not hesitate to be the first to drop a bomb on an enemy. Hence, India has always maintained hesitance in pushing Pakistan either politically or economically. 

There are similar arguments made in the United States. The US too, have not adopted an unconditional no-first use policy. Their policy insists that they “would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners”. Proponents maintain the argument that it is this policy that has prevented a widespread global conflict between Russia and the USA or even China. 

And this argument is certainly true. One would have to be remarkably narrow-minded not to see the obvious deterrence of nuclear weapons. 

However, at what cost does this deterrence come? 

Generally speaking, it is the leaders of countries that have the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons – President Trump has sole authority in this matter. In mere minutes, he could launch the equivalent of 10,000 Hiroshima bombs without consulting with Congress or the defense secretary. 

Back in 2018, Trump warned North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that he too had a nuclear button, taunting him that his was “bigger and more powerful”. 

Therein lies the problem with nuclear weapons. They give too much power to one individual or one state and gives them the ability to wreck civilization as we know it. A recent study by Global Zero found that Russian retaliation to a US first-strike could cause the loss of 21 million Americans – more than 50 times the American lives lost in World War 2. 

A similar 2014 study found that even “limited” nuclear warfare in the subcontinent involving just 100 nuclear weapons could cause, apart from the casualties caused by the bomb itself, an additional 2 billion deaths due to starvation. 

Just one usage of a nuclear weapon could escalate into a conflict that would cause the deaths of more people than nuclear weapons ever managed to save via deterrence. Yes, the deterring factor is brilliant, but the fact remains that just one weak President, or just one misunderstanding caused by a cyber-attack, could bring about a civilization-destroying conflict.

The risk is not worth it, and a world that just saw the destruction brought about by an explosion a fraction of a nuclear weapon in Beirut must recognize this.

Also read: Is it true that destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary in order to save the world?