Don't Assume Trump Is More Responsible with Nuclear Weapons Than North Korea
It’s never been safe to rely on assurances of nuclear deterrence from ‘responsible’ nuclear powers
Who can be trusted with nuclear weapons? Received wisdom has it that only the leaders of the world’s established nuclear weapons states are responsible guardians of their nations’ nuclear arsenals. At the same time, only the belligerent leaders from developing countries with nuclear aspirations present a security threat.
But as the current historical context shows, the belief that the president of the United States is somehow more responsible than the North Korean dictator is ill founded.
Advocates for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons currently being negotiated at the United Nations argue that nuclear weapons are not safe in anybody’s hands. The aim of the prohibition treaty is to delegitimize nuclear weapons by creating a new international norm that recognizes these weapons as a planetary threat.
The eight states who are known to possess nuclear weapons – China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the US and the UK – are boycotting these negotiations because they don’t want their status quo disturbed.
As my own research shows, the US and its allies have long sought to make nuclear weapons normal, even boring, placing international oversight of nuclear technology in the hands of anonymous bureaucrats at the International Atomic Energy Agency and constraining the spread of nuclear weapons via the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
This treaty legitimizes the status of five states – which also happen to be the permanent members of the UN Security Council – as nuclear armed, and commits other signatories to permanently forgo the development of nuclear weapons.
This treaty’s structure has come to imply that five nuclear weapons states can be “trusted” to refrain from launching nuclear attacks. The normalization of five nuclear weapons states as legitimate is based on the tacit premise that all other states are untrustworthy, and that nuclear weapons should especially be prevented from falling into the hands of “rogue” states: those considered to be unstable, undemocratic, and hostile to the prevailing geopolitical order.
Generations of US leaders have claimed that our nuclear weapons need not be feared because our system of government and our military command and control system ensure rationality in their employment.
Mere weeks after the first atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman called US guardianship over this terrible new weapon a “sacred trust”. This premise was already questionable even before the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Scholars have amply documented how mistakes and miscalculation undermine the supposed rationality of the system. The Cuban missile crisis is only the best known episode that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
As the negotiating parties to the treaty to ban nuclear weapons understand, nuclear weapons generate a condition of madness that disguises itself as rationality and is widespread in government but also in civil society. Nuclear weapons are so normal that many can’t imagine a world without them.
But now that the recent US election has brought to power a president that exhibits irrational and authoritarian tendencies, the time is ripe for those committed to reducing the nuclear danger to get serious about disarmament.
With the public’s awareness of the issue renewed by the president’s unrestrained nuclear tweets and the escalating crisis on the Korean peninsula, there is an opportunity for widespread support for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons to be agreed on Friday at the UN. Global consensus on this issue is likely to grow with each passing day of Trump’s presidency.
It has never been safe to rely on assurances of nuclear deterrence among “responsible” nuclear powers. It is not sensible to hope for a return to the status quo. The world must eliminate nuclear weapons to keep them from falling into the hands of even democratically elected leaders.
Anna Weichselbraun is a nuclear security postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Her research looks at the politics and culture of bureaucracy and expertise at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Source: The Guardian