For many years, the United States has gone out of its way to prevent its foes from getting nuclear weapons. And when we consider how many times the world almost saw a nuclear Armageddon throughout the Cold War, along with the recent threats from “rogue states” such as North Korea, it sounds like a critical goal to many. However, the strategy that America is employing to prevent nuclear weapons across the globe is approaching the point where the price tag is outweighing the benefits.
Nuclear Weapon Deterrence
While nuclear technology is not new, it is very costly to develop a nuclear weapon. However, trying to keep another country from achieving nuclear capabilities is much more expensive. That country’s economy has to be crippled in order to make things very expensive for that government to continue its path to nuclear weapons. It calls for the destroying of laboratories and factories with either aggressive cyber-attacks or sanctions. Sometimes even important scientists and engineers are kidnapped in order to cripple their ongoing nuclear research. In the end, it is the citizens of that country who feel the brunt of the economic crippling.
For instance, we have the country of Iran, who is actively developing their nuclear technology and they are very much aware that the United States has a superior military. And also all the other countries in the world know all about the huge nuclear arsenal of America—and they all know that the US could annihilate any country on the planet with the push of a button.
But North Korea knows good and well that when they develop even a meager nuclear arsenal, it has made countries like America a lot more hesitant to cross their borders. This is a lesson that Pyongyang has recently from observing countries that have no nuclear weapons like Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The United States has invaded all those countries, so watching enemies of the US scramble to create nuclear weapons is very understandable. They are not necessarily interested in firing them; they want the benefits of deterrence.
So should the US keep waging preventive wars with other countries?
Barry Posen, who is the Director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, believes that the U.S. policies is making other countries feel less secure.
“I worry about not nuclear weapons in the hands of states, but nuclear weapons that are not in the hands of states. I worry about nuclear weapons that are lost, nuclear weapons that are stolen, nuclear weapons that are poorly aligned, nuclear weapons that are sold off the back of trucks.”
Concerns like this are quite valid. Within US military history, there have been 32 accidents with nuclear weapons which are called “Broken Arrows.” Many of those weapons are still missing today. Outside of the US, most “loose nukes” has been attributed to Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.
“There have been no confirmed reports of missing or stolen former-Soviet nuclear weapons, but there is ample evidence of a significant black market in nuclear materials,” states an article coming from the Council on Foreign Relations. “The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported more than a hundred nuclear smuggling incidents since 1993, eighteen of which involved highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient in an atomic bomb and the most dangerous product on the nuclear black market.”
It is totally rational for any country to desire nuclear weapons, and since that technology is now somewhat old, it has become more and more difficult to prevent nuclear proliferation. In fact, it is inevitable and just a matter of when.
This is the reason that Posen has argued that preventive wars are not best route for the US. They should focus instead on preventing those weapons from reaching radical groups. At least countries have borders to protect and are invested in a defensive policy of some sort. Radical groups would care nothing about nuclear deterrence.
“…what we want to do is make sure that nuclear weapons that are in the hands of states remain in the hands of states,” Posen says. “Any state that has nuclear weapons, we should be talking to them about best practices to ensure that nobody sells, nobody steals, nobody loses, nobody breaks. This requires a lot of application, a lot of organization.”