Foreign Policy
• Published
June 21, 2021

The Need for Nuclear Weapons: Deterrance

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The need for nuclear weapons in maintaining present-day peace:

A case for deterrence

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb on the city of Hiroshima. This historic attack fast-tracked the race for nuclear armament and forever changed the landscape of international wars. Thenceforth, debates concerning morality, leadership and the legitimacy of nuclear programs have consumed the minds of politicians, diplomats and foreign policy thinkers throughout the world. The attacks on the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left every nation without nuclear weapons either cowering in fear of a bombing or competing to attain one. In the end, the widespread anxiety the attacks created has become a key reason why nuclear arms proliferate despite the global effort to stop it. Although having a nuclear program was not an essential tool for keeping peace when it began, maintaining peace is now impossible without it. Deterrence has become the best and only necessary method to preserving peace between nuclear superpowers.

Events like the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, where a global superpower overthrew the government of an undeveloped nation within days, have dimmed the prospect of a nuclear-free world. In theory, disarmament is the best option for 

global peace. However, the reality of the last 50 years shows that every nation that has secured nuclear weapons has also secured a measure of safety against attacks by other nations.

There are four main methods for maintaining peace between nuclear superpowers. These can be generalized as nuclear strikes, agreements, withdrawal and deterrence. Throughout this essay, I will argue why nuclear weapons are necessary for global peace, as they provide the most powerful deterrence against attacks on nations who possess them. 

Some argue that ordering a nuclear strike on an enemy nation will lead to a peaceful future by eliminating a dangerous regime. Even the George W. Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review listed North Korea as a nation against whom the United States might have to use nuclear weapons.  However, nuclear strikes are high-risk attacks, which inherently contradict the premise of “maintaining peace” by resorting to wartime strategies. If the United States launched a preemptive strike on an enemy in an attempt to destroy their arsenal, the immediate and long-term effects would be far too devastating to be considered a step towards peace. The targeted nation would instinctively retaliate against the perpetrator or launch its own attack against a neighboring country, costing the U.S. any regional allies who may have to bear the costs of local war. Nuclear strikes cannot promote peace, and therefore using them alone is both wasteful and ultimately counterproductive. The devastating impact of such bombings were seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These weapons also carry exorbitant maintenance and operation costs as well grave environmental consequences upon detonation, making their use far too costly and disastrous. 

Following the Cold War, the majority of world leaders resorted to signing treaties to preserve world peace. Nuclear treaties appear as an ideal alternative. However, they are rarely more than a display of diplomacy. Although nuclear treaties could be successful between two strong democratic allies, nations that pose a serious threat will never commit to such agreements. In 2003, for example, six nuclear superpowers, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States, held talks for the purpose of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. The six world leaders met for 13 days and saw North Korea commit to an agreed framework, pledging to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for foreign aid. Yet, the deal collapsed in 2002 after North Korea admitted to possessing a secret uranium-enrichment program, an act that violated the previous agreement. 

The government of North Korea has never been able to abide by a nuclear treaty solely because it is against their true nuclear strategy. North Korea's economy is in crisis, and the citizens are in desperate need of foreign aid. To prevent a weak regime from collapse, North Korean leaders have developed ways of profiting from the diplomacy of foreign countries. When the North Koreans begin to run short of resources, they make baseless nuclear threats to terrify the west and their media outlets. Alarmed, world leaders then hurry to make any possible deal to meet the needs of the North Korean government. After a new agreement is made, North Korea's leaders will shake hands with another world leader to fabricate this narrative that they've committed to peaceful diplomacy. The leader of the other country returns home, praising the talks and the achievements of their diplomacy and pacifism, thus keeping the hope of negotiation alive.

This is not a one-time deal but a simple yet endless cycle that the leader of North Korea must run through whenever they find themselves in need of aid. Even so, this predicament does not pertain exclusively to North Korea but any repressive totalitarian regime that refuses to abide by the international standards of diplomacy that the United States does. Similarly, in 2009, Iran violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty by admitting to owning a secret uranium enrichment plant. It was later discovered that their nuclear program likely had a military element. 

A third case argued by those in favor of using nuclear weapons to maintain global peace is to remove all our influence from foreign countries. Believers of this method wish to see the U.S. forgo all its foreign military presence and control over many critical regions. This isolationist method would accomplish nothing but convey a message to allies that the U.S. is not only willing to surrender all current control but that they’d do so to enemies and authoritarian nations across the globe. By putting “America first” and only protecting our own borders, we’d be accepting the appalling human rights violations that would worsen in nations that rely desperately on U.S. aid. Even the American people would be vehemently opposed to the idea of retreating to this vulnerable state. According to a Gallup poll in 2002, Americans “strongly support” military action against threatening countries that have the capability to develop nuclear weapons, like Iran, Iraq and North Korea. As stated by the study, “Seventy-nine percent say that 

preventing these three countries from developing weapons of mass destruction is a very important goal for U.S. military action.”

Given that nations must work within the current international nuclear framework, deterrence looks to be the most effective solution. While it isn’t the most attractive solution, deterrence, in practice, should be the least frightening strategy. Two nuclear superpowers have and will never engage in a war with each other. Without deterrence there will always be an imbalance of nuclear countries in a given region, causing one to try to terrorize the others.  Nuclear powers have always deterred each other, and balancing the power of nuclear nations has proved to create stability in their regions.   

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