They are terrifying, destructive, and devastating weapons which could kill millions if used… in fact they are so powerful that most people believe nuclear weapons should never be used again. So, why do we still have nuclear weapons? Let’s discuss this on today’s episode of Thinking in English!
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To deter (v) – to prevent someone from doing something by making it difficult to do it or threatening bad results if they do (also in the form deterrence and deterrent)
High prices are deterring many young people from buying houses
To decimate (v) – to reduce something severely
Populations of endangered animals have been decimated
Proliferation (n) – a great and quick increase in number or amount
The proliferation of social media has changed how we communicate
Disarmament (n) – the act of taking away or giving up weapons
She said she supported nuclear disarmament
Self-interest (n) – the act of considering the advantage to yourself when making decisions
The company’s donation was motivated by self-interest
Conventional (adj) – traditional and ordinary
He lives a very conventional life
To stabilise (v) – if something stabilises, it becomes fixed or stops changing
The medicine stabilised his heart rate
Verification (n) – the act of proving or checking that something exists, is true, or is correct
We require verification of your age before you can buy beer
Rational (adj) – based on clear thought and reason
She made the rational decision and went home early
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Once again, nuclear weapons are a topic of major concern. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his country’s nuclear deterrent to be on “special alert.” After launching a full scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Putin was perhaps caught by surprise at the resistance of Ukrainian forces.
As I’m writing this on February 28th (and things will definitely have changed by the time you are listening), Russia has not achieved any significant victories in Ukraine – the Ukrainians still control all of the major cities. Moreover, the invasion has unified the world against Russia – the country’s economy has been decimated, the EU is the most united it has been for years, Sweden and Finland are getting closer to NATO, Ukraine has been given extensive support, and (again, as I’m writing) Russia’s only supporter seems to be Belarus.
Of course, my Russian listeners may disagree with what I’m saying, but I think even you would have to agree that this war wasn’t the best decision ever made by Putin. Two weeks ago, the world saw Putin as a strong and powerful authoritarian leader; today he seems more panicked.
One of the threats he has made is nuclear – to use Russia’s nuclear weapons if needed. I’ll discuss whether Putin would actually use a “nuke” a little later in the podcast. However, the nuclear discussion has started in other countries too.
On Sunday, Belarus “voted” (if you’re reading the transcript you’ll notice the quotation marks around “voted” because there are no real votes or democracy in Belarus) to host Russian nuclear weapons. And on the other side of the conflict, former Japanese President Abe has suggested Japan should consider hosting US nuclear weapons on their territory.
It has been nearly 77 years since the last atomic weapon was used in war – only two have ever been dropped, both on Japan by the American military. The weapons are so powerful, so deadly, so destructive that their use is unlikely.
Why? Well, imagine if Russia decided to attack the US. Both the US and Russia have reduced the number of nuclear weapons over the last 30 years, but they still possess enough to destroy each other. It was an official policy – called Mutually Assured Destruction. Basically, the idea is to build enough nuclear weapons that you can destroy your enemy completely. If Russia launces weapons at the US, it is essentially suicide – the US will launch their weapons right back.
So, if these weapons are so terrible, and it is unlikely we are ever going to use them, why do we still have nuclear weapons? Is it possible that we will ever see a nuclear free future? And will anyone ever use nuclear weapons?
I’m going to try and answer these questions today. As this episode is probably going to be a little more controversial than usual, I will leave a more extensive list of sources on the blog, so that you can check where I get my arguments from.
And before I get messages telling me to do my research before I write or record a podcast on this topic, I have done my research. I’ve been fascinated by nuclear deterrence theory and weapon proliferation for almost 10 years, read countless peer reviewed books, and even applied to study “Proliferation Studies” at King’s College London with the aim of working as a researcher in nuclear policy. Eventually, I changed my mind and chose to focus on Asian regional politics for my postgraduate studies, but I was very very close to choosing a career in nuclear weapons studies. Of course, some things I will say may be debatable or controversial, and you might disagree with me, but I have done my research!
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Is a Nuclear Weapons Free Future Possible?
Let’s start with a complicated question: is a nuclear weapons free future possible? I’ll let you know that my answer is “no”: unless some major event happens, I think nuclear weapons are going to be around for a long time. However, not everyone agrees with me.
If we go back to 2009, a few months after Barack Obama was elected President of the USA, there was some small hope that he would begin to get rid of the US’s weapons. In a speech on 5th April 2009, he stated ‘clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.’ Obama described nuclear weapons as the ‘most dangerous legacy of the cold war’ and said the US has a moral responsibility to act’ on nuclear weapons.
In fact, almost as soon as nuclear weapons were developed, debates over nuclear disarmament had already begun. “The father of the atomic bomb,” Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first ever nuclear detonation in the American desert: he said “now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He understood the power of his invention.
In 1970, the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons came into force, and was again extended in 1995. Article VI of the NPT commits every country signing the document to eventual nuclear disarmament. And there have been other attempts – the 1987 INF treaty banned ground based nuclear weapons in Europe; START I,II, New START and the 2002 Moscow Treaty agreements; and UN resolution 1540 – all of which aimed to control nuclear weapons.
The fact that so many states, including states with nuclear weapons, signed up to such agreements suggests that a nuclear free world could be a possibility. A famous 2007 article by some of the most influential figures in US political history titled ‘A World Free of Nuclear Weapons’ summed up this feeling – they wrote that it was finally time to disarm and end nuclear weapons.
At the moment, there are probably nine countries with nuclear weapons. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – USA, Russia, UK, France, China; then India, Pakistan and North Korea also have publicly tested weapons; and Israel has never confirmed but almost certainly has weapons.
However, in the past there were more countries with nuclear weapons, and others with programmes to develop weapons. South Africa is the only country to develop their own nuclear weapons, and then disarm by choice. Former Soviet republics including Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan removed the Soviet Union’s weapons in the 1990s. So, it is possible to disarm and get rid of weapons.
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Why do we Still Have Nuclear Weapons?
There is not one simple answer to this question. Nuclear weapons are still a major part of militaries, and there are still states with ambitions to design and build their own nukes. Why? I’ll give you a few different reasons – the real answer probably lies in a mix of many different factors.
First, some of the most respected political scientists and international relations scholars argue that countries, especially the countries with nuclear weapons, are generally quite selfish. A country usually only does something if it is in its own self-interest – or more accurately, if they believe it will be in their self-interest.
For example, Russia’s military action in Ukraine probably seemed like a good idea to Putin – if successful, it would fulfil his ambition of a Russian empire and stop EU and NATO expansion. However, it looks likely it was a bad decision, with negative consequences for the country’s self-interest. Ukraine is closer to NATO and the EU than ever before, and the country will never respect Russia again.
Self-interest also guides nuclear weapon proliferation and maintenance. Possessing nuclear weapons does have benefits for a country. It is a powerful and devastating weapon of war – which could probably end most conflicts instantly. The destruction, deaths, and damage caused by the use of a weapon makes it more valuable than less powerful bombs.
However, for political scientists, the main use of a nuclear weapon is not in their ability to help win wars, but to prevent wars. The name for this idea is deterrence theory – a nuclear weapon is supposed to deter other countries from attacking you. The idea of a nuclear weapon might be more important than actually using one.
Imagine you are a country with an enemy. If that enemy attacks you, you will defend yourself. Without nuclear weapons, you will defend yourself with conventional weapons – guns, missiles, bombs. But if you have a nuclear weapon, you could use that devastating weapon if needed.
Now, if your enemy knows you have nuclear weapons, why would they attack you? All countries with nukes need to be willing to use them at the most devastating time – for example, British nuclear submarines have a safe onboard with a command letter inside from the Prime Minister telling them what to do if the UK is destroyed. Every Prime Minister so far has commanded them to destroy the enemy. Why? Well, if the enemy knows you are willing to use a nuclear weapon, then they will probably not want war either.
Of course, this assumes that countries (and their leaders) are not crazy – we can talk about that another time maybe! So, one reason countries want nuclear weapons is for security and to prevent war. Many “realist” observers of international relations believe that nuclear weapons are actually a major reason the world has become more peaceful. I know it may not feel very peaceful right now, but war has become less common since nuclear weapons were introduced. Especially, wars between countries – and there has been no war between two nuclear powers.
One of the most interesting papers I remember reading in my first year of university was by the famous researcher Kenneth Waltz, who argued that Iran should be given nuclear weapons. That sounds crazy, right? Why would you give an authoritarian country a nuclear weapon? Well, Waltz believed that it might stabilise the Middle East. Having two nuclear powers in the region (Israel and Iran) would perhaps create a balance – no one would be willing to risk their country.
Moreover, nuclear weapons are not just useful at preventing conflict, they are also a ticket to international power and influence. If you have nuclear weapons you are powerful. It is simple. Or, at least, this is what many countries think. Not only do you have the technology to develop the weapons, you also are dangerous and strong. Why did North Korea want nuclear weapons so badly? It was not just for security (China would probably help North Korea anyway) – it was to appear powerful.
The same thing is true about Russia. In many ways, nuclear weapons are key to Russia staying a world power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has not been able to keep up with the US, China, or even the EU. These places have stronger economies, more international influence, and probably better armies. However, Russia has nuclear weapons – the most nuclear weapons on the planet. Why would they give them up?
How would nuclear disarmament happen? Who would disarm first? We would need a level of trust and coordination that has so far been impossible internationally. If it was just France, the UK, and the US… perhaps eventually they could agree on how to get rid of their weapons. But I see no way, unless something changes, the US, China, Russia, Pakistan, and India agree to get rid of the nuclear weapons. These countries will probably never trust each other enough.
One of the ways to create trust would be a verification system – basically technology to prove that a country has disarmed, does not have nuclear weapons, and is not developing more nuclear weapons. With this technology, countries would not necessarily need to trust each other completely – they could see what everyone is doing! However, we don’t have such a system right now – our ability to find nuclear weapons is limited.
What happens if we do get rid of nuclear weapons?
Ok, let’s imagine the world today gets rid of nuclear weapons. The nine countries that currently have them suddenly throw them away. What happens? Our world may not have regular wars, but it is not entirely peaceful. How about the countries currently protected by nuclear powers. Taiwan, Japan, South Korea in Asia; most of Europe; Russian allies; the Middle East – a nuclear free world might actually cause conflict in these regions.
Perhaps war between powerful countries would increase – after all, with no nuclear weapons there is less to be scared of in war. Or, more likely, a whole new set of countries will try to develop their own nuclear weapons – especially the countries without nuclear weapons, protected by the US, and with a tense situation.
Even if we manage to ban nuclear weapons, disarm, and remove them from the planet – it doesn’t mean they won’t come back. It is impossible to “un-invent” something – nuclear weapons have been invented, the knowledge is out there, and I think it is likely they will stick around for many more years.
I think you can clearly tell my opinion – I don’t think countries are willing to get rid of their nuclear weapons. Even though they are horrible and destructive weapons, nuclear weapons are useful. However, this doesn’t mean I think they will be used.
Will Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?
Social media and even some news sites are full of people panicking about nuclear war. Will Putin use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
Probably not. It doesn’t really make sense, in a rational world, for Putin to use nuclear weapons. He would be risking the lives of millions of Russian people. Putin recently announced that Russia’s nuclear deterrent would be placed in a “special mode of combat duty,” but it is not clear what this means.
Most likely, Putin’s nuclear threats are just rhetoric. A way to send a message to the West, remind everyone that Russia still has weapons, and show the Russian people that their country is still strong.
Putin knows that any use of nuclear weapons would cause major retaliation from other nuclear powers – the Mutually Assured Destruction I talked about at the beginning still exists.
However, this all assumes that Russia is a normal rational country with a normal rational leader. In most places, the decision to use a nuclear weapon is made by a group of military experts, with numerous ways to stop one person from making decisions by themselves. Russia in 2022 might not be like this – Putin may have too much power and influence, and have the ability to make this decision by himself.
There is also a fear about the mental state and environment of Putin. His plan in Ukraine is not going the way he wanted: Russian soldiers are dying, the West is watching Ukraine defend against the Russian army; the Russian military seems to be unorganised; and even if Russia manages to defeat Ukraine, the Ukrainian people are not going to stop fighting. At the same time, Russia’s economy has been destroyed.
We have a saying in English – “be wary of a wounded animal.” When injured or in pain, animals become more dangerous. Putin may be wounded by this conflict in Russia and the western sanctions, but this might make Russia even more dangerous.
On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to clear up a few questions you all might have about nuclear weapons. They are terrifying, devastating, and demoralising weapons – and if used will cause major problems around the world. So, it is natural to be afraid and concerned whenever we hear about nukes in the news.
I tried to explain why we still have nuclear weapons, whether or not we may see a day without them in the future, and briefly addressed whether or not the Russian president may use nuclear weapons due to his war in Ukraine.
What do you think? Will we ever have a world free of nuclear weapons?
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[Accessed 10 November 2014].Wirtz, J. J., 2013. Weapons of Mass Destruction. In: A. Collins, ed. Contemporary Security Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 256-272.
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