Winning: Mutually Assured Peace


November 8, 2011: Nuclear weapons are good for you. While nearly 2,100 nuclear weapons have been detonated in the last 66 years, only two of these nukes were used in war. That was enough to terrify major nations into avoiding major (but not minor) wars. The continued existence of nuclear weapons has created a new dynamic between the major military powers. This nuclear standoff came to be known as "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) during the Cold War. As a result of MAD, there has not been a war between the Great Powers in Europe since the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, a peace that has lasted 66 years so far. This is the longest period of major-power peace in Europe since before the fall of Rome 1500 years ago. The second-longest such period of peace among the European Great Powers was the 43 years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (January 31, 1871) and the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia (July 28, 1914), which signaled the outbreak of the First World War two days later. In effect, since November 5, 1988, every day that the European Great Powers have not been at war with each other has set a new European regional --and pretty much a world-- record for the duration of a peace.

Proposals to get rid of nuclear weapons not only threaten to upset this peacekeeping mechanism, but ignore the fact that nukes are seen by more vulnerable nations as the cheapest, and most certain, way to guarantee their survival against threats from more powerful neighbors. Give a nation a choice between guaranteeing their safety with an international treaty, or some nukes, and which option will most choose? Thus more nations are seeking nukes than are willing to get rid of them.

There is a downside. Nukes are expensive. In the half century after the first nuclear detonation, over a trillion dollars was spent to build over 50,000 atomic bombs. In the last two decades, most of those have been retired and dismantled (and much of the nuclear material used to produce electricity). The fact is, there are a lot of people out there who know how nuclear weapons are put together, and taken apart and how they work.

Thus you can't eliminate nukes unless you eliminate the knowledge of how to produce nuclear weapons. That cannot be done, because the basic principles of nuclear weapons construction have proliferated beyond the power of anyone to destroy that knowledge. With that knowledge, any industrialized nation can quickly build nuclear weapons.

And then there are the unintended consequences. If you were to succeed in creating an international treaty that really eliminated all nukes, this would provide more incentive to create more powerful chemical and biological weapons. What many people don't want to admit is that the genie is out of the bottle, and you can't put it back.

Since no one has died from nuclear weapons in over 65 years, and you want to eliminate a weapon of mass destruction that has killed lots of people, why not go after the private automobile (which killed more people since 1945 than all wars in the same period). In the United States alone, over three million people were killed by automobiles. What have private automobiles done for peace? Nuclear power also produces power with far less pollution, and hardly any fatalities, compared to coal, gas or oil fueled plants. Despite its virtues, all things nuclear have been demonized for several generations. But that's another story, and this can be written off as another example of how good deeds don't go unpunished.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close