Policy Wonk: Our nuclear weapons policies are dangerous

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The United States’ nuclear weapons policies are more likely to lead to the use of nuclear arms than to prevent the use of these incredibly destructive weapons.

We are the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons in a war setting. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki civilian death toll exceeded 150,000; a greater number were severely injured. The physical destruction extended for miles around the blast epicenter.

Today’s adjustable-strength nuclear weapons are more advanced and accurate than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they can be dialed down to a similar power level, but on average U.S. warheads are between five and 20 times more powerful than the two bombs dropped in World War II.

We are not alone in possessing this weaponry. Besides the U.S., eight other nations – Russia, China, North Korea, England, France, Israel, India, and Pakistan – have nuclear weapons, often as sophisticated as our own, and  sufficient in number to pose a regional or global threat.

Another half-dozen nations have the technological and economic ability to develop this weaponry if they choose to do so: Japan, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada, Iran.

Disarmament and Non-proliferation strategies, much in vogue from the 1970s through the early years of this century, seem to have run their course.

After some scaling down, globally there are still an estimated 10,000 nuclear devices; but today there is more talk among the major powers – certainly by President Donald Trump – of modernizing nuclear weapons systems, rather than further reducing their numbers.

Most nations, for economic or political reasons, have chosen not to have nuclear weapons; they are content to shelter under the nuclear umbrella of one of the global powers.

We hardly have the moral authority, much less the economic power or the geo-political clout, to press nations with nuclear ambitions to not undertake or to abandon their armament programs. The era when we could simply tell other nations what to do is gone.

That said, our fixation on two nations (North Korea and Iran) is inexplicable and unhelpful. Successive presidents have threatened to use our nuclear weapons to prevent these two nations from developing or maintaining any nuclear weapons capability. Trump’s recent rhetoric has upped the ante.

The destructive consequences of this course of conduct are incalculable; given the size and location of Seoul and Tehran, millions of civilian Korean and Iranian lives would be lost in minutes – not to mention the U.S. and allied troops in these regions.

We are certainly not pressing Russia, China, or Pakistan to give up their nuclear weapons; each of these nations has rogue elements capable of launching nuclear destruction, and these nations have a far greater capacity to reach mainland U.S. cities and/or American and allied interests around the world than North Korea or Iran.

We are even less concerned with the safety and use of nuclear weapons in nations we deem friendly, like England, France, Israel, and India. We’re certainly not hectoring these nations to abandon or scale back their nuclear weaponry.

In short, our nuclear weapons policies are dangerously inconsistent. Our rhetoric is too bellicose and often childish, and our propensity for staging war games on the front doorstep of nuclear nations – who also have bellicose tendencies – runs the risk of a nuclear confrontation by accident.

There are several corrective policy changes that we can and should make:

• Stop threatening and worrying about nations that would develop a nuclear weapons program; it is politically impossible to alter or interdict these decisions.

• Make clear that any nation that develops and uses nuclear weapons in a “first-strike” capacity will almost certainly face immediate nuclear retaliation.

• Breath new life into disarmament (scaling down the number and destructive power of nuclear weapons) and non-proliferation strategies.

• Join with other nuclear nations to prevent nuclear technologies and weapons from falling into the hands of non-state militant organizations, e.g., ISIS, the Taliban, etc.

• Legislatively (constitutionally, if necessary) make it impossible for the president to order the use of nuclear weapons; some level of consensus among the nation’s leaders must be required before a step of this magnitude is taken.

• Change the tone, the rhetoric, of nuclear weapons discussion.

Global leaders must reflect the seriousness, the human consequences, of unleashing these weapons.

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlandodelogu@maine.rr.com.