By Brian Brinker:
President-elect Donald Trump has raised eyebrows yet again, having apparently called for a nuclear arms race through his Twitter feed. Specifically, Trump said “Let it be an arms race” both on Twitter and television, following an earlier tweet stating that “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
Unsurprisingly, this comment stirred up some controversy. In fact, many have used the tweets as an opportunity to call for nuclear disarmament, including the Chinese government, which has urged a global reduction in nuclear arms. Still, while hating on anything with the word “nuclear” in it (including nuclear energy) has long been a “hot fashion” statement, we should take a moment to recognize that nuclear weapons are a strong deterrent for war. They have ushered in a never before seen era of peace between major world powers.
The establishment of nuclear deterrence
Since the invention of nuclear weapons, wars between preeminent governments have declined dramatically. Yes, civil wars and wars between smaller countries have broken out, and world powers have directly invaded smaller countries. Yet world powers themselves have, by and large, avoided exchanging direct blows.
Before the invention of nuclear bombs, world powers frequently locked horns with one another. World War II is believed to have cost roughly 60 million lives across the globe. World War I is believed to have taken 20 million lives, mostly in Europe, and the Napoleonic wars are believed to have claimed nearly 5 million. Even smaller wars, such as the Crimean War, cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Of course, the two World Wars remain as the starkest examples of wars between world powers. These wars show us what the future would likely have looked like without the advent of nuclear bombs, with major world powers throwing massive armies and conventional weapons at one another, resulting in widespread death. In a certain sense the claim that nukes prevent war is conjecture, since we can never really know what would have happened. But we can look at the evidence that has led a number of political theorists to that conclusion.
There is a very strong argument that nuclear weapons ultimately kept the Cold War cold. In the years immediately after the Second World War, the world was tired, with the United States and other powers looking to avoid further bloodshed. This allowed the Soviet Union to establish itself and to develop nuclear weapons. This was also a time where the Soviet Union and the United States began to develop animosity towards each other.
The Soviet Union and United States weren’t just competitors, they were genuine arch nemeses. Their ideologies and world views couldn’t have been more different or any more in opposition than they were at the time. Both countries built massive armies, empires, and nuclear arsenals specifically to counter one another. Yet even as they posed existential threats to one another, they never engaged in direct, outright conflict. They couldn’t because of the prospect of nuclear annihilation.
Yet as the Cold War intensified, tensions between command and capitalist societies only worsened, boiling over into a series of proxy wars. Both countries funded rebel factions and government forces around the world, and opposed each other frequently within the United Nations. The two biggest proxy wars were the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
In Korea, the United States did engage directly with China and Soviet-backed Koreans, but this was before the United States and Soviet Union developed enough of a stockpile of nuclear bombs to contribute to a complete policy of nuclear deterrence. The war is believed to have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, if not millions, with many of the dead being civilians.
By the time the Vietnam War rolled around, the United States and Soviet Union couldn’t directly confront one another without the risk of nuclear annihilation. Without this direct threat of nuclear war, it’s far more likely that proxy wars would have spun out of control, and blown up into full scale conventional wars, akin to what happened in Korea. Neither Communist nor Capitalist societies would have tolerated each other’s expansionist efforts. Too much was at stake and both countries’ futures depended upon their geopolitical efforts.
Nuclear bombs kept both the Soviet Union and United States in line, forcing them to fight lower level, but still deadly, proxy wars. Without the threat of nuclear deterrence, the risk of direct, full-scale conventional war would have been much higher. This is especially true considering Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe, and American ambitions in the west.
Nuclear deterrence today
Now that we have a clear understanding of the past, it’s time to get back to today. Should the United States expand its nuclear capacity or heed the calls for disarmament? Realistically, that’s beyond my expertise, I can only offer my opinion. The question should be approached and debated by military, and specifically, nuclear weapons experts.
Certainly America shouldn’t be tricked or drawn into wasting money on unneeded weapons, and it’s entirely possible that its current nuclear arsenal is enough to maintain deterrence. However, numerical discrepancies have led to recent saber rattling.
The United States has about 1,400 nuclear weapons in active deployment, while Russia has nearly 1,800, meaning the Russians have more deployed nukes. The Chinese, whom recently called for nuclear weapons reduction, are believed to be aggressively ramping up their nuclear capacities, and particularly their ability to strike the United States. China is believed to have approximately 260 nuclear war heads, although it is believed that many of its nukes cannot reach the United States directly. Experts anticipate China having at least 100 nukes capable of reaching the American homeland within the next decade.
While it’s tempting to argue that we should deploy more for the sake of having the highest numbers, what’s more important is the potential for destruction. Those 1,400 American nukes likely present enough nuclear potential to wipe out any enemies the United States has. Ultimately, there’s little practical or tactical difference between wiping out the world once over, or five times over. After all, what is dead already cannot die again. This is an important factor in the decision of whether or not the United States should expand its nuclear capabilities.
Of course, who knows what experts will say? America’s nuclear arsenal is aging, and the anti-missile technologies that have emerged over the past few decades may reduce the effectiveness of our nukes, and thus our level of nuclear deterrence. The same could be said of our nuclear subs, stealth planes, and other technologies. Regardless of this, upgrading our nuclear arsenal shouldn’t be a phallus measuring policy, based on who has the most, or the biggest nuclear bombs of all.
It is important to ensure that nuclear deterrence remains in place. Experts should determine whether that means expanding, modernizing, or simply maintaining America’s nuclear arsenal, and their decision should be driven by a pragmatic, grounded examination of our nuclear deterrence.
Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.