This week world leaders are gathering in the Netherlands for the 3rd Nuclear Security Summit. Although the purpose of the Nuclear Security Summits is to secure nuclear materials around the world, it is also part of President Barack Obama’s larger goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons.
This goal was announced in President Obama’s infamous Prague speech in 2009 during which he committed the U.S. to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Since that speech, leaders from around the world have joined President Obama in endorsing global nuclear disarmament, including the UN Security Council, whose permanent members are the same five states the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear weapon states.
There are many reasons to support the global nuclear disarmament movement, but all are ultimately geared towards creating a more peaceful world free from the menace of nuclear war. As President Obama explained in his famous Prague speech in 2009, eliminating nuclear weapons would “leave this world more prosperous and more peaceful than we found it.”
In fact, global nuclear disarmament, if achieved, is likely to lead to a less peaceful world and one where the threat of nuclear war is, paradoxically, much greater.
One of the biggest dangers of nuclear disarmament is not that a rogue nation would cheat, but that there would be no nuclear deterrence to prevent conventional conflicts between great powers. Nearly seven decades removed from the end of the last great power conflict, it’s easy to understate just how destructive these wars can be. For that reason, it’s imperative that we periodically revisit history.
The number of deaths in the last great power conflict, WWII, is generally calculated to be anywhere from 50 to 70 million people, which includes civilian and military deaths. However, the global population was only about 2.25 billion at the start of WWII, or less than a third of the current global population of 7.152 billion. Thus, assuming the same level of lethality, a great power conflict today would result in between 150 and 210 million deaths, many times greater than an accidental nuclear launch or nuclear terrorist attack, however devastating both would be.
There’s little reason to believe that a global war today— even if fought conventionally— would not be many times more lethal than WWII, however. Although strategic bombings were certainly a factor in WWII, for much of the war technology and rival air forces limited their effectiveness.
Offensive operations against civilian populations in a modern conflict would be much more effective. To begin with, most nations would turn to launching ballistic and cruise missiles in unprecedented quantities. Like Korea and Vietnam, but unlike most of WWII, there would essentially be no methods for defending civilian population centers against these missiles.
Moreover, because of urbanization, populations are far more concentrated than they were in WWII. According to the UN, the number of people living in urban areas more than quadrupled between 1950 and 2005, increasing from 732 million (29 percent of total population) to 3.2 billion (49 percent of population). In 2010 more than half the world population was living in cities and this number is expected to rise to 60 percent by 2030. By mid-century, a full 70 percent of the world’s population, or 6.4 billion people, will be urban dwellers.
Thus, the combination of missile attacks for which there are few defenses, combined with much greater population density, would alone make WWIII much more lethal than either of its predecessors.
But as deadly as a modern conventional war would be in a nuclear free world, the real danger is that it wouldn’t remain conventional. Along with making great power conflict far more likely, global nuclear disarmament offers no conceivable mechanism to ensure that such a war would remain non-nuclear. In fact, common sense would suggest that immediately following the outbreak of hostilities — if not in the run-up to the war itself — every previous nuclear power would make a rapid dash to reconstruct their nuclear forces in the shortest amount of time.
The result would not merely be a return to the nuclear world we currently inhabit. Rather, some countries would reconstruct their nuclear weapons more quickly than others, and no power could be sure of the progress their rivals had made. The “winners” in this nuclear arms race would then have every incentive to immediately use their new nuclear capabilities against their adversaries in an effort to quickly end the conflict, eliminate others’ nuclear weapons-making capabilities, or merely out of fear that others will launch a debilitating strike on its small and vulnerable nuclear arsenal. There would be no mutually assured destruction in such an environment; a “use-it-or-lose-it” mentality would prevail.
President Obama is right to call for further reductions in existing arsenals and greater safety standards for nuclear explosives and fissile material. As countless studies have shown, however, the world is currently more peaceful than it’s ever been. Eliminating nuclear weapons would irresponsibly put that all at risk.