Barack Obama endorsed today the idea of a world without nuclear weapons. This is, of course, the dream of many a soul and the dream transcends partisanship. Ronald Reagan wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons as well and Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are working with Sam Nunn and William Cohen–not to mention a lot of other people from both sides of the aisle–to try to eradicate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.
But the mere presence of bipartisan interest in the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons does not mean that the world will indeed soon be rid of nuclear weapons. There is no way to un-invent nuclear weapons. The technology is out there, it is known and it is not going to be possible to get people to forget how to create nuclear weapons. It is, of course, possible to work to create a stringent regime to counteract nuclear weapons–and on this issue, the Bush Administration deserves serious credit for its creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which was launched while former UN Ambassador John Bolton was serving as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control. But nuclear weapons are a fact of life now and they will remain so for the foreseeable future.
The destructive power of such weapons is well known and terrifying. But nuclear weapons also serve to keep the peace. Europe, a continent possessed of a tragic familiarity with cataclysmic land wars, has not seen a significant conventional continent on its soil since the end of World War II. Nuclear weapons, of course, had a great deal to do with this; nuclear deterrence prevented the outbreak of a conventional conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and paradoxically allowed for the conflict to come to a peaceful end. Think where we might have been without this deterrent. It is hardly inconceivable–indeed, it is quite likely–that in the absence of nuclear weapons, a conventional war of horrifying proportions may have broken out between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is, perhaps, a war that we could have won. But I am glad that it didn’t occur and for the many decades spent outwaiting and outlasting the Soviet Union, the fact that victory was achieved without having American and Soviet forces directly exchange shots at one another in Europe made the end of the Cold War that much sweeter.
I am all for controlling proliferation. But I am also for some reality and the reality is that nuclear weapons are not going anywhere. And in the grand scheme of things, they shouldn’t. As long as responsible nation-states like the United States possess a nuclear deterrent, the world will be made a safer place. In a non-nuclear world, the lion may lay down with the lamb, but as the saying goes, the lamb won’t be getting much sleep.