Fall 2019 Topic

    "Resolved: States should eliminate their arsenals of nuclear weapons."

  • Topic Brief

    Ever since the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the world has been living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Following World War II, a period of intense and dangerous nuclear proliferation, or spread of nuclear weapons, ensued. This period is known as the Cold War, where the United States and the Soviet Union competed for global dominance in the nuclear arms race until the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT, went into effect in 1970. During the Cold War, the number of nuclear weapons in the world peaked at approximately 70,300 in 1986, enough to destroy the planet several times over.


    Since the 1980s, the total number of nuclear weapons in the world has shrunk by over three-fourths and several states such as South Africa, Belarus, and Ukraine have completely eliminated their nuclear programs. This means that more countries have given up nuclear weapons and programs than have tried to acquire them in the last 30 years.


    As of 2019, there are eight sovereign states that have publicly announced the successful use of a nuclear weapon. Five of these states are recognized under the NPT as nuclear weapons states or NWS. These are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China. The other three states, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, are not parties to the NPT. It is also generally suspected, although not confirmed, that Israel has nuclear weapons. These nine countries possess a total of 13,850 nuclear weapons, with the United States and Russia accounting for 92% of those nuclear weapons. Most of these warheads are in military service, although some are awaiting dismantlement.


    While there is a lively debate among policymakers and academics over details like nuclear posture, modernization, and methods to discourage proliferation, a more fundamental question is being asked: should states even possess nuclear weapons? For many, the answer is no. Several organizations such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) were instrumental in persuading the United Nations to adopt a landmark global agreement to ban nuclear weapons, officially known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.


    Defenders of the treaty argue for the elimination of nuclear arsenals by primarily focusing on the consequences of using nuclear weapons. A limited nuclear exchange between two nuclear powers would almost certainly produce death tolls previously unseen. They argue that the mere possession of nuclear weapons increases the chance that they will be used so all states should commit to eliminating their arsenals to guarantee that such destructive and inhumane weapons are never used.


    Additionally, proponents of a ban point to the potential of accidental nuclear weapons launch through miscalculation or system failures; the harmful environmental effects of testing, storing, and disposing of nuclear weapons; and the safety concerns posed by nuclear weapons such as the risk of theft, hacking, or terrorism.


    Defenders of nuclear weapons tend to argue for the theory of deterrence. Deterrence is the idea that nuclear weapons promote peace by deterring other states from attacking through the threat of retaliation. One of the rationales underlying the theory of deterrence is mutually assured destruction, also known as MAD, where nuclear powers are discouraged from going to war since the full-scale use of nuclear weapons would cause the complete annihilation of both sides.


    However, those who argue for deterrence go even further and say that nuclear weapons have made the world safer. They say that nuclear weapons have created a nuclear peace which have prevented the large-scale conventional wars that defined the global arena prior to the end of the Second World War. Several scholars have actually argued that more states in the Middle East and South Asia should acquire nuclear weapons in order to better deter potential adversaries.


    With these issues in mind, should states retain or eliminate their nuclear arsenals?

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