Categorized | Russia, Security Issues, US, World

Sixty-Five Years After Hiroshima

Image by Ian McBurnie CC BY-NC 4.0

The futility and danger of nuclear weapons in the post-9/11 world is indisputable

The 2003 Oscar-Winning documentary The Fog of War, containing Robert McNamara’s post-Vietnam mea culpa, also highlighted one of the former US Defence Secretary’s greatest concerns – nuclear weapons. “The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations,” McNamara maintained.

Sixty-five years to the month after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many countries are questioning the efficacy of nuclear weapons in a world where the biggest challenges to states no longer come from other states but from asymmetric threats such as terrorism. The dangers of possessing nuclear weapons in a twenty-first century context devoid of the reassuring security of mutually assured destruction are becoming ever clearer. Rational state actors during the Cold War may have been deterred by the spectre of submarine-launched retaliatory capabilities. Trans-national and ostensibly non-rational terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda are a different matter entirely.

While visiting Prague in 2009, Barrack Obama declared that as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a “moral responsibility” to hold back the tide of nuclear proliferation. As he attempts to deal with the dangers posed by a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East, there is a definite political logic to Obama’s diplomacy. Firstly, his goal of “a world without nuclear weapons” adds moral authority to US attempts to deal with the threat posed by Iran. It is also easier to convince smaller countries on the UN Security Council to support and then strengthen sanctions against Iran if their governments can be convinced that such measures are not merely a ploy by the Permanent Five to stop the smaller states joining the nuclear club.

The recently-concluded US-Russian arms control agreement sealing the New Start pact can be seen as one tangible, albeit modest, step towards a world less threatened by nuclear weapons. But with the US and Russia committing themselves to paring back their nuclear arsenals, Britain’s new Prime Minister David Cameron is starting to look decidedly out of step with Obama’s arms-cutting agenda, committed as his government is to the expensive renewal of Trident.

The rationale behind the UK possessing a nuclear capability greater than that of China seems unclear other than as a means to justify its continued permanent seat on the UN Security Council. By contrast, and despite its estimated $2.4 trillion in foreign reserves which could bankroll a staggering military capability, China’s recently declared intention to limit its nuclear stockpiles to levels necessary to meet the country’s basic defensive needs makes the UK’s pursuit of a Trident replacement in a time of budget austerity seem like folly. Yet we shouldn’t really be surprised. As Cameron said recently, economic prudence cannot come at the expense of prestige when it comes to Trident.

In the era of asymmetric threats when a nuclear or radioactive attack would more probably appear on a cargo ship in the Thames or on the London Underground, playground posturing with nuclear weapons is a luxury which a country with the budgetary problems of the UK can no longer afford. The danger of a country maintaining a nuclear capability without it having to explain the strategic justification for such weapons is clear. It makes the possession of such weapons seem routine on the basis that we have no idea how the world order will appear in twenty years time so it is better to be safe than sorry. This is hardly a coherent strategic blueprint for Britain’s future defence needs nor is it the type of sound diplomatic example for us to be sending to developing countries which are considering developing a nuclear capability of their own.

Cameron’s most recent foreign policy faux pas in which he declared that “Iran has got a nuclear weapon” was but a minor example of the deeper problem which McNamara spoke about when it comes to human fallibility. Significant decisions regarding nuclear weapons are taken by political leaders who make mistakes. These errors may merely be off-the-cuff misstatements by an inexperienced prime minister or they can be flippant decisions taken on the basis of self-image and stature which undermine a nation’s defence strategy for decades. The worst-case scenario is that decisions to actually use nuclear weapons are taken for political and not military reasons. Eisenhower’s comment about the dropping of the atomic bomb to Secretary of War Stimson in 1945 that “it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing” reflects his dismay at the reasoning behind Truman’s decision. Even today there is still controversy about whether the bombs were dropped to compel a Japanese surrender or to send a message to the USSR to stay out of Western Europe after the war.

Later this year President Obama will get the chance to visit Hiroshima while he is attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. The presence of a US president for the first time in a city which has come to symbolise to the world the destructive reality of nuclear weapons may hopefully provide the impetus for further steps towards a denuclearized planet. Given the fallibility of humans and the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, nothing less will suffice.

Image courtesy of Ian McBurnie via Flickr [CC BY-NC 4.0]

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About David Miles

David Miles is a former Carnegie Scholar and has a PhD from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he teaches in the School of International Relations. Apart from writing for, editing, and publishing Global Politics, his writing has appeared in the Daily Beast, Carnegie Ethics Online, Huff Post and the Scotsman. His interests include American political history, US foreign policy, modern German history, American and German constitutional history, the politics of the European Union, peace and conflict studies, and the politics of the Middle East. His book 'Democracy, the Courts, and the Liberal State: a Comparative Analysis of American and German Constitutionalism' will be published by Routledge in 2020.

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