I was thinking this morning of how it would work if we were to inverse the typical thinking on nuclear war and nuclear weapons proliferation.
The current consensus is that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil and they are unlikely to be banned. But, the ideal scenario is that everybody agrees worldwide to slowly decommission their arsenal and reduce the number of weapons that they have and eventually we can reach a new world order where nations where diplomacy is not based on holding guns to each other’s heads.
Purely out of interest, let’s try and figure the completely opposite view out. What if we purposely spread nuclear weapons and ensured that every country, or almost every country in the world, had nuclear weapons? What would be the outcome? Are there any silver linings, or is it all negative?
It’s important to note that no country that has nuclear weapons has ever been invaded — for obvious reasons.
One of the biggest issues of the Ukraine war is that they voluntarily gave up their nuclear weapons in 1994. In the 1990s, Ukraine was one of the largest nuclear powers in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it faced pressure from the international community to give up its nuclear weapons, and in 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, along with Russia and the United States.
Under the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances from the signatory countries, including Russia, the US, and the UK. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and committed the signatories to respect Ukraine’s borders and refrain from using force against it.
There are less than a handful of countries that have ever done this, including Ukraine, South Africa, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
However, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia showcases to other countries that giving up nuclear ambitions is not a solid strategy, because all you get in return is a piece of paper with terms that may or may not be respected.
If we moved forwards with the idea of spreading nuclear weapons to all countries, the equation of war is likely to change. The chances of normal war occurring will decrease to zero, while the chances of nuclear war happening will increase. Because if every country had nuclear weapons, it would be impossible to have an inter-nation war because the risk to the attacking nation would far outweigh the potential benefits.
What is interesting is that we wouldn’t necessarily need to change the number of nuclear weapons that are in the world today. we would just need to redistribute the arsenal more widely.
The peak of the number of nuclear weapons was reached during the late 1980s when the United States and the Soviet Union both possessed large stockpiles of these weapons. At the time, it is estimated that there were approximately 70,000 nuclear weapons in existence.
As of today, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined significantly. The current estimate is that there are approximately 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with the majority of these weapons held by the United States and Russia.
So the real question is, how much more dangerous is spreading nuclear weapons to almost every country compared to having the arsenal concentrated in just a few countries?
And how does that increase in risk compared to the current situation where we do still have war on the planet and people die by a conventional force?
And this really begins to be a discussion on the value of a single life and how much risk we would collectively take to save one life.
I’ve made this example before about trying to create an equivalence between animal life and human life and saying that of course we would slaughter one cow to save one human life and we would probably slaughter two cows as well. But. we wouldn’t slaughter all the world’s cows just to save one person.
And it gets far more subtle than that because it really depends on who that person is.
If it was a mass murderer or a terrorist or a paedophile, it is perhaps unlikely that we would even slaughter as many cows as we would to save someone of a higher moral standing. But perhaps we should?
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, in recent years the number of deaths from armed conflict has averaged around 70,000 to 80,000 per year.
Obviously, the recent war in Ukraine has significantly increased that and obviously if there were other major armed conflicts in the future these numbers could create larger yearly totals.
But, I don’t think we will ever see again the large armed conflicts that we saw in World War I or II.
Precisely because most of the major powers have nuclear weapons and so it’s unthinkable to see Russian tanks rolling through Poland to try and reach Germany — or for Germany to invade France.
So, is spreading the nuclear arsenal across dozens and dozens of countries worth the potential savings of 70,000, 80,000 people per year on average?
It is difficult to calculate what risk is in any given year of nuclear-armed conflict because it has never happened before. The world has managed to not destroy itself for close to 80 years, despite having the ability to do so. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a systematic, scientifically rigorous attempt to calculate the percentage risk of nuclear war for a given year. The likelihood of a nuclear conflict depends on many complex and interrelated factors, including political, economic, military, and social factors, as well as accidents, misunderstandings, and miscalculations.
Such an estimation would also depend on the time horizon considered. For example, the likelihood of a nuclear conflict could be different over a one-year horizon compared to a ten-year horizon. If we were to stretch this to infinity, then nuclear war would be a certainty.
It’s worth noting that even if such a calculation were possible, it would be subject to a high degree of uncertainty. The likelihood of a nuclear conflict is influenced by many unpredictable and rapidly changing factors, making it difficult to estimate with a high degree of confidence.
In general, it’s important to recognize that any attempt to quantify the risk of a nuclear conflict would be a difficult and controversial undertaking, and the results would need to be interpreted with caution.
So, instead of trying to undertake this task, we can just assume that there is a baseline figure, although it is unknown, and we could estimate what the increase in the baseline figure would be if we went ahead and create a nuclear-armed world.
This would likely double the risk and possibly increase it by a factor of 10. Many countries lack the funds to maintain nuclear weapons properly and this could lead to problems with early warning systems. This would increase the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange.
Then there is the consideration that some leaders in certain countries, due to their ideology, may even welcome death by total nuclear war, and so this is something that obviously would not work in our scenario, so even then we would have to exclude certain countries.
In my view, it just isn’t worth the increased risk from the baseline, whatever that baseline is, compared to trying to save 70,000 or 80,000 people per year.
Are far more people killed in other types of violence such as murder and also purely by lifestyle and preventable health issues?
We would probably get more value for each dollar spent on placing armed guards at every supermarket to ensure that everybody is buying enough healthy food than trying to spread nuclear weapons across the world to prevent armed conflict from breaking out between
Yep worth noting is that right now only major military powers have nuclear weapons and these are the countries that have the most to lose by using them, so we are already at a state where the risk of war has been significantly reduced and this is why we only see 70,000 and 80,000 deaths per year which are significantly less than the average the previous decades historically.
That said, this does raise an interesting point. Should a country have the right to develop nuclear weapons? Why do the nuclear powers have the sole right to have these destructive power? Perhaps this is a case of “might is right”, and while we can obviously realize that this situation is something hypocritical, is the best way to manage things for now.
And would a world where everyone gave up nuclear weapons be less safe? Would we end up returning to large-scale conventional wars?