By Samantha Marriot
Originally published in April 2014
Just the word ‘nuclear’ instantaneously stirs up an anxiety in people that no other political weapon can. This year welcomes the 80th anniversary of Leo Szilard’s patent application for nuclear chain reactions and the beginning of the nuclear story; still many people are so jaded by the nuclear propaganda machine that they fail to have a true understanding of the capabilities and purposes for these ‘special’ arms. From the already derogatory tone in which I write this article you may well assume that I do not see nuclear weapons as extraordinary. This is not to say I don’t think that they are important; I certainly do. To me nuclear arsenals are of distinct importance in the international system as they play a very particular role as a political tool to reify global power relations. Big statement I know, but bare with me.
If you choose to look into the nuclear proliferation issue you are likely to reach a very logical conclusion. After a journal or two you will come to see that there is very little reason in a practical sense to maintain and proliferate nuclear arsenals – they are expensive, dangerous and a grey area as far as international law is concerned. The benefit of holding a nuclear arsenal is very simple; it is a bargaining chip, a way of securing your place in the balance of power. Writer E. Solingen goes so far as to state that countries with stable governance would have no use for nuclear arsenals as “Political freedom seems neither necessary nor sufficient for the emergence of a nuclear regime.” (Solingen, 1994) and I agree. The problem with nuclear weapons discourse is that it colludes in the artifice that nuclear weapons are a remarkable weapon and it chooses to treat them as if they were a deity with the power to decide the fate of human existence. Of course they are dangerous, but are we to forget about the indiscriminate damage that can be seen with the use of conventional weapons? Nuclear weapons do create a stronger single explosion but with strategic tactics such as firebombing, the same damage can be inflicted by a conventional campaign. Historian Edwin Hoyt speaking about Japan in World War two corroborates this stating that “… as [far] the Japanese militarists were concerned, the atomic bomb was just another weapon. The two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were icing on the cake, and did not do as much damage as the fire bombings of Japanese cities.” (Hoyt, 2001)
Nuclear weapons have evolved to be a tool for sustaining a balance of power which was shaken by the previous global wars and current global issues. Nuclear arsenals are a form of neo-colonialism that keeps certain countries on top and certain countries down. It was necessary following Hiroshima and Nagasaki to perpetuate the idea that nuclear weapons were extraordinary, a single saviour from the long horror that was the Second World War. In recent times it has become important to see nuclear arsenals as necessary because of the War on Terror but both of these instances cover up a truth that is so obvious, nuclear weapons serve a purpose that surpasses their military and strategic capabilities. The recent situation with North Korea and the United States shows the bargaining power which nuclear weapons have, it has secured food aid and medicine amongst other things from South Korea for the North simply by showing that it could sustain and grow nuclear arsenals, not to mention created the potential to embarrass the largest superpower on the international stage, the United States. An article written for the Economist notes “If Kim Jong Un were to get his finger on a nuclear button, it would represent a dramatic defeat for more than two decades of international diplomacy.“ and perhaps this is what we should focus on rather than the military aspect of the ‘crisis’.
The hegemonic force of nuclear weapons discourse needs to be halted and the ideas which it sustains need to be inhibited; we should be striving for a nuclear free world because we wish to remove political hierarchies and neo-colonial attitudes, not because of the very minute possibility that a state will choose to detonate one.
Hoyt, E. “Japan’s War: The Great Pacific Conflict” Cooper Square Publishers Inc, Jan 2001.
Solingen, E “The Political Economy of Nuclear Restraint” International Security Journal Vol 19. No 2. MIT Press 1994 Accessed Jan 2014 athttp://www.jstor.org/stable/2539198
“Nuclear North Korea: Bad or Mad?” The Economist, Oct 2013. Accessed Jan 2014 athttp://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21588196-kim-jong-un-likely-realise-his-nuclear-ambitions-two-sides-already-face