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POV: Nuclear Armament Is a Lose/Lose

Even unused, nuclear weapons damage the lives of millions


“POV,” a new addition to BU Today, is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prize–winning economist and philosopher who is best known for his writings on famine and human development. His approach to the broader questions of foreign policy—including his commitment to nuclear disarmament—have not received as much attention, but they should.

In his essay “India and the Bomb,” Sen notes that military spending does not occur in a vacuum. A nation cannot increase spending on its armed forces and expect no response. Instead, one nation’s decision to increase its military spending will affect its neighbors. “Why,” these other heads of state might wonder, “is my neighbor developing or purchasing incredibly lethal arms? What is my neighbor planning to do with these new capabilities?” And if these persons are sufficiently alarmed, they might direct more resources to their own armed forces. The development or purchase of weapons in one country can have a cascading effect.

The key insight of Sen’s foreign policy lies here. In Sen’s words, one must take “into account the responses from others that would be generated by one’s pursuit of military strength.” Escalating actions almost inevitably lead to escalating “counteractions,” he says. This is not just an abstract and theoretical claim. Sen describes how the conflict between India and Pakistan morphed into a potential nuclear catastrophe through each nation’s commitment to a nuclear weapons program. Sen also discusses the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the Soviet Union and the United States came very close to ending human life.

There is nothing theoretical about these events. But the problem is not limited to the destructive potential of arms races in general—or nuclear weapons proliferation in particular. Sen also notes that a government must divert a large amount of society’s resources away from other vitally important social goals to construct “the bomb.” He writes:

Recently, C. Rammanohar Reddy, a distinguished commentator, has estimated that the cost of nuclearization is something around half of one per cent of the gross domestic product per year. This might not sound like much, but it is large enough if we consider the alternative uses of these resources. For example, it has been estimated that the additional costs of providing elementary education for every child with neighborhood schools at every location in the country would cost roughly the same amount of money. The proportion of illiteracy in the Indian population is still about 40 percent, and it is about 55 percent in Pakistan.

Public education for every Indian child could be achieved if the amount of money spent on India’s nuclear weapons program was spent on developing a system of neighborhood schools. And it is important to recall, in this context, Sen’s comments about the importance of literacy in general, and female literacy in particular. By expending resources on a nuclear weapons program that makes Indians less secure, literacy levels in India are lower than they could be; Indian society is deeply divided between the children who receive a formal education and the children who do not; there is more childhood mortality; and the population of the country is continuing to grow at an unsustainable level. This is a gigantic loss to accept in exchange for no gain. Nor is Sen’s criticism here aimed at India alone. The mistake that is harming the civilians of India is also harming the civilians of Pakistan. The foreign policy of these nations is capturing the domestic policy of these nations—to terrible effect.

Sen develops this analysis in the context of South Asia, but this framework can be applied more generally. How much money has the United States spent on its nuclear weapons program since its inception? Or Russia? Or the other nuclear powers of the world? Or the states that might be seeking, but do not yet possess, nuclear weapons? And what opportunities have been lost because of these commitments? The answer to these questions is clearly: way too much. A program of nuclear disarmament—coupled with the redirection of this spending to global development goals, such as mandatory, universal primary schooling—clearly has a lot going for it. A less militaristic foreign policy can accomplish much.

Neal Leavitt, a College of General Studies humanities lecturer, is the author most recently of The Foreign Policy of John Rawls and Amartya Sen (Lexington Books, 2013), from which portions of this article are excerpted. He can be reached at leavittn@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


3 Comments on POV: Nuclear Armament Is a Lose/Lose

  • KB on 10.09.2013 at 6:23 am

    I would have to wonder though, if the idea of disarming is just as negative a venture for the United States or India. How much money would it cost the US to dismantle its arsenal? Where would those materials be stored, at at what cost both monetarily and environmentally.

    What about the potential for deterrence through mutually assured destruction, which is likely the primary reason that Russia backed down during the Cuban Missle Crisis. For the United States and India, this principle is what assures their security. Russia, and within a decade China, will pose a significant military threat to the United States, and both countries have aspirations of military and/or economic dominance of the global stage.

    India is faced with an ever growing Chinese nation that has already fought one conventional war with India. And Pakistan is a major threat to India, as it is unstable, poor, and with large populations of hard line Islamic extremists, the potential for nuclear weapons to be used as part of the will of Allah against Indian non-believers is something that should be seriously concerning for all in the region.

    I think expanding weapons programs is detrimental to other aspects of government spending and investment in other areas. However, dismantling our, and their, nuclear armaments would be foolhardy and the potential risk of being unarmed or under-armed is far greater a risk to the welfare of both nations. As the old saying goes, you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

    I for one am rather content to see our strategic nuclear capabilities maintained or improved as needed. I sleep comfortably at night knowing that the most powerful and well equipped military in the world is guarding our nation, and the fear of conventional or nuclear retaliation assures that comfort. And should the worst happen, I won’t see more than a millisecond of brilliant light before the end.

    • Norberto Romero on 10.09.2013 at 10:37 am

      Disarming seems a lot scarier than it actually sounds. Both economically, and in terms of security.

      To deal with the initial issue of costs, maintaining an arsenal is much more expensive than dismantling an arsenal. Unfortunately, like all weapons, “the bomb” doesn’t have only a start-up cost that comes with first building it, it also has to have periodic maintenance. These are things like upgrading weapon systems, delivery systems, giving maintenance to the material that will cause the bomb to explode, making sure that the locations that store these materials are secure and up-to-standard with environmental protections. All of these maintenance issues are increased exponentially for nuclear weapons. The United States alone spends about $60billion a year on maintaining its current nuclear arsenal. The world together would spend about $1trillion a decade. As for the concern with what to do the material, there are many alternatives. One of the most popular ones are downgrading the radioactive material and using it for nuclear energy. Megaton to Megawatts (M2M) is a program that does this. This is an alternative to the US 1) spending $60billion a year on maintaining an arsenal 2) spending less on more efficient energy and 3) resolving the issue of the leftover material.

      MAD theory is a pretty outdated theory. Multiple issues that come up with MAD are that it applies to a time in global affairs where competing economic systems made war cost less. In today’s world, the costs of declaring war on a nation are much higher than the Cold War days. Countries are invested more with the nations that they have political/cultural/military issues with making them less likely to go to war. To declare war on your trading partner is the same as declaring war on your own economy, which is not desirable. This becomes even more concrete while the world becomes more integrated. But, even if you wanted to grant some legitimacy to the MAD theory, the amount of weapons necessary to assure it is MUCH lower than what we have. There are roughly 17,000 weapons in the world, way too many.

      Your concern with unstable nations warring with each other brings another concern that come with nuclear weapons. The countries that you’re labeling as unstable and littered with extremists are countries that have the bomb! Political instability and confrontation is inevitable. The last thing that we’d want is an unstable regime to have access to these weapons of mass destruction. Another even more undesirable scenario would be material going missing during a regime change or change in a countries political structure. Both these scenarios are much more likely and have actually occurred (google missing nuclear materials) than a country actually using a nuke on another country.

      Another issue arising from these nuclear weapons comes with accidents. Accidents aren’t only someone accidentally pushing the button and launching them, it also comes through transportation of these materials. There are multiple incidents where aircraft carrying nuclear weapons, with no intention of using them (only had them for transportation purposes), failed and resulted in partial nuclear explosions, on american soil.

      Blatant and immediate disarmament is obviously not the way to resolve the nuclear weapon’s issue. What is needed is a controlled process that takes time. Global Zero is an organization that is dedicated to this, and has a concrete reduction and verification plan available. You can get info about it at globalzero.org if interested to see that the idea of disarmament isn’t as scary as it seems.

  • Obama says our nuclear bombs are a deterrent on 10.09.2013 at 6:52 am

    When Obama won the Noble Peace Price if you remember during his speech he said that our possession of the bomb was a deterrent against war. But apparently only we are allowed to have the bomb because only we are righteous and virtuous enough to know how to use it and when. I am sure all the people of Hiroshima agree whole heartedly that only we can be trusted with such power.

    There is an old saying, that God may have created man and woman but Sam Colt made them equal.

    Since we cannot bury our heads and pretend we do have the ability to make the bomb then we had better consider the fact the all nations like all men are created equal and that we must respect other nations and their right to come to the bargaining table from a position of real equality. Patronizing them by telling them you respect them but do not trust them with the bomb in nonsensical.

    SInce it is also true that some nations including ours “can” have personal motives, that will not always serve the needs of others we must accept the fact that asking them to destroy their bombs or destroying our own bombs as an example is not a realistic option either.

    Sadly while wishing for world peace may be a lofty pursuit in reality in is never going to happen.

    So as Obama aptly noted noted all countries are better off having the ability to defend themselves as in truth this is what deter others from taking advantage of them.

    When it comes to militaristic foreign policy the best offense is always a strong defense as this discourages aggressors from attacking in the first place.

    If we want to lead by example we should do as Teddy Roosevelt said and “walk softly and carry a big stick”.

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