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  • Nuclear Weapons: Unpredictable, Unthinkable, and ImmutableThe SAIS Review Editorial Board

Few issues in international affairs have so thoroughly captured the attention of the general public and experts alike. From major motion pictures like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Planet of the Apes to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cold War tensions, the Doomsday Clock, and the US President's ever-present "nuclear football," nuclear weapons remain an enduring issue.

Despite the ubiquitous fascination with nuclear weapons, however, there is much disagreement on nuclear weapons policy. A diverse array of opinions has emerged. Some have argued that they are an absolute evil and should be banned permanently. Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon falls into this camp: "We have a legal and moral obligation to rid our world of nuclear tests and nuclear weapons."1 Others, by contrast, have viewed nuclear weapons as righteous and praiseworthy: "Thank God for the atomic bomb," exclaimed the historian and critic, Paul Fussell.2

This debate has also extended well beyond the "good-bad" binary. Some have seen nuclear weapons as the most effective deterrent in international affairs and, therefore, as a necessary stabilizing force. At the height of the Cold War, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher endorsed this position unabashedly and wholeheartedly:

The fact is that nuclear weapons exist and the knowledge of how to make them cannot be erased. Conventional weapons have never been enough to deter war. Two world wars showed us that. They also showed us how terrible a war fought even with conventional weapons can be yet nuclear weapons have deterred not only nuclear war but conventional war in Europe as well. A world without nuclear weapons may be a dream but you cannot base a sure defence [sic] on dreams. Without far greater trust and confidence between East and West than exists at present, a world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us.3

Some, even, like the famed physicist and author of On Thermonuclear War, Herman Kahn, expressed a different opinion: "Nuclear weapons are intrinsically neither moral nor immoral, though they are more prone to immoral use than most weapons. But they can be used to accomplish moral objectives and can do [End Page 1] this in ways that are morally acceptable."4 With so many diverging opinions, it is, therefore, no wonder that consensus has eluded this policy debate.

What isn't up for debate, however, is the destructive power of nuclear weapons. In fact, the combination of larger explosive yields and more sophisticated delivery systems has magnified this power since nuclear weapons were first introduced in 1945. Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security recently conducted a study analyzing the consequences of an all-out nuclear war between the United States and Russia and found that such a nuclear exchange would result in "more than 90 million people dead and injured within the first few hours of the conflict."5 Additionally, it is now possible for individuals with internet access to simulate their own nuclear weapon strike on both a local and global scale and compute the number of deaths and injuries based on the yield of the nuclear weapon and the type of missiles launched.6,7 Simply put, this raw capacity for death—to which Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, alluded when he said, after witnessing the explosion of the first nuclear bomb in 1945, "I am become death, destroyer of worlds"—persists and continues to present a sobering reality.8

The question that now faces the international community—particularly those who possess nuclear weapons—is simple to ask, but profoundly difficult to answer: what comes next? These weapons of mass destruction have animated our collective thinking since the end of World War II, but have continued to collect dust in their various silos and nuclear submarines. Will this remain the case outside the bounds of the US-USSR Cold War and in our multipolar world? Will—or should—the next 75 years mirror the past 75 years? Whatever the answer, the role nuclear...