The Nation's Ultimate Insurance Policy: Nuclear Weapons
Since its January 5 test of a thermonuclear weapon, North Korea has conducted additional tests of its ballistic missile delivery systems. According to South Korean media, it is believed that the Kim regime will conduct another underground nuclear test in the near future.
If this news were not concerning enough, China recently warned its neighbors against interfering with its militarization of a number of atolls in the South China Sea, which are being transformed into small islands unsettlingly close to the Philippines and Vietnam.
Simultaneously, Russia is sabre rattling in Eastern Europe with an increasingly aggressive posture that leads many within NATO to believe that the possibility for the use of tactical nuclear weapons is at a twenty year high.. For the United States, this is not good news because Russia maintains a clear superiority in tactical nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
As Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work noted in congressional testimony, “While we seek a world without nuclear weapons, we face the hard reality that Russia and China are rapidly modernizing their already-capable nuclear arsenals, and North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them against the continental United States.”
This rather glum news only highlights the importance of the American nuclear arsenal at a time when many are calling for the President and Congress to allow the existing arsenal to decay into retirement. The problem with this thinking is that not a single adversary of the United States with the ability to threaten the nation with grave destruction seems to be willing to allow their own nuclear arsenals decay into retirement.
Secretary Work made this point clear, “The choice right now is modernizing or losing deterrent capability in the 2020s and 2030s.” He added, “That's the stark choice we're faced with.” For those familiar with the intelligence concerning the nuclear developments of our adversaries, unilateral reductions and further disarmament are a non-starter.
Unfortunately, the misleading ideas of those who advocate “a world free of nuclear weapons” are receiving serious contemplation despite the fact that dollar for dollar no weapon system the United States maintains in its arsenal provides the nation greater security.
Advocates of the nuclear arsenal do not help their own cause when they cede the moral high ground to nuclear abolitionists by lamenting the very creation of nuclear weapons. All too often even the staunchest of nuclear weapons proponent will say, “I wish nuclear weapons had never been invented.” This is followed with, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
For those who value human life and abhor war, the existence of nuclear weapons has done more to promote peace that anything else. They are likely the single greatest tool of peace man has ever invented.
Nuclear weapons are valuable in promoting peace and stability because they play a significant role in the approximately ninety percent reduction in conflict related fatalities that began in 1945 and continue to the present. Let me explain.
According to an analysis conducted by the U.S. Strategic Command, between 1600 and 1945 an average of 1-2% of the world’s population perished as a result of conflict every year—combatants and civilians. After the invention of the atomic bomb, that percentage declined to around one tenth to three tenths of one percent of the global population. While there are a number of variables that can affect conflict related fatalities, the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons is the single most important variable.
The simple fact is nuclear weapons deter their possessors from waging war against one another. They not only deter nuclear war, but conventional war as well. Since 1945 there has been a conspicuous absence of great power wars. This is no accident nor is it because mankind has become more pacific.
The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons does not end with nuclear powers. The United States and the Soviet Union, for example, often exerted a strong influence over their allies and client states, preventing smaller-scale conflicts from expanding or preventing them altogether. As a result, the past seven decades have seen a significant decline in interstate conflict.
In short, nuclear weapons give otherwise optimistic political leaders pause when it comes to waging any form of war. This point is often overlooked by those who argue that nuclear war is unlikely. Simply stated, the psychological effect nuclear weapons have causes nuclear powers to reconsider the costs and benefits of conflict. At the most basic level, nuclear weapons deter conflict and save lives.
They also have another positive effect. Nuclear weapons enable countries to spend less on defense and more on the welfare of their citizens—contrary to the assertions of nuclear abolitionists.
For example, during the Cold War, Europe’s NATO members were able to maintain a conventional force that was inferior to the Soviet Union’s. This was made possible by the American nuclear arsenal, which provided an umbrella of protection to member states. It effectively deterred the Soviet Union from using superior conventional forces for an invasion of Western Europe. Thus, Western Europe was able to focus on post-war recovery and improving the daily lives of average citizens. This was only possible because of nuclear weapons.
Had the atomic bomb never been invented, the nations of Western Europe would have spent far greater treasure on conventional military capabilities after World War II. This would have squeezed spending in areas such as education, healthcare, and housing. For Americans who value social welfare spending, nuclear weapons play a significant role at home and abroad in making additional funds available for the very programs they value.
The U.S. has unquestionably benefited from a cost-effective nuclear arsenal. With an annual cost of approximately $25-30 billion (2016), the entire nuclear enterprise costs a mere five percent of the defense budget, which is itself only seventeen percent of federal spending and less than eight percent of governmental spending. By preventing World War III for less than one tenth of one percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, the nuclear arsenal has allowed the United States to focus on economic growth and focus federal spending on education, national parks, roads, and elsewhere.
If we think of nuclear weapons as an insurance policy, which is really the purpose they serve, the average American car owner will spend $650-1150 per year on auto insurance, while that same person will spend approximately $221 on the nuclear arsenal—the ultimate sovereignty insurance. Similarly, the average American worker will spend—through employee and employer contributions—an estimated $6,025 in health insurance costs, all while still paying $221 for the very insurance that allows Americans to focus on more pleasant pursuits than a devastating attack on the United States.
Arguing that nuclear weapons are too expensive and that modernizing the force is unaffordable only makes sense in Beltway math. It does not make sense elsewhere in the United States. It is worth noting that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports that these two programs lose approximately twice as much money ($65 billion annually) each year to waste, fraud, and abuse as the nuclear arsenal costs American taxpayers. Yet articles are rarely written decrying this travesty.
While it may be unpleasant to view nuclear weapons in a positive light because of their ability to devastate entire nations, the simple truth is that this capability is what makes them such an effective insurance policy. Perhaps it is time the nation’s nuclear arsenal and those who operate it were given the credit they deserve for promoting the peace and stability that Americans have enjoyed for seventy years.