We opened up Pandora’s box on nuclear weapons decades ago, and returning to a pre-nuclear world is impossible. Once knowledge has been obtained and dispersed, it can no longer be destroyed. We must now figure out what to do with that knowledge in order to preserve our safety as best we can.
One possibility is a global nuclear disarmament, in which all nations that know how to make nuclear weapons volunteer to destroy their existing weapons and refrain from building more. Furthermore, in this case, it would be essential to dissuade other countries from learning how to build them.
It is easy to come up with a multitude of problems with this approach. The most obvious objection is that it is in each country’s best interest to renege on the promise and keep a few nuclear weapons around, just in case. (In slightly fancier terms, this solution is not a Nash equilibrium.) Keep in mind that the advantage of having nuclear weapons becomes much more pronounced when no one else has them, so this possibility is particularly tempting. Also, it’s very difficult to enforce this plan: is there really a way to guarantee that no one is cheating? More philosophically, to what extent is it acceptable to ban the pursuit of knowledge? (Clearly, there must be some limits on what we’re allowed to do in order to advance our collective knowledge, but it’s hard to agree on what they ought to be.)
Another possibility would be to discourage those countries that do not yet have nuclear technology from developing them, while allowing those countries that have already built them to keep them. Essentially, this is the current model. At least, the United States seems to be quite aggressive in its intentions of keeping nuclear weapons out of North Korea and various middle-Eastern nations considered to be unfriendly.
I think this idea is better than the last, but it is still far from ideal. We can easily imagine the following scenario taking place: an unauthorized nation secretly builds a nuclear weapon or attempts to do so. Due to the clandestine nature of this operation, certain standard precautions are not taken. The weapon then explodes, possibly due to an attack, causing widespread damage. Clearly, we would do well to avoid such a situation.
Instead, I propose the following solution. Allow any country that wishes to do so to develop a nuclear weapons program. However, we should not offer any assistance; such a country must work it out on its own.
Surely, this suggestion will elicit much criticism, so let me defend it a bit. Let me start by discussing why I do not wish our government to assist other nations in this particular pursuit. I am quite sure that in every country, there are individuals who are fond of science and wish for its progress. Some of these people are even prepared to embark on a research program to improve the state of current scientific knowledge. Sadly, some governments appear to be opposed to the progress of science. These are, largely, the nations about which we tend to be most concerned. I suspect, however, that these nations have no desire at all to be left out of the loop of having nuclear weapons. Having to fund science more will help to bring these countries up to modern standards. Furthermore, I am hopeful that a government that funds a nuclear weapons program would also find it essential or at least prudent to fund other scientific research and education. Only good can come of that.
We may also be concerned that if many countries have nuclear weapons, then some of these countries might be inclined to use them against their enemies. I believe, however, that this will not be the case. National leaders are fully capable of understanding the ramifications of using them: there would be massive retaliation, and they stand only to lose by using them. To use slightly fancier terminology, using nuclear weapons is a dominated strategy, assuming that people value their own survival very highly.
One might wonder, however, if leaders of other countries necessarily do share our high value on survival. After all, we have seen recently that there are plenty of people who are more than happy to blow themselves up if they can take a few more people with them. Hence, this is a reasonable point. Yet, we haven’t yet seen leaders of countries, or even of terrorist groups, who are excited by the prospect of an early death; instead, they are quick to volunteer others to do such tasks for them. And it’s easy to see why: those with little survival instinct (or, especially, a strong survival disinstinct) are liable to die before they acquire enough power. So, at least judging from past trends and a bit of logic, this is not something that ought to cause us endless worry.
Along the same lines, we could wonder whether terrorist groups might manage to build nuclear weapons; if they have no particular national allegience, it may be hard to retaliate against an attack. I suspect that this will not be the case: building them is expensive and probably far beyond the budget of even the best-funded groups.
There are some benefits of allowing countries to have nuclear weapons. For one thing, it grants them a certain degree of autonomy: each country would have at least a bit of leverage for dealing with bullies. Granted, the US government and other similar governments may prefer not to grant these countries autonomy so that they can continue to act as bullies with little potential downside. Still, these countries may find it beneficial not to have to play peace-maker between other countries. So, there might be some benefit for current superpowers as well.
To me, therefore, this appears to be the best option.
I believe myself to be incapable of discussing this topic without mentioning a book by my favorite novelist, Katherine Neville. My interpretation of The Magic Circle is that knowledge can only be dangerous when it is available only to a select few. In order to dissipate danger, it is essential that it be widely available. I think I am roughly 95% in agreement with this thesis, without having any serious potential counterexamples, so I invite you to help sway me one way or the other!
One other point that I believe is important to mention is that, while nuclear weapons are probably mostly instruments of war and not of peace and are certainly designed as such (even if they are not necessarily used in that way, they tend to be perceived in this manner), the technology that is used to build them might also be useful for more agreeable purposes. It would be of tremendous benefit to society if we could build nuclear fusion power plants; they could provide energy efficiently, cheaply, and cleanly. Scientists and engineers who work on nuclear weaponry may discover something, either accidentally or intentionally, that helps us to build these power plants.
So, I think that allowing countries to have nuclear weapons is a good idea, and this plan will promote peace more than warfare. This plan would also encourage scientific inquiry, especially in regions of the world in which it is currently frowned upon. And, it might help us ameliorate our current energy problems. If you disagree, and I’m sure some of you do, please tear my arguments to shreds.