A number of nuclear strategy experts have agreed that the only sensible response to China’s alarming new buildup of nuclear weapons is for the U.S. itself to build more and better weapons.
The apparent purpose of this buildup on our part is first to ensure that our deterrent is ironclad, and second it is argued as the only viable way to force the Chinese (and perhaps even the Russians, eventually) to the arms control table. After all, it worked before, when President Ronald Reagan outspent the Russians and helped end the first cold war.
There are three factors suggesting that this supposedly thoughtful establishment policy is performatively contradictory and growing more so.
First, there is the dark paradox of having the weapons at the ready on hair-trigger precisely so that they will never be used. It is already a kind of miracle that we have been able to make it through decades of nuclear confrontation without making a fatal mistake (though the catalog of known near-misses is profoundly sobering).
Second, nuclear winter. Carefully designed computer models predict that it would only take about a hundred detonations over large cities to raise tons of soot into the upper atmosphere sufficient to cause a global freeze that would destroy most agriculture for a decade.
And third, opportunity costs. Together, the three superpowers are planning trillions in spending to upgrade their arsenals both in terms of quantity and “quality” when the world is crying out for funds for a variety of issues, from Covid to climate.
If nuclear weapons could resolve the present tensions over Taiwan and in Ukraine, someone would presumably already have used them.
The nuclear nations are stuck in a system which has no exit, no good outcome—unless they realize their common interest in change. But someone must make the first move that initiates a possible virtuous circle. Why not the U.S.?
Once strategists disenthrall themselves of the supposed necessities of deterrence, a new picture of a shared self-interest in moving beyond the nuclear age may come into focus.
Winslow Myers is author of ‘Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.’