The Role of Nuclear Weapons in Global Security.

In this exclusive interview, we talk to Joseph Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund and expert advisor to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. We discuss the role of nuclear weapons in global security, the threat they pose to humanity, and why we must move towards a world free of the nuclear threat.

Even the most rational individual can fall prey to fear, and as Kurt Riezler identified (in the American Journal of Sociology, 1944, Volume XLIX No. 6), “…rational man is the heir of a long period of relative security in which he accumulated a great many matters of course to be taken for granted.

This dubious training may be partly responsible for his vulnerability. His scheme of order is rational only in theory. It is not enough to posit a natural cause. We must know it. The causes of economic or social crisis in our time are of infinite complexity. For the mere law of causality nobody can derive any guidance for action. After a period of peaceful prosperity the relative order of economic life becomes the absolute order of the world. Many may accept the fact that there are, and apparently must be, business cycles, though he fails to understand their causes. A little more of a slump, and many things happen for which no place is provided in his orderly world. He no longer knows what can or is likely to happen. A halo of indefinite fear strangely blurs his distinct reasons for definite fear.” In Riezler’s view, fear must be of something or for something. One could be scared of illness, for example, or for his family. Riezler points out that, “the relation of the first something to the second something and their respective relevance determine the particular kind and intensity of our fear.” One could contextualise this in the theatre of security, considering the fear of attack or for his own security.

Historically, where we consider civilisations having definite enemies at their borders, this fear was from a known enemy in a known direction, using (often) known weapons (although there were a few exceptions). During the twentieth century, however, fear changed its form as we entered an environment punctuated by economic, social and political crises- more powerful for their vagueness. As Riezler describes of man’s reaction to the anxiety from these threats, “as there is no definite danger upon which to act, it paralyses action. As the shapeless daughter of the shapeless night, it calls in the dark on the child or the lonely man. It seems to be an eminently individual experience.” As people celebrated the end of World War I on November 18th 1918 (Armistice Day), sensing the United Stated had won a war to end all wars- they didn’t realise these celebrations preceded the bloodiest century of human history, in which over 270million people (a conservative estimate) would be killed in local, national, and global conflicts in which horrors which previously only existed in the realms of fiction writers became real.

Throughout the twentieth century, as these horrors manifest, the level of fear increased dramatically against a diversity fixed and vague enemies- and as history has always shown, man’s fear leads him to innovate in the way he defends against (and attacks) his enemies, leading him, through this period, to progress from elementary weaponry, through huge innovations in air and naval power, through to the creation of the atomic bomb– which for the first time, provided humanity with a weapon sufficiently powerful to pose an existential threat to the existence of its own species. The bomb cannot be un-invented, and as we sit here, a state of permanent check-mate exists between nations who have nuclear weapons, those without, and many combinations thereof. Given the propensity of our species for conflict, it is important to consider where we go from here.

In this exclusive interview, we talk to Joseph Cirincione, President of Ploughshares fund, “the largest grant-making foundation in the U.S. whose exclusive mission is peace and security funding.” Who, since their inception have given over $60million to individuals and organisation dedicated to making an impact towards a nuclear weapon free world.

[bios]Joseph Cirincione joined Ploughshares Fund as president in March 2008. He is author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and served previously as senior vice president for national security and international policy at the Centre for American Progress and as director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for eight years. He worked for nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives as a professional staff member of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Government Operations, and served as staff director of the bipartisan Military Reform Caucus. He teaches at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Foreign Service and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His previous books include two editions of Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, (2005 and 2002), and previous reports include Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (co-author, March 2005) and WMD in Iraq (co-author, January 2004). He is the author of over 200 articles on defence issues, the producer of two DVDs on proliferation, the former publisher of the comprehensive proliferation website, Proliferation News, and is a frequent commentator in the media. In the past two years has delivered over 150 speeches around the world and appeared in the 2006 award-winning documentary, Why We Fight. Cirincione is an expert advisor to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, chaired by former Secretary of Defence William J. Perry and former Secretary of Energy and Secretary of Defence James R. Schlesinger. He also serves as a member of the Advisory Committee to the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, headed by former Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) and former Senator Jim Talent (R-MO).[/bios]

Q: Why do Nuclear Weapons exist?

[Joseph Cirincione] Nuclear weapons were invented out of fear. The United States was afraid that Hitler was developing an atomic weapon, and they had to get one to deter him from ever using it. When the U.S. Manhattan Project that built the bomb began, no-one ever thought we would use a weapon like this; it was considered beyond the pale—a weapon that would indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. But by the time the bomb was completed, that kind of carnage had become common place in World War II and the atomic bomb was then seen as little more than a bigger firebomb—the kind that been used on Tokyo and Dresden. Nuclear weapons continue to be built for basically two reasons: power and prestige. In almost every case where a country has decided to acquire a nuclear weapon they have done it either for power—the power to protect their country from external threats or a desire to project their power in the region. They could have also done it for purposes of prestige—think France and India who didn’t have security threats that justified a nuclear programme. But in both cases they were seen as the totem of great power status—France, which was losing its, and India which wanted to acquire it.

Q: Whether through state-sanctioned use in wartime, or terrorism- what would be the effects of a nuclear device being detonated?

[Joseph Cirincione] Even though we still have approximately twenty thousand hydrogen bombs in the arsenals of the United States and Russia (many of them ready to use at a moment’s notice) the two risks that most experts think are the greatest and most likely are the risks of a single bomb being used by a terrorist group or the risk of a regional war involving dozens of weapons—for example between India and Pakistan. The nuclear terrorism threat is uniformly judged to be the most urgent threat. In the national security strategy of the United States, it is names as the number one threat to US national security. The danger is that a small group like Al-Qaeda could get a bomb or the material to build a bomb that would be a Hiroshima size weapon, and that they would detonate it in a major city.

The result would be immediately one of the greatest catastrophes since World War II. Hundreds of thousands would die. It would cause trillions of dollars of immediate economic damage as buildings were vaporised. The real damage, though, would come in the days and weeks after, when there would undoubtedly be a global panic. A terrorist group that had detonated a bomb in a major city—and it doesn’t really matter where, it could be New York, or Mumbai, or London—would almost certainly claim that they had other devices, and that they would detonate those unless their demands were met. You could imagine quickly the reaction of the populous that would start to flee urban centres and be insisting that governments carry out draconian measures to seize boats, planes, and trucks to search for a device. What this would mean for the global economy is equally profound.

Transportation would come to a stand-still. In the days after 9/11, in the United States and other countries, planes were grounded. In the days after a terrorist attack, ships would be stopped and sea ports would be closed. International trade would be paralysed. It would most likely plunge the world into a serious recession that would take years to recover from, and that’s just for starters.

The environmental effects from one nuclear bomb, apart from the immediate three or four mile diameter destructive zone, would be mainly from fall-out and radiation, which would be serious, but not long lasting. The real environmental damage comes when you talk about regional wars. With the new computer tools we now have, scientists have calculated that a regional war in say, South Asia, which involved as few as one hundred nuclear bombs—both India and Pakistan have at least one hundred weapons each—would result in firestorms in their urban centres that would put so much smoke and particulate into the atmosphere that the earth would be covered in a cloud that would reflect sunlight back into space and reduce global temperatures but two to three degrees for several years. This would kill most food crops on the planet, resulting in massive famines and starvation.

Q: What is the moral (or philosophical) basis for the existence of weapons which pose an existential threat?

[Joseph Cirincione] The atomic bombs that were used in Nagasaki and Hiroshima are primitive by today’s standards. Modern weapons that are deployed are ten to thirty times the size of those bombs and are hydrogen bombs or fusion devices. When the hydrogen bomb was first proposed in the early 1950’s, the scientific panel in charge of US nuclear research recommended against it, unanimously. They called it a weapon of genocide whose only purpose would be to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. The fear in the cold war was so great that President Truman over-ruled his advisors and built the hydrogen bomb. A few years later, the Russians followed suit and these are the devices that now make up the bulk of the US, Russian, British, French, and Chinese forces. There really is a very weak moral justification for these weapons that mainly relies on the concept of deterrence—that their purpose is to prevent another country from attacking you with them. That case is so weak that you see major global institutions like the U.S. Catholic Church condemn nuclear weapons as immoral and condemn the strategy of deterrence as immoral; that even if you are attacked, there is no moral justification for retaliating to that attack with a bomb that would kill hundreds of thousands of people that had no role in their government’s decision to launch the initial assault. On debates of the morality of these weapons, it becomes very difficult for politicians to defend this in any way other than to say it’s a terrible fact of the nuclear age—citing that they are forced to keep these weapons by the terrible logic of the nuclear age. They abandon any moral defence of them.

After World War II there were two reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first was, “this is terrible, we must prevent it from ever happening again.” The second one was, “we have to get more of these weapons.” In the first few years—‘46, ‘47, ’48—it was the anti-nuclear sentiment that dominated. That’s why you saw the United Nations take up as its very first order of business a resolution to eliminate nuclear weapons. That’s why you saw Harry Truman propose a nuclear elimination plan in 1946. As the Cold War began in earnest though, you saw the second view dominate. As Russia acquired nuclear weapons and the arms-race launched in full force in the 1950s, the US went from around two hundred nuclear weapons in 1949 to around 20,000 nuclear weapons by 1960.

Q: What is the role of Nuclear Weapons in civil defence and military strategy?

[Joseph Cirincione] Almost every state that has these weapons says they are purely defensive. The new nuclear posture of the United States says that the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to prevent a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. You have some countries like China who have pledged never to use nuclear weapons first. Many countries leave open though the option of using these weapons in non-nuclear circumstances—that is, if they were necessary in a conventional military battle or if they were necessary to counter-attack chemical or biological weapons. Military forces still find some utility for small numbers of these weapons. The good news is that since the middle of the 1980s we’ve seen a regular but inexorable trend away from nuclear weapons with massive declines in global stockpiles and sharp reductions in the number of countries who have or were considering nuclear programmes. With the end of the cold-war, the justification for keeping tens of thousands of these weapons evaporated and we now see both the United States and Russia getting down to around 1500 weapons in their operational forces. The trend will probably continue that way until we get to the low hundreds. That’s the good news about where we are these days.

Q: What is the role of Nuclear Weapons in terrorism?

[Joseph Cirincione] There’s a strong connection between the maintenance of nuclear weapons in state arsenals and the risk of nuclear terrorism. Terrorists cannot build a nuclear weapon from scratch; they can’t make the core of the bomb—the highly enriched uranium or plutonium required for the device. That requires massive factories and billions of dollars of investment plus Giga-Watts of energy. But if they can get the material from a state that’s already built it, or a bomb itself, then it’s relatively easy for them to construct a primitive Hiroshima style device, smuggle it into an urban centre, and detonate it. We know that Al-Qaeda is trying to do this. We know that Osama Bin Laden had meetings with Pakistani nuclear scientists in the months before 9/11. We know that Al-Qaeda has tried to buy highly enriched uranium and was foiled only when the purchase turned out to be a scam. We know that clerics within the Al-Qaeda movement have issued fatwa declaring it the duty of Muslims to acquire a nuclear weapon to strike back at the United States and other countries. So they are trying to do this. If the countries with nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials insist on keeping large stockpiles of these weapons and materials around, it’s only a matter of time before the demand hooks up with the source. Many experts believe that if we keep on with our current policies, there is a high likelihood of a nuclear terrorist incident within the next ten years.

We see that terrorist groups are looking for high-impact events now. This is the era we are in—an era of apocalyptic terrorism. Fortunately, they are still somewhat limited in their capability, so it is hard for them even to carry out a bomb attack on cargo planes, but they are trying. As long as conflicts in highly volatile regions such as the Middle East and South Asia continue, and as economic conditions make it difficult, particularly for young men, to find alternative and gainful employment, then you are going to see a steady supply of radicalised individuals coming into these terrorist movements. Some even join with some of the skills that are required in the modern era, particularly computer skills, engineering, physics and others that can be applied to these terrorist strategies. I expect to see an increase in cyber-warfare. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it linked with attempts to steal nuclear material—that is, a cyber attack to shutdown the security fences at a facility, allowing a truck to enter and scoop-up radioactive material. I’m personally surprised that we have not seen the detonation of a so-called “dirty bomb,” which is a conventional bomb that is laced with radioactive material and that produces not a nuclear explosion (a mushroom cloud), but a cloud of radioactive dust that could contaminate tens of blocks of a downtown area. That kind of weapon is relatively simple for a terrorist group to make. I would expect to see that kind of nuclear terrorist attack before we see a full-on Hiroshima style explosion.

Q: Looking at the political landscape- why are some states permitted to have nuclear weapons, and not others, and are there any global nuclear conflict flashpoints?

[Joseph Cirincione] The reasons countries don’t get nuclear weapons turn out to be the mirror-images of why they do. That is, there are one hundred and eighty three countries in the world that have signed the non-proliferation treaty, and promised never to acquire nuclear weapons. Well, if nuclear weapons were so great, why would they make that pledge? They calculate that it’s in their own security interests not to have weapons, and to make sure that none of their neighbours have nuclear weapons. They’ve decided that their prestige is enhanced by being a non-nuclear state rather than being a nuclear-weapons state. So you see all the countries that have declared their continents to be a nuclear weapons free zone—nobody has nuclear weapons or programmes there. It’s the same in Africa and several other key regions of the world. What you realise is that we have two phenomena that are still promoting the illusion that nuclear weapons can provide security or prestige. We have the Cold War over-hang: these twenty two or so thousand nuclear weapons we have left over from the Cold War. And we have major areas of unresolved conflict that are still giving rise to proliferation imperatives—in order to protect myself from attack I need to have a nuclear weapon. You see this in the arc-of-crisis that runs from the Middle East through South Asia to North East Asia.

There aren’t really nuclear concerns outside that arc-of-crisis and that tells you something about how you have to convince other countries not to get nuclear weapons. You have to resolve the underlying crises that might motivate them. The efforts to reduce the desire and drive for nuclear weapons have been so successful over the past few years that we have gotten rid of most of the aspiring states. More countries have given up nuclear weapons or programmes in the past twenty-five years than have tried to acquire them, and that includes Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South-Africa, Libya, and Iraq. All of whom either had nuclear programmes or actual weapons and have given them up. We are down to the last two hard cases: Iran and North Korea. And they are really hard, which is where the concern is. If you can stop the programmes there, you can largely resolve the proliferation problem—you can largely resolve the risk of new countries getting these weapons. If you fail, and those countries do acquire or solidify their status as nuclear states, what you will likely see is a cascade of proliferation as their neighbours hatch their capabilities. There would be great pressure on South Korea or Japan to match the capability of North Korea. In the Middle East it’s even worse, with the rivals of Iran that would try to match whatever nuclear capability Iran acquired. That would mean Egypt, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia, and maybe the U.A.E seeking to acquire at least a nuclear weapons capability and maybe even the bomb itself. We are at a tipping point. It will go one way or the other.

The nuclear weapons capability of any state always link to the greater strategic needs of that state. This goes back to the first nuclear power, the United States, who acquired the weapon first to prevail in a war, but secondly as an element necessary to project U.S. power around the world and to protect the empire the U.S. had built during the fighting of World War II. You see that now in the debate over whether to get rid of nuclear weapons. One of the major reasons countries don’t want to get rid of nuclear weapons, whether that be the United States, or Russia, or France is the fear that this would weaken them globally or that they would be seen as a weaker power and would lose their edge over other nuclear and non-nuclear powers. These weapons are therefore still tied very closely to elite views of what national power is. This is weakening and it is becoming a smaller and smaller component of the assessment of power, but it’s still there.

Israel has had nuclear weapons since about 1968. Israel acquired them because it thought they were absolutely necessary for its survival as a nation and as a counter-balance to the superior military force of its neighbours who were trying to destroy Israel. The security threat was real and they saw this as part of the solution. As it turns out, Israel has now got more conventional military power than any of its neighbours or any combination of its neighbours and so nuclear weapons are less of a security need for Israel and more of a security threat. It’s the one weapon that could destroy Israel. When we consider nuclear weapons within Israel’s security, they have not served their main purpose of defending the country against attack; Israel has been attacked since it acquired nuclear weapons and it bears no relationships to their main threat, which is the conflict with Palestine. It’s coming to the point where Israel has to consider taking its nuclear bombs out of the basement and putting them on the negotiating table, using its nuclear arsenal as a tool for negotiating a security arrangement that would prevent any country in the Middle East from getting the one weapon that would destroy Israel. That won’t happen any time soon, but I think it would eventually have to. Nuclear weapons still have a very powerful psychological role in Israel even though they don’t serve a strategic purpose. If we can make progress towards resolving the Israeli/Palestinian crisis and containing the Iranian programme, then I think in talks aimed at establishing a new security regime in the Middle East where each country respects the territorial integrity of the other countries, you will have to talk about nuclear weapons and it will become more likely that Israel will be willing to bargain away an arsenal that no longer serves its purpose for a security regime that does.

Q: And how does nuclear weaponry sit alongside nuclear as a route for renewable energy?

[Joseph Cirincione] There’s no question that it would be far easier to eliminate nuclear weapons if there were no nuclear power—if there were no commercial use of nuclear technology. As long as nuclear power exists, we have to make sure that it’s controlled in such a way that it does not allow countries to acquire nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful civilian programme. The problem isn’t the reactors, it’s what goes into and comes out of the reactors. The same facilities that can enrich uranium to low levels for reactor fuel can enrich them to high levels for bombs. This is the problem we have with Iran. They are building an enrichment facility that they say is for fuel, but do you trust them? Do you trust any nation? The answer has got to be to put greater controls over the fuel cycle, either by international ownership of all the uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities of the world, or through multi-national control in the way Europe does it, where three countries (UK, Germany, and the Netherlands) share control over enrichment so that no one country can use it for weapons purposes. This is the way we have to go. If nuclear power is going to play a role in solving one of the great global threats—global warming—we have to make sure that the process doesn’t exacerbate the threat of nuclear weapons.

Q: Why is there a need for nuclear weapons to be eliminated? and is ‘global zero’ a realistic goal?

[Joseph Cirincione] The answer is very simple. As long as any nation has nuclear weapons, other nations will want them. This is a finding of the recent Australia-Japan commission, which picks up on a theme first articulated by the Canberra commission of 1995. It is what some people call the “proliferation imperative”. If you believe that the threat of nuclear terrorism and new nuclear states is the number one security threat to your security as a nation, then you have to do everything in your power to reduce or eliminate that threat, and you have got to move towards a world with zero nuclear weapons. There is no way to ensure that other countries will not acquire the weapons to destroy you, if you insist on holding on to hundreds of those weapons yourself. If NATO, for example, as the most powerful military alliance in history, insists that nuclear weapons are essential to its security, then why aren’t nuclear weapons essential for other countries? Why exactly can’t Iran have a nuclear weapon? Or Burma? Or Brazil even! The only way to stop a nuclear weapon from being detonated is to get rid of them. It is foolish to think that we can keep these weapons lying around indefinitely and that they won’t be used, they will be.

Looking at global zero, this is absolutely a realistic target. Most of the world is already at global zero—one hundred and eighty three countries in the world don’t have nuclear weapons and don’t think that the other countries should have them either. There was a new poll published by the Associated Press in the United States just yesterday that found that 67% of the American public think all the countries in the world should eliminate nuclear weapons. When you ask them whether the United States and its allies should keep nuclear weapons but stop everyone else from getting them only 16% felt that that was a realistic policy; but that is in fact our existing policy, which is unrealistic! Getting to global zero is the more realistic and logical solution to the problem and we’re heading in that direction. There is a growing bipartisan consensus that we have to reduce our nuclear weapons arsenals and move in the direction of eliminating nuclear weapons. We now see people who formerly built nuclear empires in their respective countries arguing that it is now the time to take it down. This includes people as respected as former Secretary of State George Schulz, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Colin Powell—all of whom say that we have to move towards eliminating nuclear weapons. The trend is clearly in that direction. There is, in fact, a great consensus on the goal of moving down to low hundreds of weapons in U.S. and Russian arsenals. After that, it becomes harder, and no one really knows how you get from low hundreds to zero, but that direction itself is enough for now. As long as we are moving down there, as we go to fewer and fewer nuclear weapons, it will become clear how to construct the verification and security regimes that would be require to eliminate those last few. I think nuclear weapons, just as we have for all practical purposes eliminated biological and chemical weapons from the major powers, must be eliminated too.


As we sit here today, nuclear weaponry still exists as the fiercest of our arsenal worldwide, posing a real and immediate threat to the existence of our species. This is not to say that a weapon of greater destructive magnitude will not be created; if history has taught us anything, it has taught us never to under-estimate human ingenuity in the context of creating death in greater and more apocalyptic ways. In 1920, if one had written that man would face a weapon creating temperatures as hot as the surface of the sun, winds of over a thousand kilometres an hours, causing the instant incineration of almost one hundred thousand people, such writings would have been considered the realm of science-fiction. Twenty five years later, in 1945- two of these events happened in quick succession at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, taking these writings from science fiction into reality.

Nuclear weapons (as much as walls) are a proxy for our fear, and as long as fear remains, so too will this permanent state of checkmate and opacity which means that many of the world’s countries are in a constant nuclear readiness; with very little provocation being required to create a short but profound conflict.

In a study of soldiers in Germany following World War I (published as ‘The Human Nature of Light and Psychopathology‘, Cambridge University Press, 1940) K. Goldstein noted (of soldiers suffering psychological effects from war), “Diverse faculties of these men, necessary for ordinary living, have been impaired. They are fettered to the particular order of an environment of extreme rigidity and narrowness, unable to detach themselves from, or to move beyond, this order. Any change, disturbance, or new task threatens the whole of this order and leads to a ‘catastrophic reaction’ in which their neurosis recurs. As this order is the basis of any action they are capable of, any change finds them helpless and throws them into a kind of fear which, in the extreme case, may well be worse and more total than the fear of death to a healthy mind. It swallows up their world. Their scheme of order remains precarious even when not challenged by any event. It is an individual scheme, lacking any social support. As they sense [their environment’s] precariousness and suspect an impending change, they fear an attack of their fear, half-consciously aware of a constant threat.”

It takes little imagination to see the paradigm between the above and the behaviours of states and non-state actors (such as terrorists) in global theatre of conflict, and less imagination to realise that a society scarred by a century of conflict, where more were killed than inhabit the entire United States today, a sense of constant-threat and fear would be ingrained in our psyche.

It is clearly a moral fallacy to suggest that humanity, with these sicknesses, should possess weapons capable of causing its own extinction- and more so, an impossibility to think that we will ever become free of these fears (and hence these weapons) unless we create open dialogue about the common goals we have share, and how we can use those to rid our society of such intractable fears and (largely) immaterial differences.

As Hinde and Rotblat wrote in their 2003 book War No More, “The threat of extinction of the human race hangs like the sword of Damocles. We cannot allow the miraculous products of billions of years of evolution come to an end. We are beholden to our ancestors, to all the previous generations, for bequeathing us the enormous cultural riches that we enjoy. It is our sacred duty to pass them on to future generations. The continuation of the human species must be ensured. We owe an allegiance to humanity.”

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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