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Winning At Russian Roulette – A Student’s Thoughts on Nuclear Containment and the Future of Global Conflict

7 Jun

Editor’s Note:  The following is by Carly Millenson, who spent a year in the GAPW office working for Women in International Security.  Carly has written previously on what she sees as major security and other threats to her generation.  She is soon off to school at Princeton.  

Most games have many players, but only one winner. Russian roulette has several winners and only one very unlucky loser. When it comes to nuclear diplomacy, if someone pulls the trigger when the chamber is loaded, we all lose. So far we’ve been lucky, but like any smart gambler we’re best off quitting while we’re ahead. Already, the number of states armed with nuclear weapons has risen to eight or nine, depending who you ask. Other nations are working to develop nuclear capabilities, and still other are “the turn of a screw” away from acquiring nuclear weapons, should the need arise. As the number of states with nuclear capabilities grows, so too does the risk of a deadly accident occurring.

Tensions reaching a breaking point, a bluff gone wrong, a tragic misunderstanding – any of these scenarios could lead to the breakout of nuclear conflict on a regional or global scale. As the number of players increases, so too does the risk of a conflict or misunderstanding leading to the use of nuclear weapons. Of course, no one believes that nuclear conflict is beneficial for global security or stability. However, unfortunately conflicts between states frequently occur and when nations fight people die. Weapons intended as a warning can easily end up being deployed in such a tense situation. As the number of nuclear armed states grows, the possibility of nuclear weapons being used during a conflict becomes close to a near certainly according to The Dangers of A Nuclear Iran, an article in Foreign Affairs by field expert Eric S. Edelman. As an international community we have already accepted the use of guns and conventional bombs in warfare. Furthermore, despite strenuous condemnation of the use of such brutal tactics, chemical weapons were deployed in Syria and may exist elsewhere. Is nuclear warfare something that is almost destined to occur?

This question seems almost ridiculous. The answer – an emphatic no – has been instilled into international political culture since Cold War days. However, it merits analysis. Some believe that nuclear containment is a losing battle and that it is pointless fight against the rising tide. According to proponents of this viewpoint, we would do better to accept the fact that like machine guns and fighter planes, nuclear devices will not remain elite, little used weapons forever. Some even feel that by evening the playing field nuclear proliferation may prevent conflict. However, unlike conventional and perhaps even biological, or chemical arms, the effects of nuclear devices are incredibly long term, lasting long after the conflict that sparked their use has ended. Thus, once a weapon is deployed future generations will have to deal with the result of that fateful decision long after the rationale behind it is no longer applicable to the global situation. A large-scale nuclear conflict could wreak havoc on an unimaginable scale and even smaller nuclear conflicts or nuclear terrorism would take horrific toll and would forever destroy what remains of the accepted rules of combat. Perhaps it is inevitable that a nuclear conflict will occur, but if there is even a slim chance to prevent even some of this carnage, isn’t it our duty to seize that option?

Assuming that the use of nuclear weapons is not in any way acceptable, and urging that the international community do everything in its power to stand against such use; this in itself accomplishes nothing. The glaring unspoken question that seems to permeate current events today seems to be how much we care about containment? The problem with secret military bases is that they are secret, and thus intrinsically hard to effectively regulate. Sanctions, while certainly effective do not guarantee that promises to halt nuclear weapons construction are true. Thus, we return to the central question – are we willing to live with nuclear warfare and if not, how far will we go to protect future generations from the catastrophic effects of such a conflict? It’s a complicated matter, and one that the global community needs to resolve together. We can keep passing around the gun and hope for the best, or we can empty our own chamber while doing more to keep the gun from others.

Carly Millenson, Former Program Manager, Women in International Security, New York