21 January 2016

The End of Nuclear Weapons and a New World Order

"There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth."

Abdu'l-Baha to a Japanese Ambassador, 1912 
The World
North Korea just detonated their fourth nuclear weapon and Iran is in a standoff over its nuclear program. The US policy toward nuclear weapons needs a major overhaul to avoid slipping to the point of no return. The United States is in a strong position to unilaterally renounce the use of nuclear weapons, then systematically destroy its nuclear arsenal.

I expect the typical American will think that disarming would be suicidal and ludicrous. The typical American is wrong. Nuclear disarmament is in the best interests of the people and government of the United States, not to mention the whole world. The world order that has been in place since the end of World War II is fraying at the edges. To secure the future, the US needs to help mould a new order before the old one unravels completely.

Non-Proliferation Treaty

Facing the untenable future of dozens of nuclear armed countries, almost every nation in the world signed on to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The grand bargain was struck with three pillars: any nation without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, the five nations with nuclear weapons will collectively disarm, and all nations will be allowed peaceful nuclear energy programs.

An article of the treaty, ratified by all five nuclear armed states, says,

"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament."

The United States should disarm because it ratified a treaty saying that it would. The lack of good faith on the part of the five nuclear powers means that other signatories have started to ignore their end of the grand bargain. Iran can easily make the argument that the United States is being hypocritical. Why should Iran comply with its obligation to not develop the bomb while the US maintains thousands of nuclear weapons almost half a century after it said it would work towards "general and complete disarmament"? Is the United States even considering disarmament in the coming decade? Even more of a rub, Iran has never said that it intends to make a bomb, it has just been exercising its right to peaceful nuclear technology under the treaty.

Three states never signed the treaty: Israel, Pakistan, and India. All three of them have nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan point out that without disarmament by the five powers, the treaty simply creates haves and have nots without any ethical reason. To add to the sense of favoritism, the United States is comfortable with Israel's nuclear weapons and hasn't pushed for its ally to join the NPT.

Then there is North Korea. The People's Republic pulled out of the treaty in 2003 and went on to detonate four test bombs. The Kims have argued that nuclear weapons are the only way for them to defend themselves against the United States, a nuclear armed aggressor.

Then there is Ukraine. The former soviet state gave up over 2,000 nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee from Russia that its territorial integrity and political independence would be secure. Russia went on to invade and annex part of Ukraine in 2014, sending a very dangerous message to the rest of the world.

Clearly the premise of the treaty has been disingenuous and ultimately ineffective. The five nuclear states (US, France, UK, Russia, China) have the only legitimate nuclear arsenals. Their positions cannot continue indefinitely, and if they fail to create a new order, then a new order will be forced upon them.

Biological and Chemical Weapons

Biological and chemical weapons were developed by all the world's major powers during World War II. The United States poured billions of dollars into research and weaponizing instruments of mass destruction.

To the world's surprise, in 1969 Richard Nixon unilaterally renounced the use of biological weapons and committed to destroying the stockpile. He also renounced a first strike with chemical weapons, and encouraged the Senate to ratify the Geneva protocol, which they did in 1975. Then again in 1991, George HW Bush renounced the use of chemical weapons, even in retaliation, and committed to destroying the stockpile.

The reasoning behind the US renunciation of weapons of mass destruction is important. Here are some of the official answers:

  1. Gradual arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union created internal squabbles that were bypassed by a sweeping disarmament.
  2. The weapons had limited value on a battlefield or as a reliable deterrent.
  3. Renouncing these weapons discouraged other states from acquiring them. 
  4. Ending the programs was a major public relations boost for the country and dampened criticism of other military programs.
  5. Destroying the dangerous stockpiles made the country safer by eliminating the possibility of accidental spills or leaks. 
  6. The deterrent for a biological or chemical attack is an "overwhelming and devastating" response that can be achieved without the United States using the same weapons in retaliation.

You might notice that these reasons are all tactical, not moral. You might also notice that the same logic applies to nuclear weapons.

This may surprise you, but the world is ready to completely disarm nuclear weapons in the same way that it disarmed chemical weapons. This is particularly true of the United States, which controls the greatest military that the world has ever seen and has most of the world's big economies as allies. It has a deterrent without nuclear weapons. That's not true of other countries, and may not always be true of the United States.

Similar to chemical weapons 40 years ago, the countries with nuclear weapons are on a no-first-strike posture, which is an important step towards disarmament. China and India have vowed to only use them in retaliation for a nuclear attack. Most others say they will only use them defensively; for example, after being invaded with overwhelming conventional forces. The United States has committed not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons on any signatory to the NPT as long as they are complying with the treaty, even if they use biological or chemical weapons.

A few policies are questionable (I'll get back to North Korea), but in general everyone is holding on to their weapons "just in case" someone else tries to use them first. This makes for an ideal situation to mutually disarm, or as in the case of chemical weapons, recognize that unilateral disarmament will provide the moral authority to induce others to follow.

Moral Authority

Biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons cause widespread, long-lasting, and indiscriminate death and destruction. They can destroy millions of people within minutes and in large numbers nuclear weapons could completely destroy the planet.

In 1945 the International Red Cross had staff working near Hiroshima and Nagasaki who assisted victims of the blasts. They worked in unimaginable conditions to relieve suffering. Hospitals in the area were reduced to rubble, and the injured walked burned and blinded to anyone who would help. With infrastructure destroyed, countless souls died a slow and painful death. 70 years later, people are still suffering from the radiation. In 1945 the Red Cross concluded that, "the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons were simply unacceptable. From a humanitarian perspective, nuclear weapons should be abolished."

Besides the incredible non-nuclear deterrent that the United States has with its military and economy, there does not seem to be any situation that nuclear weapons could be used morally. If North Korea somehow launched a first strike on an American city, what would happen? Conventional weapons could selectively destroy all of North Korea's military complexes and leadership without the humanitarian nightmare that would follow a nuclear attack on Pyongyang. So there is no reason to cause even more suffering by killing millions of innocent people with a nuclear blast. Even if you're into vindictive revenge, lashing out only creates more enemies.

Even without overwhelming conventional forces or if the US were incapacitated after a strike, the world would not accept any unprovoked first strike, and the North Korean state would be brought to its knees and destroyed economically and militarily by every nation on earth. Currently its only supporter is China, and China is slowly changing its relationship to detach from the Crazy One. Kim Jong Un knows that his future is bleak, and if he became a first-strike aggressor, it would be the end of North Korea. This collective security comes from having the moral high ground, and it is more powerful than any arsenal.

More importantly, North Korea, Iran, and others see open hypocrisy in the United States discouraging them from nuclear weapons while maintaining its own arsenal. There is clear cognitive dissonance in the United States invading Iraq primarily on the suspicion of a nuclear weapons program (which it didn't have), while maintaining thousands of warheads indefinitely, AND supporting Israel with nuclear weapons outside of the NPT.

Bikini Atoll, 1954
In 2002 I heard Donald Rumsfeld say with a straight face that he was concerned with the size of China's military because it exceeded its need for self defense. This was coming from the US Secretary of Defense, the person in charge of the greatest military on earth, which spends more than the next seven countries combined. If the United States ever hopes to eliminate nuclear weapons from other states, it has to start by eliminating its own. The moral authority it would gain from being nuke-free would allow it immense privilege in negotiations.

American citizens generally don't realize this, but leading up to 2008, the world was posturing itself against the United States. Think about Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea. Now think about the US invasion of Iraq. What's the difference? In each case, a great power stood above the law, used force to get its way against a weak nation, manipulated its citizens through propaganda, and created a humanitarian disaster. John Kerry ironically chastised Russia by saying "You just don't invade another country on phony pretext into order to assert your interests." Apparently John Kerry should have been an advisor to George Bush in 2003.

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki
There is another lesson in morality that the United States may have to learn the hard way. Anyone can be the bad guy. In the 1940s Germans and Japanese did not see themselves as being on the wrong side of history. They were loyally fighting for their countries. Now those countries are still grappling psychologically with the reality that their ancestors committed atrocities, and they each have culturally adapted to avoid ever allowing such a thing to happen again. The United States has not learned that lesson, and openly toys with leaders that sound increasingly reminiscent of fascism.

Nationalism is very strong in America, and it is realistic that a right-wing populist might take power, manipulate public opinion, and commit crimes against humanity. In fact, it already happened with the US invasion of Iraq. Despite any policies to the contrary, I heard numerous people wanting to "nuke all the arabs" for what happened on September 11, 2001 and that anger was funneled by the President to accomplish a regime change that was unrelated to the attacks. I can only imagine how much louder the calls would be if Los Angeles was engulfed in a mushroom cloud. The impetus behind worldwide nuclear disarmament could be brought on by atrocities committed by the United States.

International Order

The modern political world was defined by a handful of events. World War II was the most destructive war in all of human history (see this incredible video), and was a continuation of the saga of World War I, which `Abdu'l-Baha said represents the prophecies of Armageddon spoken of in the Book of Revelation.

The scale of the horror transformed the world into a new international order led by the United Nations, with the explicit intention of preventing such wars from taking place. The crown of the United Nations is the Security Council, whose blessing is required for legitimate use of force between nations. The Security Council has fifteen voting members, ten of which rotate, and five of which are permanent and have veto power. The permanent members are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China. These were the victors of World War II, and the ones holding nuclear weapons soon afterwards. The Non Proliferation Treaty enshrined their nuclear arsenals as legitimate, and forbade any other nation from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Another defining event was the breakup of the Soviet Union. The following decade hosted much debate among Americans about how they fit in the world without an arch enemy. American intervention in Kuwait, Somalia, and Kosovo presented the American military as righteous world police that would simply dictate policy to others. The United Nations seemed like an unnecessary talk shop. American strength was keeping the peace. The Pax Americana had just begun. Some with a selfish leaning wanted to take advantage of their newfound role as sole superpower and dominate the world. Check out the New American Century project for the philosophical underpinning of policies toward Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

Then ideas of American glory came crashing down with the twin towers and the unfortunate wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2001 there has been no clear US policy towards world order, and certainly no talk of changing the big picture status quo.

But the status quo is not working.

With veto power and legitimate nuclear weapons, these five countries have been untouchable, above the law, and the drivers behind worldwide conflict. Their bejeweled place in the current order has been breaking down, with several other countries requesting the same coveted veto power. There are four countries outside of the NPT with nuclear bombs, and terrorism has become the main threat of international violence, not total war between great powers. The exorbitant privilege cannot last. Seventy years have passed since World War II, the Cold War has ended, Europe has a close Union, wars between nations have waned considerably, and most of all, the United States appears to be distancing itself from the Pax Americana.

There are signs of fraying everywhere. Clearly the system is out of balance and needs to be remade. If it unravels disorderly, catastrophe is inevitable.

The new order can be achieved through two primary changes, and several peripheral ones. The first is nuclear disarmament. The United States should renounce nuclear weapons and destroy its arsenal, then pressure the remaining four weapons countries of the NPT to eliminate theirs, then collectively pressure the last four countries to disarm and sign the treaty. Second is a reform of the United Nations Security Council. There are many ways to do it, but key to any reform is to remove veto powers. This procedural reform to the existing structure will have a significant positive impact on world politics.

Other reforms include ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, establishing a world reserve currency that is not dominated by a single country (the IMF is the candidate institution to manage such a currency), and finally the United States should join the International Criminal Court (ICC), then pressure all countries to join. Smaller countries across the world should be aided to form federal republics that pool resources into larger states that are better poised to deal with regional issues and larger economies (the general policy has been to encourage division and reduce the potential for a rival).

Such a world order would create peace and stability across the globe. If the reform was led by the United States then it would achieve incredible prestige and praise, garnering the good will of the world. If, however, the United States tries to protect its power and use force to dominate others, continue to give advise that it does not follow, become isolationist and inconsiderate, and act in its own narrow self interest to the detriment of others; in short, if it becomes an enemy of world order, then its privileged place in history will be reversed, its institutions will crumble from the inside, it's economy will stumble, its people will turn on each other, and distracted by bread and circus it will be destroyed by barbarians.


Terrorism can't be beaten with bombs. America's nuclear arsenal can't destroy terrorism's capital city. The only way to beat terrorism is with ideas, with education, with justice.

The most likely scenario over the next ten years is that the world system of power will not be reformed, the United States will retain its nuclear arsenal, and the incoherent war on terrorism will continue to grow in intensity while terrorists bring more strikes inside the US. This will create a vicious cycle of retribution, as it has in other countries that have experienced terrorism. This cycle will escalate to the point that the US steps beyond the bounds of moderation and commits some atrocities.

Once the US provides enough fodder for terrorist propaganda and the world generally sees the US as having gone too far, a terrorist cell will get ahold of chemical or nuclear weapons and kill hundreds of thousands of people in an American city. There will be nobody to retaliate against.

Then, similar to the end of World War II, reform will take place in the ashes. Countries will renounce all weapons of mass destruction, remove veto powers, and join international accords such as the ICC.

This scenario doesn't have to play out, but the culture in the US is currently occupied with ignorance. Politics are swinging back and forth between extremes. Money has never played a greater role in elections. Extreme nationalism is becoming more mainstream.

Another scenario is that US leaders recognize the need for collective security, the rights of other nations, the needs of the poor, the plight of the refugee, and without self interest support the institutions of world order.

"The world is in travail, and its agitation waxeth day by day. Its face is turned towards waywardness and unbelief. Such shall be its plight, that to disclose it now would not be meet and seemly. Its perversity will long continue. And when the appointed hour is come, there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake. Then, and only then, will the Divine Standard be unfurled, and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its melody."


  1. Moral authority carries no weight in negotiations with those who view morality as naivety and weakness, and place no value on human life. The policy you suggest would open the door to the destruction of the American nation, the wholesale slaughter of its peoples, and those of its close allies. Unilateral disarmament presupposes that the enemies of America are essentially loving and honorable people. It would be tantamount to suicide.

    1. Wolverine - Are you saying that the foreign policies of the American nation carry a moral authority at this point in our history? Do you not recognize - as most do not - the wholesale slaughter of innocent life at the hands of our greed? Could it be that the enemy is our own ignorance of ourselves? Or maybe the enemy is greed disguised as 'moral' authority. Its just a thought...

  2. Thanks for the comment wolverine. I'm assuming you're emphasis is on multilateral disarmament, which is obviously better. Your generalizing comments about the "enemies of America" not being essentially loving and honorable doesn't agree with my personal experience traveling the world, having lived in Spain, Mexico, Qatar, and China. The rest of the world is full of people, and they aren't fundamentally morally different from Americans. They have the capacity for good and evil, just like you.

    Also, there is no great option. As the article suggests, the system is unraveling and if a radical and new approach to nuclear weapons is not taken up soon, the world will see proliferation and nuclear conflict.

  3. The Bahai Faith has never to my understanding been a proponent of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

    1. I think if I were to summarize Baha'u'llah's instructions to world leaders, he said to mutually disarm and form a world government that will secure peace and justice. So you are correct. I am a proponent of the United States unilaterally disarming, and I think it would serve the best interests of its people.

  4. Bryan I appreciate your article. I am not sure though that there will be any chance to act morally until we, as a society, choose to look at the uncomfortable realities within ourselves. This country is allied with Saudi Arabia, we have assassinated democratically elected leaders, staged coups, aligned ourselves with extremists and helped murder those fighting for democracy. We have made choices to act out of complete disregard for human rights for quite sometime now. Human rights and morality have no value when it comes to our need for money and power. Its almost as if it is a joke. And the American people still don't know what has gone on. Or maybe they would rather believe a convenient lie that affirms the continuation of a very disturbing privilege where we are totally blind to what is going on in the world in which we live. I don't know the answer but I appreciate the fact that you are attempting to sort it out. Anyway, thanks.

  5. Seeems that, in Feb 2018,the die has been cast. Even if POTUS doesn't get the gigantic reviival of nuclear weapons that he wants, the world is much further from trusting that the US has a moral soul. If we do, he's not getting elected to lead us.