Achieving a Nuclear Weapon-Free World in a Post-Cold War Era

Every day, people suffer and die from starvation.  Every day, children develop asthma from the contamination of coal-fired power plants.  Every day, women are subject to unspeakable violence.  It has been nearly seventy years since a nuclear weapon was used to wage warfare on a population.  Why, in the face of all these other daily horrors, should we care about the consequences of an unlikely nuclear event? Nuclear weapons are one of the few things that could cause destruction on a global scale. Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund, points out that “of all the problems and challenges we face in our personal lives, our community, our nation, there are only two that threaten destruction on a planetary level: global warming and nuclear weapons.  Both of these are caused by machines that we invented. Both of these threaten to destroy everything else we’ve invented, including civilization itself. But both of these are preventable, even reversible.”

A nuclear attack or accident would happen very quickly, most likely resulting in complete devastation to a major population center.  The fallout could last for thousands of years. We talk about “weapons of mass destruction.”  A more descriptive term would be “weapons of mass atrocity.”  Nuclear weapons inflict a triple-header: the heat; the blast; the grim effects of radiation.

Descriptions of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are universally gruesome, both in the immediate aftermath and in the lingering deaths that occurred for years afterwards due to radiation exposure. If you are haunted by the horrific relics of the atomic bombs dropped in 1945, the casualties of nuclear testing on populations in the Marshall Islands, Nevada or Kazakhstan, or the fallout from Fukushima or Chernobyl, consider this:  today’s weapons are twenty times more powerful than those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The devastation that they would cause would be unlike any the world has ever seen before.

So why are we still stockpiling these weapons?

Experts now believe that nuclear deterrence has become more of a liability than a benefit. In 2007, senior statesmen George P. Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and William Perry made a case in the Wall Street Journal that:

Nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War because they were a means of deterrence. The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

In a time when we’re moving toward ever more targeted interventions and fewer civilian casualties, it’s worth asking how many nuclear weapons we even need?  The generally accepted number of nuclear weapons that would destroy life as we know it on Earth is about three hundred.

The United States has roughly seven thousand.

Altogether, there are still 17,000 weapons in the world, the majority of which are in the U.S. and Russia.  And yet, the Cold War is over.  Arsenals are  (fortunately) declining.  But the threat of nuclear catastrophe has arguably expanded under the auspices of terrorism, failed states, regional antagonism, and potential for accident due to neglect or human error.  Nothing else, however terrible, could cause as much damage as even one nuclear weapon on one city.

So what can we do?

Given that the United States is the only country that has ever used a nuclear weapon, the United States must lead in the effort to stop their spread.  That means that we have to reduce our own stockpiles. We can’t have it both ways.  We can’t have the capacity to destroy the world twenty-five times over and simultaneously take the high moral ground.

We are making headway.  In 2010, we passed the New START Treaty with a healthy margin of 71 senators from both sides of the aisle – something that would have been practically automatic in previous years, but which became problematic in a political environment where obstructing the administration even on routine or popular policy became the practice on the Right.  This victory was facilitated by a consensus that included many unusual bedfellows: faith communities and libertarians, arms control experts and grassroots activists.  Ploughshares Fund was able to play an important part as a funder by implementing what I call the “Five C’s”: we collaborated with other organizations; we convened thought leaders and influencers; we contributed our funds to enhance the work of non-profits and individuals; we created entities that helped us communicate our position.  The treaty passed in the Senate, and with more than enough votes.

Now we are making headway in Iran. For the first time since the Shah was overthrown in 1979, we are in talks with Iran.  We have an interim agreement.  They have frozen their enrichment program.  And they have let in inspectors who have confirmed that Iran is rolling back its enrichment program. These developments are profound.  That reversing proliferation can be accomplished without a military conflict in turn gives life to the idea of reductions in our own arsenal and the arsenals of countries that we don’t perceive as threats.  As Joe Cirincione says, “We often talk about countries like Iran and North Korea, but there are no countries like Iran and North Korea. There is only Iran and North Korea…. But if you can stop them, if you can stop Iran from getting a weapon and contain or even roll back the North Korean program, you’re really… looking at the end of proliferation. ”

Over the past few years Ploughshares Fund has provided its expertise, its convening power, and millions of dollars to advance a diplomatic solution to this crisis and to prevent another disastrous war in the Middle East.  Ploughshares Fund has funded dozens of organizations and is coordinating these groups in Washington.  This is what Ploughshares Fund does: it works toward eliminating the risk of a nuclear event by ultimately achieving a nuclear weapon-free world.  To do so, we invest in the smartest people with the best ideas.  We move these ideas forward.  We engage others in the discussion.  And we’re in it to win.


Terry Gamble Boyer serves on the board of trustees of Ploughshares Fund, a publicly supported foundation that funds, organizes and innovates projects to realize a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.  Along with her husband, Peter, she funds and supports organizations and individuals concentrating on climate change and energy solutions, believing that the opportunity for a safer, fairer, cleaner world is now.  She currently serves on the board of The Ayrshire Foundation, Island Press and The Urban School of San Francisco, as well as the advisory board of The Truman National Security Project and Center for National Policy.  A writer and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, she is the author of two novels.