America’s nuclear weapons arsenal and local security forces share several troubling themes: too big, too expensive, and unsuitable to keep Americans safe.
The murder of George Floyd and other Black people has forced Americans to revisit our relationship with policing, with calls for defunding law enforcement agencies and repurposing the money to areas that do a better job of crime prevention. Activists, journalists, and scholars have written extensively about what a world without police could look like and how that could help keep unaccountable police officers out of communities where they too often kill Black people with impunity.
Just as activists are pushing us to reimagine a world in which policing will become obsolete, those of us in the foreign affairs community should amplify the conversation around abolishing nuclear weapons. Currently, there are more than 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with more than 90 percent of them split between Russia and America; as late as the 1980s, there were upwards of 70,000 warheads in the world, mostly divided between Washington and Moscow. Beyond America’s nuclear attack against Japan in 1945, none of the world’s nuclear powers have used their weapons during a war, and thankfully so. Even using a fraction of them would result in millions of human deaths in the short term and environmental catastrophes that would drive humans out of existence in the long term.
Besides the human cost, maintaining these weapons that we hope to never use is extremely costly. In 2019 alone, the world's nine nuclear powers spent $72.9 billion maintaining and building their arsenals. America led the way with $35.4 billion in spending. These dollars could be spent on job programs for youth, building rural hospitals, mental health facilities, and helping to insure Americans who lack access to healthcare. Before former President Barack Obama left the White House, he approved a $1 trillion modernization of America’s nuclear weapons. Mind you, Black mothers are disproportionately dying at birth at three times the rate of white women because of racism and a lack of care. Nearly 30 million Americans are uninsured as of 2018, an increase of 500,000 people from the prior year. And, more than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, with Black Americans suffering the highest rates because of pre-existing conditions stemming from centuries-old institutional racism and inequality.
America’s nuclear arsenal doesn't need modernizing; the country’s commitment to its citizens, however, does.
America’s nuclear arsenal doesn't need modernizing; the country’s commitment to its citizens, however, does. For starters, America’s nuclear weapons philosophy is based on deterrence, the idea that having a robust arsenal will convince the Kremlin or any other military threat to think twice before attacking us. Most pro-nuclear weapons advocates argue that cutting America’s arsenal, which tallies around 5,800 warheads, makes us vulnerable to an over-confident Kremlin that violates treaties and invades American allies and has signaled that it plans on proliferating beyond its 6,300 warheads. The numbers don't really make sense either because it really doesn’t take that many weapons to destroy the world or annihilate your adversary.
A 2019 study published in Science Advance argues that a nuclear war between Pakistan and India, which possesses fewer than 300 warheads between them, could destroy the world. Besides the millions of people who could die from the nuclear blasts, we cannot forget about what happens after the initial explosions. The authors estimate that “surface sunlight will decline by 20 to 35%, cooling the global surface by 2° to 5°C and reducing precipitation by 15 to 30%, with larger regional impacts.” This would lead to famines around the world and take as many as ten years for the global climate to return to normal. All of this would result from a regional war of fewer than 300 nuclear warheads. Imagine what the impact would be if America and Russia used all of their warheads.
The main problem with nuclear defense philosophy is that it is predicated on imperialism and world domination, which is fueled by violence. In order for America to be a world power, it must be a nuclear power—a power whose number one asset is violence, instead of diplomacy, so goes conventional thinking. To be clear, Obama (and Reagan towards the end of his presidency) envisioned a world in which nukes would not exist. But Putin, unlike Mikhail Gorbechev with Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, didn’t want to play ball with Washington.
But, the reality is that America doesn’t need Russia to do the right thing, which is to cut its nuclear arsenal. Former defense secretary William Perry has called for the elimination of the land-based nuclear system. James Mattis, also a former defense secretary, has also questioned its usefulness. I argued in Foxtrot Alpha several years ago that America’s submarine-based ballistic missile system is more than enough to make up for the land-based Minuteman IIIs. This would not be complete abolishment of nuclear weapons, but it would be a significant shift in our reliance on nuclear might as a defense option. Just as the defund the police movement would not completely rid America of policing that does more harm than good, cutting America’s nuclear arsenal would free up money for Washington to allocate to more urgent and pressing healthcare issues—issues that truly will keep Americans safe. So far, more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. None have died from a nuclear attack.
Mariama Kaba, a prison and jail abolitionist, wrote a column in the New York Times that America should move to make policing obsolete—given, of course, society taking corrective measures to ensure that social programs are invested in so that crime rarely occurs. The same goes for nuclear weapons. If America leads the way in divesting from imperialism, the rest of the world will take our lead and rethink how to better invest in their societies instead of trying to colonize their neighbors.
The problem with conversations around security is the first assumption that the threat of violence preserves safety. That is simply not true. Instead of investing more money in police, activists are challenging us to invest in Black and Latinx communities that are victims of racist public policy that creates crime. Nukes are not that much different. Nukes are not about safety. They are about chest-beating and ego that ignores the fact that any nuclear war will not produce a winner. Instead it would produce a world in which none of us will be able to live. That is not investing in safety. That is a diabolical investment in one's death.
Meanwhile, as police continue to racially profile and kill Black Americans disproportionately, Black people are suffering from massive job unemployment and illness from COVID-19. A defunding of police would free money to correct some of these labor and healthcare inequalities. An even bigger boost to those efforts would be the defunding of America’s nuclear arsenal. Our biggest threat has never been Moscow or Pyongyang firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at New York City. It has been the underfunding of a healthcare system that is ill-equipped to handle a pandemic and our everyday healthcare needs.
America’s police system is out of control and so is our obsession with maintaining a nuclear posture that is draining money from other vital services. We can save American lives without threatening to destroy the earth. Threats of violence in order to keep the peace should always be questioned.
Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root, where he writes about U.S. politics and interviews elected officials and high-ranking Democratic Party officials. He is also the founder of Black Diplomats, a weekly foreign affairs podcast that tells stories from a Black perspective. His Twitter handle is @russian_starr.