Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

July 8, 2010

The recent news that presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed a new US-Russia nuclear arms treaty produced widespread sighs of relief. But wait - read John Mueller's book before breaking out the champagne!

According to Mueller's unnerving analysis of "nuclear alarmism", most efforts to control nuclear weapons are at best irrelevant and even counter-productive. The nuclear powers negotiate away obsolete weapons, while the talks themselves ironically legitimate new weapons programmes (that allegedly must be developed for leverage in the negotiations). That is the bad news in this counter-intuitive volume that flies in the face of most expert, as well as conventional, wisdom.

The good news in Mueller's argument is that the nuclear threat was mostly much ado about nothing anyway, so not to worry. The difficulty with nuclear weapons is the threat itself: we have nothing to fear but the fear, ie, the obsession that we have had with them since Hiroshima. In the end, the real problem, he argues, has been the decades of angst and unbridled expenditure on arms that have little military or even political value. He chastises everyone from Albert Einstein on down for fear-mongering.

Mueller concludes on the book's final page that nuclear weapons "have had at best a quite limited effect on history, have been a substantial waste of money and effort, do not seem to have been terribly appealing to most states that do not have them, (and) are out of reach for terrorists ... Sleep well."

In a condescending tone, and garnering evidence from a wide range of sources, he shoots down all the standard arguments about what makes nuclear weapons so frightening. He starts with their effects, showing that he knows they would be horrible if used, but dismissing nuclear winter studies, "apocalyptic visions" and "doom-eager thinking" as misguided and inaccurate. As a deterrent, nukes have been essentially irrelevant, he argues; they were probably not necessary to defeat the Japanese or to deter a Soviet Union whose leaders did not want a war anyway.

Nuclear weapons, Mueller insists, have not been crucial status symbols on the international stage and their proliferation has been surprisingly slow, given the alarming predictions of disaster in every decade. They have not been valuable in military conflicts and have failed to help nuclear countries dominate a region. They cost too much and bring little benefit. A few countries have obtained them, but even more have got rid of them. Even worse, the "proliferation fixation" that puts non-proliferation at the top of policy agendas has had horrible unintended consequences, starting with the "anti-proliferation war" that began with the invasion of Iraq, a costly venture that Mueller says "sprang primarily from the atomic obsession".

But what about the terrorists? Again, Mueller takes on all the alarmists, including the US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, which concluded in 2008 after interviewing more than 250 people that there would probably be a terrorist attack using WMDs by the end of 2013 unless the world community were to act decisively and urgently. Again, the worst thing we can do, Mueller insists, is to obsess with this unlikely possibility; because of huge technical and organisational hurdles to overcome, the likelihood that terrorists can build or acquire an atomic device "is vanishingly small".

Although my initial response to this work was sceptical - and I remain unconvinced of much of his argument - I do think that everyone interested in nuclear issues should read this book with an open mind. It offers an important counter-argument to what most people think, and could lead all sides of the policy debates to a more accurate and sophisticated analysis and perhaps even better policies.

It may be that our obsession with nuclear weapons is indeed misdirected, as Mueller argues. Instead, it may be war itself - or even violence - that is the root problem of contemporary humanity, and nuclear weapons are just a symptom.

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

By John Mueller
Oxford University Press, 336pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780195381368
Published 7 January 2010

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