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How Many Nukes Can A Nuke-State Need?

October 31, 2011

On Sunday, the New York Times coughed up an editorial that is hard to argue with. It said that in the post-Cold War era we do not need thousands of nuclear weapons, and urged cuts so the money could be spent elsewhere:

Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup. The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. It should not be spending so much to do it, especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs.

Calling for this sort of practical thinking about nuclear weapons touches on a bigger issue: the United States remains in the throes of a Cold War mentality that elevates military power high above its practical benefits. Consider the trillions of dollars spent on the military over the past two decades, consider the wars and interventions we are so quick to throw our military power into, and ask whether we are better off having invested the money that way, or whether we would be better off having invested that money in education, infrastructure and energy technology.

The future will be won, and America will lead or fail in the 21st century, based on making the most of investing the limited resources we have. Military power is the wrong tool for the wrong battle. The 20th century was dominated by military balances. The 21st century will be dominated by economic and environmental balances. We need to be smarter, better educated, and more productive. So our cowboy love of military power, our stubborn obeisance to the military-industrial lobby, is a key mindset that has to be changed. I’m not arguing for no military power. I’m arguing for a lot less military power, based on a hard-nosed, cost-benefit approach to deciding where we should spend money.

A good example of a movement–referenced in the NYT editorial– that is calling for exactly this sort of radical change, is Global Zero, which is making the case for eliminating nuclear weapons. It’s not just some crazy liberal fantasy. Global Zero has the support of George Schultz, James Baker and a battalion of retired military officers. Thankfully, though, they have chosen Naomi Watts and Valerie Plame Wilson to help make the case:

Reinventing our nuclear doctrine is just one part of reinventing our national security strategy to address economic competition and climate change, among other challenges. But it would be a great start.

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