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It is Possible: A Future without Nuclear Weapons

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It is Possible: A Future without Nuclear Weapons by Ward Haynes Wilson. Avenues: The World School Press, 2023, 264 pp.

Imagine a world where nuclear weapons have been misvalued due to false narratives that have established them as overrated geopolitical symbols that do not accurately reflect reality. Ward Wilson argues in It is Possible: A Future without Nuclear Weapons that we all exist in this world, and nuclear weapons policy experts operate in isolation with an erroneous imagined reality and structured thinking.

No matter if one is pro-/anti-nukes, people generally all agree a world without nuclear weapons is preferred. Wilson, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit RealistRevolt, has been at the academic forefront in discussions of exterminating nuclear weapons from the planet. It is Possible, the sequel to his 2013 book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, is a hopeful narrative of Wilson’s passion to bring about this world and to free humanity of the weapons that challenge its survival. He presents a creative case to end their employment and existence by offering a constructivist challenge of the “facts and assumptions” that underlie the entire nuclear enterprise. While the book provides all readers with a solid understanding of the basic ideas of the nuclear weapons construct, it is recommended for military officers and civilian policymakers in particular who are looking for a different perspective on their occupational craft. It is Possible will challenge their foundational thinking and understanding.

As Wilson contends, nuclear weapons are a construct built from incorrect assumptions, a lack of operational data, and a false understanding of a flawed nuclear deterrence theory. Because of this false reality, these obsolete weapons can and should be removed from service. Although Wilson’s arguments raise questions on how nuclear weapons are perceived, even with a strong case to dismiss nuclear weapons from the geopolitical arena, It Is Possible has several limitations that challenge his idea of a world free of nuclear weapons.

For one, the nuclear weapon construct may not be as worrisome as Wilson claims, and therefore perhaps there is no need to tear it down. As the United States has learned from its forays into regime change, removing and replacing state leaders with whom the US government disagrees often leads to much more complex and difficult problems that were not anticipated. In short, removing nuclear weapons from well-established security considerations will likely drive second- or third-order effects that will cause more chaos than the current system. For 80 years, the international order and political infrastructure have evolved such that nuclear weapons employment has been reduced to a very specific time, place, and condition; therefore actual threat levels are much more minimal than they were during the Cold War.

Will the world look like it did in the movie The Day After (1983), following the elimination of “irrelevant” nuclear weapons? What would the international security and political environment resemble after nuclear weapons are removed? To propose simply removing nuclear weapons because they are too dangerous or ineffective ignores the fact that something will replace the void created by their absence.

When weapons become obsolete, states develop certain measures, policies, and other weapons to ensure their security. Technological innovations have introduced other weapons possibilities to the world that will fill the void. Very precise weapons with certain effects can drive strategic messaging better than if not equal to nuclear weapons. Additionally, nuclear weapons are now much more precise and with weaponeering now much more averse to collateral damage. This leaves the world vulnerable to yet another global arms race that has no international norms in place, such as counterproliferation, and no diplomatic understanding on how to use those weapons. If war is cruel, nuclear war is absolutely cruel. Nuclear weapons provide states with space to operate, but joining the nuclear club can be likened to joining a suicide pact. Removing nuclear weapons from states’ security strategy will only drive them to find other methods of destruction and control.

In addition, It is Possible focuses its argument too much on nuclear deterrence from the Cold War era. In current thinking, nuclear war does not represent a simple red or yes-no line of conflict, but rather a spectrum of conflict intensity, where nuclear weapons serve to deliver military effects for political goals. The international norms that define nuclear deterrence curb conflict intensity. Although it has never stopped wars, it has significantly limited conflict. Wars may continue between non-nuclear states and between nuclear and non-nuclear states, but there has not been an outright war between two nuclear powers. Nuclear deterrence policy, as referenced in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, has evolved into the continued effort to provide more flexible, precise, and tailored options to leaders instead of mutually assured destruction.

Wilson is correct to argue that there are many unknowns regarding weapon employment, post-strike effects, and global response. Yet it is this chaotic unknown that is key to nuclear deterrence, and in these shades of gray come its overall success and security. Nuclear weapons are highly effective, considering the multiple options they do provide should conflict intensity require them. Nuclear weapon states use them every day without employing them to demonstrate their credibility. Nuclear deterrence is an art, not a science. It is built upon 80 years of international geopolitical norms, scripted communications, and the appropriate operating space for states to make decisions. In short, nuclear deterrence works; military strategists and planners just need to know how to adapt it to the current security environment. Therefore, one could argue that there is no need to eliminate nuclear weapons, but there is a need to learn to better adapt to the situational “gray space” through technological innovation, ensuring the United States and its Allies are geopolitically positioned better than our adversaries.

Finally, nuclear weapons and operations are safer today than they were during the Cold War. International norms have restricted their application to specific situations, and violations are condemned as war crimes. Nuclear weapons and the subsequent deterrence system may not be perfect, nor is it preferable for states to be on trigger alert for nuclear Armageddon, but given the overall improvements in the construct since the Cold War, much more analysis and development are needed to make a world free of nuclear weapons.

Wilson’s argument is a great discussion of the nuclear weapons construct and is truly thought-provoking, yet his vision is too revolutionary and thus difficult to support. A more evolutionary approach with defined intermediate steps that further restrict nuclear weapons usage, as the trends have already demonstrated through the years, is more sustainable. If we wish to rid the world of nuclear weapons, we must do it in small steps.

Now this is possible.

Lieutenant Colonel Travis “Pred” Halleman, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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