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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2017 > We’ll all go together

We’ll all go together

Nuclear disarmament agreements haven’t worked. Would it be better simply to ban the bomb?

Matthew Harries is a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and Managing Editor of “Survival,” the IISS journal

Barack Obama was a cautious president, given to the odd audacious speech. In 2009, he stood on a podium in Prague’s Hradčany Square and declared America’s commitment to a world free from nuclear weapons. “Human destiny will be what we make of it,” he said.

A presidency later, Russia is using its nuclear arsenal to intimidate its neighbours. China is putting nuclear submarines on patrol. India and Pakistan teeter on the brink of conflict. North Korea has just carried out its fifth and most powerful nuclear test, and it may soon have a long-range nuclear ballistic missile. Now the United States itself is getting ready to spend several hundred billion dollars on modernising its own nuclear weapons. And all this before we even consider the incoming US president Donald Trump—an impulsive man who has tweeted a promise to “greatly strengthen and expand” the US arsenal.

Seen this way Obama’s words in Prague may sound not merely lofty, but delusional, as he leaves behind a world of increasing nuclear danger. Yet our judgement should not be too harsh. Obama managed some real achievements, most notably the deal to hold back Iran’s nuclear programme. But that deal is now in peril from Donald Trump and a new administration full of its critics.

Nuclear weapons draw strong reactions: from hawks who are convinced they can be relied on to keep the peace; from worldweary realists who sigh that there is no point in pretending they can be disinvented; and from moral absolutists who say the threat of indiscriminate slaughter on which deterrence relies is unconscionable, and so demand unconditional disarmament. But there have always been, too, those who have tried to steer a middle course, grappling with the realities of power politics to try to at least restrict the spread, and on occasion actually reduce the world’s stock, of nuclear arms.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February issue: Tom Clark and Luke Harding examine the attacks facing democracy. Clark reviews two books on democracy and suggests a new intellectual assault may be on the horizon. Harding looks at Russia’s attempts to derail the democratic process by focussing on its technical frailty. Melissa Deckman asks why women voted for Trump, while Duncan Bell charts the story of the Anglosphere and suggests Brexiteers are indulging in an old fantasy. Also in this issue: Matthew Harries asks if it’s time to ban the nuclear bomb, Adam Mars-Jones looks at the way we perceive aliens in films and Elizabeth Pisani explores the role of activists in changing the perception of Aids and its pushing for treatment.