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Defining the Nuclear Threat in 2014

Take a guess: what percentage of the world’s nuclear weapons would cause the deaths of one billion people?

Since the end of the Cold War, popular anxiety over the nuclear threat has largely shifted to a fear of terrorism. But prospects of global atomic annihilation did not, sadly, end in the 1980s.

Let’s start with a few facts and figures.

Total nuclear warheads in the world: ~10,000

Total nuclear weapons built since 1945: ~125,000

Number of nations with nuclear weapons: 9

Percentage of nuclear weapons built by countries other than the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia: 3%

Percentage of the world’s nuclear stockpile that could kill 44 million people immediately and another one billion over the following month: 0.015% 

The first four numbers come from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; the final figure is cited in a new book by Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom,reviewed by Craig Lambert in this month’s Harvard Magazine. 

Ms. Scarry does not give us much reason to think her last name is ironic. “It’s widely acknowledged,” she told Mr. Lambert, “that nuclear weapons are incredibly susceptible to accidental use or to seizure by a non-state actor or terrorist. But what has been insufficiently recognized is the biggest danger of all: the belief that there is some ‘legitimate’ possession of these weapons, that we are safe as long as there’s government oversight of them. In fact, they are utterly incompatible with governance.”

There is a fundamental incompatibility, Ms. Scarry observes, of nuclear weapons and democratic government. When “a very small number of people [have] the power to annihilate very large numbers of people,” Mr. Lambert writes, a weapon is “out of ratio.” And in the words of Ms. Scarry, “an out-of-ratio weapon makes the presence of the population at the authorization end [of an attack] a structural impossibility. New weapons inevitably change the nature of warfare, but out-of-ratio weapons have changed the nature of government.”

The situation is most extreme with a weapon that can, in President’s Nixon’s memorable line, kill 70 million people in 25 minutes, but all military armaments, when you think about it, are out of ratio. It is always one or a few commanders who decide when bombs are dropped or munitions deployed. Democratic deliberation informs policy debates and political campaigns, but it never plays a big role on the battlefield. 

Still, Ms. Scarry’s book raises an important issue bubbling uneasily beneath the Cold War-esque showdown in Ukraine. It is, she says, time to dismantle nuclear weapons, period. “These weapons are not designed for a showdown of political leaders,” she says. “They are going to massacre the citizens. No weapon ever invented has remained unused. Does anyone think that in the next 100 years, one of these governments that has them, won’t use them?”

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