The Bill for the Bomb
April 14, 2014
by Beatrice Fihn
Today people from all over the world join together for the Global Day of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS) to highlight the world’s expenditure on militaries, and to demand that world leaders tack a different course from the grossly inflated figure that is currently dedicated to producing the tools of war.
While the ongoing economic crisis has put additional pressure on governments to reduce military spending in favour of prioritizing essential human needs, governments are still clinging tight to a particularly nefarious budget line – the command and control of nuclear weapons.
According to SIPRI’s latest report, issued today, world military expenditure totaled $1.75 trillion in 2013, which amounted to 2.5% of world GDP. In 2011, it was estimated that $105.9 billion was spent on nuclear weapons, and a recent study from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies shows that the US alone will spend over one trillion dollars over the next thirty years on maintaining, replacing, and upgrading existing nuclear weapons systems.
We are repeatedly assured by the nuclear-armed states that a gradual, step-by-step approach to disarmament is the only way forward, and any alternative initiatives are ‘distractions’ that threaten to derail the ‘progress’ made. However, nuclear-armed states continuously redefine any agreed disarmament objectives, throwing up smoke screens and pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into weapons that would cause an instant humanitarian catastrophe if ever detonated.
Nuclear weapons cannot feed the hungry, they cannot combat climate change, or prevent terrorism. They cannot stop domestic violence or deter the outbreak of deadly diseases. They are not capable of protecting us from the security threats we face today. All they do is threaten global havoc and destruction, while costing outrageous sums of money every day.
In the most optimistic reading of the current situation, we are pouring valuable resources into the maintenance of a weapon which is too horrible to ever be used. A graver view is that we are consciously funding the existence of a weapon that will inevitably destroy us.
With the existence of nuclear weapons there is always the chance of an accident – Eric Schlosser’s recent book Command and Control makes it clear that the US grossly under-reported the number of serious accidents involving nuclear weapons. In many instances it was either extraordinary bravery or sheer luck that prevented the unthinkable from happening. Lest we think that the lessons have been learned, we need only refer to the seemingly endless list of scandals involving those tasked with the supervision of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, policies of “nuclear deterrence” and military doctrines of nuclear-armed states make the use of nuclear weapons an ongoing potential threat.
A nuclear weapons detonation, no matter how or why it is triggered, would be a profoundly traumatic event with immense psychological, political, and social consequences. It would also certainly impose enormous economic costs on the nation in which it occurred and on the global economic system. These can be broken down into destruction costs, disruption costs and reaction costs. The economic impact of the destruction would be devastating – the countless deaths and injuries, the damage to physical assets and the immediate to the long-term costs of responding to such a catastrophic event. Disruption costs involve the fallout from the crippling damage to infrastructure and the suspension of trade and supply chains. These would reverberate into a wider economic panic that could bring the global economy to its knees, erasing the livelihoods of countless people around the world.
It feels wrong to speak of the impacts of nuclear weapon in financial terms – the real tragedy of nuclear weapons is of course their human impact, the horrific suffering they have the capacity to inflict on human beings and their livelihoods. The Hibakusha, survivors of the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, speak powerfully to that.
However, when we speak of the billions spent on weapons systems, we must remember that the price we pay goes beyond production and maintenance. It cannot be denied that the longer we keep nuclear weapons around, the higher the risk that a detonation one day will take place. Everyday without a nuclear weapons detonation is a lucky day. When our luck one day runs out, the true economic cost of our dithering will be on full display – and it will dwarf the costs we face today.
There is no more time for empty promises and false starts. Concrete action needs to be taken by immediately to start negotiations on a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons.