By Kennette Benedict
Most efforts to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons happen at the highest levels of government and international organizations. But while heads of state appear to have the power to reduce nuclear arsenals, they need help. In democracies, such help comes from citizens who express their preferences at the polls. High-level meetings and treaties are important, but to bring about irreversible reductions in nuclear stockpiles will also require a politics that brings ordinary voters on board.
If the United States does achieve major savings through weapons cuts, there will of course be congressional debate about where the funds should go. The trick will be to ensure that the money used to build and maintain the nuclear weapons complex in the past is used to build civilian public infrastructure in the future. Such expenditures could mean more efficient transportation systems; repairs to buildings, roads, and schools; and funding for research and development of civilian technologies that contribute to durable economic growth. Confidence that the savings will be sensibly redirected will encourage skilled workers, businesses, and local governments to sign on to nuclear disarmament.
Disarmament will make the US economy stronger. One problem with the cost-saving argument is that weapons programs, whether nuclear or conventional, have in the past been sold as jobs programs. Unions and contractors in nearly every congressional district press to keep the employment and industrial base that weapons production provides. In the short run, and especially at times of high unemployment, it is true that government spending on weapons and military personnel provides jobs. After the Depression in the 1930s, World War II spending contributed to an economic recovery.
At times of low unemployment, though, as during the Vietnam War years, military spending draws money away from the civilian sector. The diversion of investment into military production leaves a society with fewer resources for housing, agriculture, and education. It also hampers production of the myriad goods and services that change hands in a thriving economy. Public sector investment, as well as production in the civilian economy, are engines of long-term growth.
Weapons of war, on the other hand, demolish wealth. They are made only to be destroyed, while at the same time destroying another country’s population, industrial infrastructure, and agricultural capacity.
Spending on nuclear weapons, especially in light of the end of the Cold War, is particularly self-defeating. One of the greatest military threats that we face today—from extremists with no organized armed forces—cannot be deterred with nuclear weapons. That’s why former US military commanders recommend a drastic reduction in arsenals. If the United States continues to spend on nuclear weapons that can’t be used and the military does not want, it will be doing so at the expense of a healthy civilian economy. As we now know, a similar course of action in the Soviet Union resulted in an upheaval that brought down the Berlin Wall and led to a revolt against the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. In the United States it could lead to a lower standard of living for Americans, slow growth, and widespread public discontent. In a paradox that may not be easy to grasp at first, spending on nuclear weapons leads to weakness, not strength.