Obama’s speech for nuclear disarmament sounds nice. It’s what a liberal Democratic president would say. But note the White House clarification that U.S. would not disarm unless all other nations did.
Nuclear disarmament has been on the table since Hiroshima, and that’s where it’s going to stay. The most obvious cause is basic mistrust. No one can be totally sure that the other side has disarmed, and since a surprise nuclear attack is so devastating, the consequences of being wrong allow for no second chances.
But the other reason is that nukes are cheap, or at least they’re cheap compared to massed fleets of tanks and aircraft. Britain is a medium-sized power with a military that can barely field a couple of brigades and a few ships and aircraft. But nuclear subs with Trident missiles makes it a power to be reckoned with should Russia ever play hardball. The Brits aren’t likely to disarm, and it’s inconceivable that the Ego that is France would ever give up their Force de Frappe (why do they name their nukes after milkshakes?). In the 1950s, Eisenhower went with a nuke-heavy strategy rather than strain public finances by opposing the Soviets with a huge conventional military.
Beneath the grandeur of nuclear weapons lies the awful fact that they’re the one man-made force that turn the Earth into a graveyard in 15 minutes. And yet the Cold War never turned hot, and the biggest reason was that everyone knew that even a limited conflict between the superpowers could lead to mutual annihilation. The world would be better off without nukes, but that doesn’t mean it would be a safer world.