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The Human Security Dimension of Nuclear Weapons’

By Holly Lindamood


When you think about security, what comes to mind? A large, technologically advanced military that provides for strong national defense? Or does the word security hit closer to home—do I have enough food to eat, am I safe in my own house, are the political divisions raging across our country going to destroy us from the inside?


Traditional notions of national security tend to emphasize external threats to the state, particularly the use or threat of use of force. In that sense, nuclear weapons have been a bulwark of national security policy. What better way to deter threats than to possess an arsenal that can completely demolish the enemy—or the world?


But a new concept has been sweeping through the international relations community for the past couple of decades, emphasizing human, rather than national, security. And that begs the question—what is the human cost of nuclear weapons?


National security also means individual security


The concept of human security challenges the existing national security paradigm. Proponents argue that state-centric models focused on external threats are antiquated because they miss a key component of security—the individual. If the people who make up a country do not have enough to eat, if their community is not safe, if environmental degradation is causing ill-health, then the people of that country are not truly secure. Human security rejects the notion that the state itself can be secure if the people within the state are not.


Now, how does this relate to nuclear weapons? The obvious answer is that nuclear weapons are a bastion of traditional national security. They deter attacks, both conventional and nuclear, thus maintaining the security and existence of the state. While arguably this is faulty thinking, it is the dominant perspective in many policy circles.


Such deterrence, however, often comes at the expense of social programs that provide security on an individual level, such as education, healthcare, and combating climate change. Growing income inequality and lack of access to basic needs such as healthcare, housing, food, and quality education is a key reason to rethink the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy.


The U.S. will spend $494 billion over the next 8 years


In 2019, the U.S. spent $35.4 billion on maintaining the nuclear arsenal. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next eight years, the U.S. will spend $494 billion. In its 2021 defense budget, the Trump administration requested $44.5 billion to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the development of a new submarine launched warhead and intermediate-range missiles (these were previously banned under the INF treaty, from which Trump withdrew).


Currently, the U.S. has approximately 5,800 nuclear weapons. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review calls for expanding U.S. nuclear capabilities, though many military experts that a stockpile of 100 weapons provides a sufficient deterrent.


Reducing spending on nuclear weapons frees up money for human security


There is only so much money to go around without the government significantly increasing its resources. National security is important, but something we have to ask ourselves is whether our existing quality of life is worth protecting. There’s certainly an argument to be made that government spending should be more equitably spread across social and defense programs.


For example, one important area of human security that would benefit from increased spending is education. While the U.S. does spend more on education on average than other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, it consistently ranks lower on key education indicators, such as math scores. Disparity in education funding is a central reason for these lower scores. Evidence suggests that increased education spending leads to higher achievement levels, with the positive effects even greater on low income students.


Schools in low income areas are typically underfunded, as the federal government only provides between 8-9% of school budgets, while almost half of school funding comes from local taxes. The effect, of course, is that in districts that have lower property values, schools are likely to receive less funding that their wealthier counterparts. Many states do not provide additional funding, leaving schools in lower income neighborhoods in a position with an unequal starting point.


Less funding for schools in low income areas translates into a lack of field trips, elective classes, lunch programs, gifted and talented programs, smaller classes, and at times, qualified teachers. All of these aspects of education, many that we don’t often think about, contribute to students who both learn more and learn better, effectively preparing them to continue their education at a higher level.


Continued disparity in education funding will continue to create an unjust system that educates the privileged and leaves those remaining on the fringes of society. Increasing funding to low income schools would provide opportunities to increase standards, from expanded school lunch programs, to new technology, to increasing teacher’s salaries and funding for more teachers that would reduce the student-teacher ratio in the classroom.


Senator Bernie Sanders recently introduced an amendment to the defense budget to cut spending by 10% and shift that money to fund healthcare, housing, jobs, and education in areas with poverty rates of 25% or more. Much like the idea of defunding the police, defunding, or at least reducing funding, for nuclear weapons and national security in general would allow the government to increase spending in crucial social programs without breaking the backs of ordinary Americans through increased taxes.


Reframing nuclear weapons can change the conversation on social issues too


Reducing our nuclear arsenal also potentially reframes how we view the importance of nuclear weapons keeping us safe. As I was conducting interviews with staff from nuclear disarmament organizations as part of my dissertation research, a number of people indicated that they believed that how an issue is talked about is key in gaining support, both public and government. When the issue of nuclear weapons was reframed as a humanitarian threat and a violation of international humanitarian norms and laws in 2010, we began to see an increasing number of political actors jumping on the ‘no nukes’ bandwagon.


Lately, my news feed has been clogged with daily stories on social issues, and the news is scary. Just today, I read two different articles, one about how the changing climate is likely to force domestic migration within the U.S. over the next fifty years and the other about thousands of birds that are dropping dead out of the sky, speculatively caused by the fires on the West coast, and hence, climate change. We are also facing political unrest, unequal justice, and the lack of access to affordable healthcare. People of color tend to be disproportionately affected by all of the above the social challenges we face. Focusing more on human security issues in the United States may lead to action in other areas that threaten human security, such as the domestic instability that comes from systemic racism.


America is at a turning point. The events of 2020 have shed a strong light on the inequities many Americans face, from access to affordable basic healthcare to having a safety net in times of economic turmoil. Coupled with the ongoing protests calling for justice and reform, and the worsening effects of climate change, it is clear that we cannot continue on this path. It is crucial to place as much, if not more, importance on human security as we do national security. Reducing or eliminating our nuclear stockpiles reduces billions of dollars that we spend, money that could be spend more effectively securing the future of all Americans.

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