International relations changed profoundly and permanently at the detonation of the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the world can never really go back to the way it once was. It might be interesting to examine the issue of nuclear weapons, as well as their implications for foreign policy.
Atomic weapons have a destructive potential which makes their use very problematic. Not only can the blast from an atomic weapon be many times more powerful than a conventional weapon, these sort of devices can cause terrible destruction in other ways. An atomic bomb releases a large amount of thermal and radiation energy.The thermal energy can cause severe skin burns as well as start fires. Perhaps the most insidious effect of such and explosion is the residual radiation produced. Fallout can easily be carried by the wind for long distances. Fallout can cause a host of complications, depending on the amount that a person is exposed to. Not only can it cause severe problems in the short-term, exposure to radioactive material can also cause long-term issues such as tumors. Finally, nuclear weapons could potentially disrupt electronics due to an electromagnetic pulse.
The point of all of this is that there is no discrimination between enemy combatants and civilians. Even a low-yield device would most likely cause significant collateral damage in most situations. Aside from practical difficulties, there is of course the moral issue of when it could ever be justified to for a country to use such a weapon, especially with the knowledge that any use could potentially cause an even greater escalation in violence.
Since the end of World War II, the looming threat of nuclear weapons has had major implications for foreign policy. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union simmered for much of the Twentieth Century. Of course, the two massive nations could not risk confronting each other directly, due to the threat of nuclear war. Nevertheless, there were certain times during that era, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the two countries came fairly close to open war. While the fear of “mutually assured destruction” may have given both sides an incentive to avoid conflict, failure to do so could have been catastrophic.
As the cold war winded down, fear over nuclear weapons also dwindled, but they still have implications for foreign policy in the current century. Although the days of the Soviet Union are gone, tension has increased between the United States and Russia due to the situation in Crimea. Since both nations still have significant nuclear capability, it would behoove all involved to tone down their rhetoric. The situation is still not anywhere near as tense as things were during the Cold War, yet there should be no hurry to go back to those times.
Weapons of mass destruction in general have been used as justification for the United States to be involved, be it directly or indirectly, in the affairs of several countries. For example, the threat of such weapons was initially used as justification for the invasion of Iraq.
While the danger posed by nuclear weapons and similar devices is real, it is important for leaders to not use that danger as a justification for irresponsible or immoral actions. On the other hand, nations that have such weapons, such as the United States and Russia, obviously need to be cautious about how they deal with each other.
Nuclear weapons have had a profound impact on foreign policy for the United States. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this fact will completely change anytime soon.
Editorial By Zach Kirkman