Last night, President Obama addressed the nation to present a strategy to combat what he calls the worst terrorist threat the U.S. has faced in over a decade. He reminded Americans that, on this very day 13 years ago, the illusion of invincible American security was shattered. “We live in a time of great change,” he assured us. But while the security threats of today look nothing like they did before 9/11, our nation’s military spending priorities are very much mired in the Cold War.
This new reality in which we live is evidenced more and more by each group, state, or individual that arises to challenge the United States with violence or belligerence that creates instability. States across the globe are crumbling from within and from without. In the spring, Vladimir Putin absorbed Crimea in a show of Cold War revivalism. Meanwhile, political chaos prevails in Libya, with armed factions forcing the interim government to disintegrate last week. Along the same vein, competing candidates vie for the Afghan presidency, endangering prospects of both a peaceful transfer of power and a clean American exit.
And while states fail, insurgent groups prosper. In Somalia, the U.S. began an airstrike operation last week targeting Islamist militants, and in Nigeria, the search continues for 200 young schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram nearly three months ago. July’s Gaza uprisings were met with forceful retaliation by Israeli forces, the worst violence Israel has suffered since the second intifada. In neighboring Syria, a three-year civil war and one of the worst humanitarian crises of the century drags on. One killer has been apolitical: the summer of 2014 saw the largest Ebola virus outbreak in history, killing thousands in West Africa.
These international security threats pose enormous challenges for the United States. President Obama has explored a number of responses as each incident arises, whether it be diplomacy, aid, airstrikes, or even inaction. No matter the solution, one thing is clear: America’s stockpile of almost 5,000 nuclear weapons does nothing to address the rise of violent insurgent groups, tottering governments, the outbreak of war, the spread of deadly disease, or the ambitions of delusional leaders. Nuclear weapons have never been more irrelevant to today’s international security crises.
As we witnessed last night, nuclear weapons are not part of our strategy to combat these threats in the Middle East—but all the while, they maintain a strong position in the Pentagon’s budget priorities. Recent, well-respected studies have predicted that the U.S. will spend up to $1 trillion on nuclear weapons programs over the next thirty years. The U.S. has billion-dollar plans underway to “extend the lives” of weapons that have played but a minor role in our national security strategy for the past 25 years, and that haven’t been used in almost 70. And while there is no current situation that could require it, the U.S. is building nuclear-capable fighter jets, part of the most expensive project in the history of the U.S. military.
Thirteen years ago, the Twin Towers fell, forever changing the course of our national security strategies. But twenty-five years ago, the Berlin wall fell and the 20th century’s nuclear stand-off came to a welcome end, changing absolutely little in the way the United States spends its money. The U.S. defense budget already exceeds the combined defense budgets of the world’s ten most powerful countries. At the very least, there are significant savings to be found in the nuclear weapons portion of the budget. At the very most, the Pentagon might refocus on the current security landscape and likely threats of the future, rather than building weapons of the past.
Amanda Waldron is the communications associate at Council for a Livable World.