Every decade has its defining question.
In the '70s, it was, "Who wears short shorts?" In the '80s, the nation wondered, "Where's the beef?" In the '90s, we struggled to answer one simple question: "Can't we all just get along?" And during the '00s, with two disastrous wars and the looming threat of terrorism, Americans demanded to know, "Whatcha gonna do with all that ass/All that ass inside them jeans?"
Barely four and a half months into the '10s, it's perhaps too early to say for sure what this decade's defining question will be. If I had to guess, though, I think it'll end up being something like: "Who should have nuclear weapons?"
Throughout May, world leaders are meeting in New York to help answer that question. The meeting is a conference to discuss the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Active since 1970, the NPT allows five of its 189 signatory nations to have nukes. The U.S., Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom are allowed to have nukes. In exchange for the privilege, the five nations agree to refrain from using a nuke against a non-nuclear state and work toward the eventual elimination of their arsenals. Additionally, all signatories are recognized to have an inalienable right to peaceful nuclear energy production.
The U.S. and Russia possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons between them.
The U.S. has 5,113 nuclear weapons, roughly 2,200 of which are so-called strategic warheads, the kind that can be lobbed at other cities from a long distance. The rest are so-called tactical nukes, the kind we'd use on a battlefield – or maybe for Fourth of July celebrations during a Palin Administration.
The Ruskies are believed to have about 2,800 strategic warheads. Russia feels like it needs more nukes that the U.S. because its conventional military is crap these days.
Guess who the third nukiest nuclear power is? Believe it or not, it's France, which is thought to have about 300 strategic warheads – at least one of which is rumored to be aimed at the Fox News headquarters because of all that "freedom fries" nonsense. And by rumored, I mean I just started that rumor.
Numbers four and five on the nuclear Who's Who are China and the U.K. The Chinese have about 180 strategic warheads. I'm sure they'll get more once the U.S. moves all its weapons factories to China to save money.
The Brits have about 160 strategic nukes. Each is equipped with a loudspeaker that apologizes profusely for any inconvenience its use may cause.
Three nations that never signed the NPT also have nukes. Israel developed its nuclear program in the late '60s and early '70s, an era when the large armies of neighboring Arab nations threatened to overrun Israel. Though the conventional strategic threat to Israel has waned, Israel continued to hone its nuclear program. It's now believed to have missiles, aircraft and submarines capable of delivering nuclear payloads.
India and Pakistan declined to sign the NPT because, at the time the NPT was drafted, they were warring enemy nations racing one another to develop nukes first. Points for honesty, I suppose.
Not that anyone asked me, but I think the NPT is the most successful arms control treaty since Philip II's No More Impaling People on Sharp Pikes Dipped In Feces Accord of 340 B.C. In 40 years, only one country that signed the NPT, North Korea, has dropped out and developed a nuclear weapon.
Despite that success, the NPT is teetering on the edge of obsolescence. Non-nuclear nations increasingly view the NPT as a tool to keep non-nuclear nations weak enough to be bombed by the West. Remember that the War On Terror™ targeted non-nuclear nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia) while sparing nuclear nations that behaved just as terror-ifically (Pakistan and North Korea). With the NPT's Big Five squeezing Iran about its nuclear fuel enrichment program, while ignoring Israel's actual arsenal, more world leaders are calling B.S. on the NPT.
Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we'll be forced to modify the treaty in a way that makes it more meaningful for modern times.
Or maybe it'll just crumble and regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Brazil will join the arms race.