Zero Nuclear Weapons -- Maybe / Maybe Not in My Lifetime
Posted by David Shorr
Like many foreign policy mavens of a certain age (i.e. from That 70s Generation), I got into this business to oppose the nuclear arms race. Thirty years later, we find ourselves living in proverbial "interesting times." Ever since President Obama's famed Prague speech, the aim of US policy is the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons, as the above video from Global Zero so poignantly reminds us. The arsenals of the two Cold War-era superpowers have been reduced significantly. Yet we've also seen so-called horizontal proliferation -- to new nuclear-armed states -- headed in the wrong direction, with the addition of the world's 9th and potentially 10th nuclear powers.
So it isn't easy to envision how we get to zero, but nonetheless important to try. In Prague the president said the goal might not be reached in his lifetime. Assuming we make it to our early-80s, though, that gives us 30 more years -- a timeframe that does seem plausible. A lot can change in three decades, as we've seen. And that's really the point: that nuclear abolition will be achieved through a sequence of changes.
These issues came to mind recently when writing a piece for the G8 Research Group and Newsdesk Media's issues guide for the upcoming G8 summit and also in side conversations with colleagues at the ASAN Plenum conference in Seoul. In my summit piece, I framed US-Russian reductions and the challenges of North Korean / Iran as representing alternative nuclear futures. They presage the futures that were on the minds of negotiators in the late-1960s as they drafted the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Depending on how things go, we'll either move toward the disarmed world stipulated by the NPT or the ever-growing nuclear club the treaty was intended to prevent.
As I say, the path toward zero will be marked by changes along the way. Clearly the final steps will be especially tricky; nations surrendering their last nukes will want to be quite confident that everyone else is doing likewise. On the other hand, those last disarmament steps will only come after the ground has already been laid. By the time we're dealing with the practicalities of a nuclear weapons-free world, the world will already have travelled a great distance. Consider the following as a rough sequence of steps / contingencies.
Still plenty of room for US & Russian cuts. The two nations with over 90% of the world's n-weapons have come a long way on their NPT obligation to trim their arsenals, which stand at about 1/5 of Cold War peak levels. And the 2010 New START agreement caps Russian and US strategic launchers at 1,550. Because non-deployed warheads are not counted in the treaty, however, each still has a total of 8,000 or so -- enough to not only annihilate any adversary but, as we used to say, make the rubble bounce.
As further reductions are announced and debated, expect to hear arguments against cuts that are either overwrought or just imprudent. In the former category will be Republican fire-breathers trying to equate reduction with military weakening. "With Iran trying to get nukes, this is exactly the wrong time blahblahblah." By this argument, nuclear weapons aren't the most indiscriminately destructive technology in human history but somehow symbols of American power -- of course we want more, not less. Which pretty much gets it backwards. Because of these weapons' catastrophic capabilities, we should want as few as possible.
The second argument, dealing with how many we need for our deterrent force, is more substantive. The United States must retain a sufficient arsenal to deter a nuclear attack against us or our allies. This doesn't call for keeping as many arms as possible, but enough for a balance of terror -- with all sides knowing they can retaliate if attacked, and that any attacker would face retaliation. Trying to prevail in a nuclear war or gain advantage in the power balance is a fool's errand. Thus the other way to end up with too many nukes is to overdo one's deterrent force so that it becomes provocative. Again, deterrence actually means wanting a potential adversary to know he can strike back at you. It's not a good idea to calibrate our force to be too destructive because it could look like we're preparing for nuclear victory. That just sets the whole situation on too thin a knife's edge.
Disarmament, party of five. So far nuclear arms reduction agreements have been a strictly bilateral affair, limited to the United States and Russia due to the preponderance of weapons in their hands. When the NPT was concluded over 40 years ago, five countries signed the treaty as nuclear weapon-state parties: China, France, the USSR, UK, and US. While China, France, and Britain have been overshadowed by the two big nuclear powers, they're under the same obligation to disarm (today each has between 200-300 warheads). In the not-too-distant future, the three of them will also have to limit their arsenals.
Making the nonproliferation norm universal. The implementation of an arms control regime for all five weapon-state parties to the NPT will represent a watershed and a game-changer. That's because attention would inevitably turn to three key players who, until then, would likely have remained completely outside nonproliferation regime. Would India, Israel, and Pakistan be compelled to cut their nuclear forces too? Well, yes and no. The necessary conditions to reach global zero have to do with the world community's norms regarding n-weapons, but also the other geostrategic conditions that make nations want them -- the threats they confront right in their backyards.
Any disarmament by the three other acknowledged or de facto nuclear powers depends on improvement of Israel's security conditions (i.e. peace with its neighbors) and rapprochement between India and Pakistan. But in the broader global nonproliferation context, we should note the added pressures on them once the five traditional nuclear powers are all at low levels. From the vantage of international law, the three are under no obligation to disarm since they were never NPT signatories. Once global zero is that much closer, though, they might be uncomfortable in the position of holdouts.
My true hard-core arms control wonk colleagues have no doubt examined all these angles and contingencies, and then some. I'm sure they have great ideas for the last delicate steps to nuclear abolition. But an airport shuttle conversation en route to Incheon made me think it'd be useful to focus on some key milestones. The president and others have already acknowledged this will take many years or decades. Skeptics must argue such changes would never happen, despite all the changes we've already seen.