Is worldwide nuclear disarmament a feasible goal worth pursuing? While achieving this objective may prove impossible in the short term, pursuing the goal of a nuclear-free world will help the world's existing nuclear powers discourage proliferation, and help stabilize the international system.
The feasibility of global zero hinges on the question of whether the logic of nuclear deterrence will ever seem completely obsolete in the eyes of today's nuclear powers - in other words, whether they can be convinced that nuclear weapons are not preventing dangers more serious and more likely than those they are creating. On this front, there have been several promising developments and trends. One may just recall the famous Wall Street article by Schultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn, or President Obama's campaign, where he openly recommitted the U.S. to eventually abandon its nuclear stockpile, a notion that has the support of all of America's allies and security partners, who, under the requirements of the NPT, are obliged to follow suit. Earlier this year, Obama and Russian President Medvedev committed "our two nations to achieving a nuclear-free world." Moreover, in spite of several years of deteriorating relations with Russia and ongoing debate over the extent of America's commitment to Taiwan, there is no danger that the world's three great nuclear weapons powers (Russia, China, and the U.S.) would take actions that could lead to nuclear war. Finally, the likelihood of nuclear deterrence proving effective against transnational terrorist groups who do not represent any government is highly doubtful, negating these weapons' usefulness in current U.S. conflicts.
However, we are unlikely to see outright disarmament for some time to come.The joint understanding signed by the U.S. and Russia in July allows each side to maintain between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads and 500 to 1,100 strategic delivery vehicles. Negotiations with the DPRK and Iran are strained, and there does not appear to be progress towards any kind of nuclear disarmament agreement between India and Pakistan.
In addition, there are at least four rationales for keeping some nuclear weapons. First, if possessing these weapons would not in itself make war more likely, then one could argue that there is no reason for a state not to retain them anyway as a contingency to deter war and aggression. Second, if the U.S. or Russia were to reduce its stockpile too dramatically, it could encourage proliferation among states attempting to gain strategic superiority over them. Third, too-dramatic reductions on the part of the U.S. could actually incentivize proliferation among its allies, because such reductions could lead states currently under the U.S. nuclear umbrella (i.e. Japan) to doubt America's commitment to protecting them, driving them to pursue their own nuclear deterrents to balance against their perceived threats (i.e. the DPRK). Finally, even if a state dismantles its nuclear weapons, the human knowledge and technical capability to build weapons cannot be undone.
Nevertheless, a number of policy options remain open to the U.S. that would encourage movement towards global zero, particularly ratifying and enforcing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty, halting the production of small nuclear weapons (i.e. the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator) and the Reliable Replacement Warhead, and strengthening the IAEA. While these steps may not lead to complete disarmament in the short term, these measures would discourage nuclear proliferation, which is certainly a critical short-run goal. In addition, the U.S. should continue to push for additional arms reductions with Russia. Some will likely speculate that bilateral arms reductions will say more about America's relationship with Russia than they do about either's philosophical commitment to the goal of nuclear disarmament. However, the fact remains such agreements will still send a message to other countries that the world's strongest nuclear powers are losing faith in the usefulness of these weapons, and this may in turn encourage them to embrace this perspective as well.
Lawrence J. Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Senior Adviser to the Center for Defense Informati on. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration. Milton Wilkins is a Research Intern at the Center for American Progress.
Related Materials from Atlantic-Community:
- Global Zero: Charles D. Ferguson: Cold War Lessons for Today's Nuclear Disarmament Debate
- Global Zero: Hall Gardner:Precondition for Abolition: Five Factors for Consensus Building
- Global Zero: Kenneth N. Luongo: Controlling Loose Nukes
- Global Zero: Tom Z. Collina: The road to Zero: Just Look Down
- Global Zero: Subrata Ghoshroy: Focus on Intermediat Steps