The renewed interest in abolition is welcome news if it arouses popular support and gives new impetus to practical moves to reduce nuclear weapons and nuclear dangers and is not diverted into an academic discussion of how to get from 500 weapons to zero.
That effort needs a catalyst, like Gorbachev's withdrawal of much of the Red Army from Eastern Europe. One would be a commitment to no first use by NATO. Another would be a unilateral reduction in US nuclear arms by several thousand How deep a cut would be politically feasible without Russian reciprocity is open to question. A third is ratification of a test ban. Although the Democrats enjoy a 60-40 majority in the Senate, that is short of the two-thirds majority needed and right-wing Republicans remain firmly opposed to a ban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while publicly noting that a test ban is verifiable, has set a steep price for his support: procurement of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.
Despite President Obama's endorsement of the goal of ultimate elimination - there's that word again - the political climate is not especially propitious:
- The new abolitionism has not inspired a mass movement, like those in the 1950s or the early 1980s, that could make Obama do much to achieve the goal.
- The understanding that nuclear arms are pure terror devices, not usable for any coherent military purpose, has yet to gain widespread acceptance.
- Nuclear conservatives remain in bureaucratic control of the issue in Washington and other key capitals.
- Many of the practical steps face an uphill fight in Congress.
- The international climate is inhospitable as Russia enhances the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy, as a nuclear arms race heats up in the South Asia, as Iran moves full speed ahead with enrichment, and as North Korea remains free to produce more plutonium and conduct more missile and nuclear tests. Unless these conditions are significantly altered, the new abolition movement is unlikely to gain much traction.
Many abolitionists have as a premise that US moves toward zero will influence proliferators, but to premise negotiating efforts with either North Korea or Iran on this demonstration effect puts the cart before the horse. Without negotiating progress with North Korea and Iran, it will be difficult to move toward zero in Washington.
Iran has showed little interest in US talk about nuclear abolition. Sanctions have proven counterproductive. Air strikes will only retard work at known facilities at Natanz and accelerate it at unknown sites.
A commitment to zero will not be persuasive to North Korea, which has been unusually explicit about why it acquired nuclear weapons: insecurity. The prime reason for that insecurity is the United States - what Pyongyang calls America's "hostile policy." For North Korea, the concept of hostile policy goes beyond the threat posed by Washington's nuclear arsenal, and particularly the US threat of first use of nuclear weapons against it. It includes the threat of conventional attack, economic sanctions and attempts to suborn its government. Ending this "hostile policy" by improving political relations rather than the elimination of US nuclear arms is Pyongyang's main condition for denuclearization. Whether it will change its approach in the future and, like China, link its nuclear reductions to those of the United States is not clear. In its most recent formulation, a January 13, 2009 statement by the Foreign Ministry spokesman, it hints at a change of approach: "If the nuclear issue is to be settled, leaving the hostile relations as they are, all nuclear weapons states should meet and realize the simultaneous nuclear disarmament. This is the only option." Yet the statement retains a key qualifier, "leaving the hostile relations as they are."
Stopping the nuclear programs of Iran or North Korea enrichment effort is only possible through sustained US diplomatic give-and-take.
The world needs to focus now on first steps toward abolition, not the ultimate goal.
Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Security Project at the Social Science Research Council and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.
Related Materials from Atlantic-Community:
- Henry D. Sokolski: Spreading Atoms for Peace: The Wrong Way to Zero
- Global Zero: Jacqueline Shire and Ward H. Wilson: Regional Disputes Do Not Spoil Disarmament
- Global Zero: Barry M. Blechman: Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: Yes, We Can!
- 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