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Nuclear Arms Control: If Britain, Why Not the U.S.?

The following opinion was originally posted at the America Abroad weblog on TPM Café. All past posts may be found at America Abroad - A Blog on Current Affairs on this website, or at TPM Café.

Some readers wonder why, if I believe Britain should give up its nuclear weapons, I do not make a similar case in favor of America doing so. Fair question.

I have long advocated very deep reductions in America's nuclear arsenal — to well below 1,000 weapons. I spent a good part of the 1990s making this case, arguing among other things that the United States should

  • announce that the sole purpose of retaining any nuclear weapons was to prevent their use by others,
  • eliminate tactical nuclear weapons entirely and reduce (unilaterally where possible) its overall nuclear force levels to a few hundred weapons;
  • remove nuclear weapons from their delivery systems in order to lengthen the time between a decision to use nuclear weapons and their actual use;
  • and negotiate far-reaching arms control treaties to codify and verify these reductions, and ban nuclear testing, fissile material production, as well as the deployment of long-range ballistic missiles.
  • Unfortunately, much of these writings were completed in the pre-WWW age and can be found only on book shelves and in file cabinets rather than on the Internet. The basic argument, however, can be found in this Brookings Policy Brief, as well as in this more recent Century Foundation Paper.

I still strongly belief that the United States should fundamentally revise its nuclear posture in this manner — and I am part of a group of people who intend to make a new American nuclear weapons policy a central part of the 2008 presidential election campaign with the aim of getting these changes adopted by the next administration. (Stay tuned on this initiative, which will come to you early next year.)

"Ok, Daalder," I hear some of you say, "but this is not the same as what you think Britain should do — which is to go to zero weapons eventually, if not now." True. And the reason why I don't think the U.S. should disarm are basically two.

First, some countries (Japan foremost among them) rely on the American nuclear guarantee for their own security. Without that guarantee they would be far more likely (and in Japan's case would almost certainly) to seek security in developing their own nuclear arsenal. This is a basic difference between America's nuclear weapons and Britain's (and everyone else's for that matter).

Second, I don't believe in disarmament — I believe in arms control, a basic distinction Hedley Bull, Tom Schelling and Mort Halperin wrote about almost half a century ago. Getting rid of weapons doesn't eliminate conflict. To the contrary, it can stimulate conflict. The incentive to acquire nuclear weapons in a world that had none would be far greater than it is today. And the incentive to use them would be greater still. The point was well-stated by Bernard Brodie at the dawn of the nuclear age: "For the race to get the bomb would not be an even one, and the side which got it first in quantity would be under enormous temptation to use it before the opponent had. . . . Thus we see that a war in which atomic bombs are not used is more likely to occur if both sides have the bombs in quantity from the beginning than if neither side has it at the outset or if only one side has it." (Brodie's reference to "in quantity" referred to a sufficient number to provide for ensured retaliation — tens or hundreds, not thousands of weapons).

That is why, as George Quester has argued, the "paradoxical logic of fewer would be better suggests that two nuclear powers would be better than zero or one." And that is why I think the United States should keep some nuclear weapons, but Britain should not.

Posted at TPM Café on December 6, 2006 -- 9:32 AM Eastern Time

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