Is a World Without Nuclear Weapons Really Possible?

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Can mankind uninvent the nuclear bomb, and rid the world of the greatest military threat to the human species and the survival of the planet ever created?

Logic might seem to say of course not. But the president of the United States and a number of key foreign-policy dignitaries are now on record saying yes. They acknowledge that a nuclear-weapons-free world remains a vision, not immediately attainable and perhaps not achievable within the lifetimes of most contemporary policy makers. But they believe that the vision needs to be shared, in a vibrant, powerful way.

A movement known as Global Zero has gained in strength to attempt just that. It was established in the wake of a January 2007 newspaper column by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn advocating a nuclear-free world. A group of 100 signatories (not including the above four) established Global Zero in Paris in December 2008. The organization’s goal is to rid the world of nuclear weapons by 2030 through a multilateral, universal, verifiable process, with negotiations on the Global Zero treaty beginning by 2019.

Ideas about eliminating the bomb are as old as the bomb itself. But Global Zero draws inspiration from the recent grass-roots effort to craft a land-mine treaty, and from the work of several influential philanthropists in global antipoverty campaigns. Of course, it also evolved from earlier nonproliferation efforts, including the 1996 report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. But the pace of the nonproliferation movement has accelerated in recent years. The current movement is notable too in that it has a serious strategy for moving forward—not at some distant time when miraculous new inventions might make nukes obsolete, but by later this decade, even if it would take at least another decade to put a treaty into effect.

Will President Obama really pursue such an idea? He gave an inspiring speech in Prague early in his first year in office, agreed to modest cuts in deployed forces with Russia in the New Start Treaty, and modestly lowered the profile of nuclear weapons in the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report. Those steps are not insignificant, but they have a good deal of continuity with past policy, and still leave us very far from nuclear zero.

The much-heralded nuclear-security summit in April, in Washington, was worthwhile. But it was notable primarily not for its progress toward nuclear zero, but for actions to reduce the risks of nuclear theft, accident, and terrorism. For example, Mexico agreed to convert a research reactor from highly enriched uranium (usable in bombs) to lower-enriched uranium (not usable); Ukraine agreed to eliminate its stocks of highly enriched uranium within two years; the United States and Russia recommitted to eliminate an excess stock of plutonium; and so on. Those steps, as well as the administration’s 25-percent increase in spending for global nonproliferation activities (to $2.7-billion in the 2011 budget request), are entirely sensible. But it seems unlikely that Obama will push nuclear issues in additional bold new ways anytime soon. On other national-security matters like Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been extremely pragmatic and deferential to military commanders, and other priorities, especially economic recovery, compete for his time and attention.

But even if Obama, in effect, drops nuclear zero, crises in Iran and North Korea may bring the issue to a head soon. As Obama is surely all too keenly aware, the motivation for nuclear-weapons abolition is not utopian or futuristic. It is the very pragmatic, immediate need to deny extremist countries the excuse of getting the bomb because others already have it. With leaders in Tehran, P’yongyang, and elsewhere bent on getting nuclear weapons, and charging Americans with double standards in our insistence that we can have the bomb but they cannot, Obama’s ability to galvanize a global coalition to pressure Iran, North Korea, and possibly others into scaling back their weapons programs may depend in part on regaining the moral high ground. And that, in turn, may require an American commitment to work toward giving up its own arsenal—that is, once doing so is verifiable, and once others agree to do the same.

But how to rid the world of nukes? And how to do so safely? A nuclear-abolition treaty could constructively contribute to global stability if done right, but it could be hazardous if done wrong. Among other things, it could make countries that depend on America’s military protection decide they should seek nuclear weapons of their own. Serious consequences could ensue if the Turkeys and Saudi Arabias and Japans and Taiwans of the world interpret the American debate over Global Zero to imply that they can no longer rely on the United States as a dependable strategic partner—a formal ally in the cases of Turkey and Japan, a more informal but still-trusted friend in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. The Global Zero movement could wind up sparking the very wave of nuclear proliferation and instability it was designed to prevent.

Sam Nunn compares nuclear disarmament to a mountain, with the summit beyond our current grasp and perhaps even out of sight. He advocates moving to a higher base camp, meaning much deeper disarmament and related measures, to determine if we can later reach the summit. That image makes sense, but I’d urge even more caution: We must also be safe on the way to the new base camp, and avoid committing ourselves to a certain route to the top too soon. A few scholars, including George Perkovich, Barry M. Blechman, and Frank N. von Hippel, acknowledge and discuss such complexities, but most Global Zero advocates don’t.

My forthcoming book on the subject does not argue against nuclear abolition; it is in fact a friendly skeptic’s case for nuclear disarmament. But I emphasize the conditions and caveats that would have to accompany any such treaty regime—including clear rules for how major powers might consider rearming themselves with nukes in the event of a future violation, even after weapons have supposedly been abolished. What if a dangerous country is highly suspected of having an active nuclear-weapons program but verification cannot resolve the question? What if a country develops an advanced biological pathogen with enormous potential lethality—and perhaps even an antidote that it could employ to protect its own people? Would nuclear deterrence truly be irrelevant or inappropriate as a response?

Many, if not most, advocates of Global Zero consider the abolition of nuclear weapons the moral equivalent of the abolition of slavery, and imply that, as with slavery, once eliminated, nukes should be gone for good. (The exception, these advocates say, would be a blatant violation of the treaty by a country that chooses to build a nuclear arsenal.) That, however, is a dangerous vision of a nuke-free world because it would deprive us of deterrent options we may someday need. Even once we eliminate nuclear weapons, in other words, we will have to accept the fact that we may not have done so forever. At a practical level, we will most likely still be living in a world full of nuclear power plants, as well as nuclear waste from nuclear bomb and energy programs to date. Neither the knowledge nor the nuclear materials will disappear.

What of the issue of timing—not only of when to try to negotiate and then eventually put in place a treaty, but of explaining the vision of nuclear disarmament for the short term? Many abolition advocates pull back the minute anyone asks if they want a treaty soon, recognizing the impracticality of trying to abolish nuclear weapons quickly. But it is they who put the idea into the contemporary nuclear debate with a renewed urgency, so putting off the details is neither consistent nor advisable.

That’s OK. There’s no time like the present, right? After all, eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the earth has technically been a goal of United States policy since the 1960s. Moreover, the world is likely to lose sight of the big picture during slow negotiations over the recent New Start Treaty with Moscow and ratification debates over that pact as well as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Bold ideas are inspiring and help the world remember how much is at stake.

I argue for a middle ground. Moving to nuclear zero at a set date in the near future is too fast. But dropping the subject for now and waiting for the 22nd century is too slow. Trying to abolish nuclear weapons too soon can, as I’ve said, spook American allies under our protection, but can also disrupt deterrent arrangements that are working today yet also somewhat fragile. That is, too much haste could encourage states entirely disinterested in nuclear disarmament to build up arsenals in the hope that the existing nuclear powers will reduce and thereby render their own nascent nuclear power greater. Too much haste also simply lacks credibility in a world in which some countries—Russia, Israel, Pakistan—clearly have no interest in denuclearizing anytime soon, even if the United States did. Declaration of ambitious but arbitrary and unattainable deadlines for action is more likely to discredit the Global Zero movement than to advance it.

The problem with putting off the nuclear-disarmament agenda, however, is that it leaves existing powers in a weak position to pressure would-be proliferators to abstain from the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and perpetuates a sense of complacency about the supposed safety of living with the bomb. We need a prudent form of urgency. Neither haste and impetuousness nor indefinite postponement on the matter will do.

The right time horizon for seriously pushing a new nuclear accord is when most of the world’s half-dozen or so major territorial and existential issues involving major powers are resolved—and this cannot be set to a calendar as precisely as the Global Zero movement would like. Those issues include the status of Taiwan, the territorial status of Kashmir, political relations between Russia and key “near abroad” states of Georgia and Ukraine in particular, and friction between Israel and its neighbors. Nuclear crises involving Iran and North Korea also need to be resolved, though the beginnings of a move toward nuclear disarmament might not have to await their complete resolution.

Once the former matters are largely resolved, the plausibility of great-power war over any imaginable issue that we can identify today will be very low. That would, in turn, make the basic structure and functioning of the international political system stable enough to take the risk of moving toward a nuclear-free world. That process will be so radical as to be inherently destabilizing in some sense, and thus prudent to pursue only when the great powers are in a cooperative mode and undivided by irredentist territorial matters.

Some argue that there is no foreseeable period of great-power peace and thus no prospect of the preconditions required for moving toward a denuclearized world. Such scholars often call themselves “realists” and imply that ideas such as Global Zero are just too utopian to be within mankind’s reach. But the so-called realists have a problem with their argument, too—the history of fallible mankind, and particularly of the nuclear age to date, makes it hard to believe that nuclear weapons will never be used if they continue to occupy a central role in international politics. If realism consigns us to the likelihood of nuclear war someday, it is hard to see why it is so prudent a worldview—indeed, it is hard even to call it realist, with all the connotations of prudence and pragmatism that the term implies.

That said, my vision for nuclear disarmament is of dismantling nuclear warheads, and should not be confused with their permanent abolition. The term “abolition” has several inappropriate connotations for our nuclear future. While most plausible uses of nuclear weapons would in fact be inhumane, it is war itself that is most inhumane, and war targeting civilians through whatever means that is the fundamental moral blight we should be trying to eliminate. Certain forms of biological-weapons attack, especially with plausible future pathogens; of large-scale conventional conflict resembling the world wars; and of wars that include genocide could be every bit as inhumane.

Outlawing nuclear weapons in a way that increased the prospects of other types of immoral warfare would be no accomplishment at all. Even as we strive for dismantling nuclear weapons, we need practical options for rebuilding them should even greater perils present themselves. Those might be pursuit of nuclear arms by a country bent on violating the accord, the development of advanced biological pathogens (the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report follows this line of thought), and even an especially threatening conventional military buildup by a future extremist state. That is the broad, strategic argument in favor of preserving options for nuclear reconstitution under a temporary withdrawal from the treaty, even after nuclear disarmament might someday be a reality.

The terms by which the right of temporary withdrawal could be exercised must be clearly stated, and a burden of proof placed on any state or group of states exercising the right. I argue for a “contact group” of democratic states, including not just traditional allies but newer powers like India and Brazil, that would be asked to support an American decision to rearm, should Washington ever consider that necessary. (The U.N. Security Council might not be reliable for that purpose, though it should be consulted too.)

Capricious or blatantly self-serving reconstitution must be avoided. But a treaty that precluded the international community from responding to the actions of an advanced future military power believed to be pursuing nuclear, biological, or enormous conventional military capabilities would be a chimera.

There is also a technical reason to view reconstitution as a real future policy option, even short of such extreme circumstances. Simply put, nuclear weapons will always be within reach of mankind, whatever we may do, whatever we may wish. Verification methods will almost surely be incapable of assuring us that all existing materials are dismantled or destroyed, even as verification improves in coming years. Moreover, demands for the nuclear-power industry make it likely that bomb-grade materials will be salvageable from nuclear fuel or nuclear waste.

In other words, not only is permanent, irreversible abolition unwise, it is also probably impossible. Still, dismantlement of all existing bomb inventories, in recognition of the fact that the day-to-day role of nuclear weapons in international security is dangerous and ultimately unsustainable, should become our goal.

With all the caveats and conditions, is a nuclear-disarmament treaty worth the trouble? Yes, because of the danger posed by nuclear weapons, on the one hand, and the positive power of ideas and ideals in international politics on the other. These weapons are so heinously destructive as to be illegitimate; they are fundamentally indiscriminate killers, and on top of that, they have proved to be far harder to safely build and handle than many understand. They have no proper role even as visible deterrents in the normal interactions of states, and we should aspire to a world in which they would no longer have such an active, operational role.