As the nations of the world review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May at the United Nations, they gather at a time of unprecedented hope for genuine progress toward disarmament. The new receptivity to nuclear abolition is reflected in the “New START” treaty between the United States and Russia, and was sparked by private initiatives led by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and other senior security experts and officials in many countries.
Yet behind the spirit of hope for a world without nuclear weapons lie deepening doubts about the sincerity of the nuclear-armed states. They vow in speeches and international conferences to get rid of these weapons, yet in their national security policies they cling to the bomb and show no sign of abandoning nuclear deterrence. A broad consensus exists on the urgency of stemming proliferation, yet little progress is visible in attempts to persuade North Korea and Iran to abandon nuclear capability. A critical juncture may be approaching. If the soaring rhetoric of disarmament cannot produce policy results soon, efforts to build support for nuclear abolition could collapse in cynicism, and an opportunity may be missed to advance international security.
Those who cling to nuclear weapons believe that nuclear deterrence has kept the peace and must be preserved to prevent world war. Security concerns are the fundamental justification for maintaining nuclear weapons. Those of us who wish to eliminate these weapons must address these concerns, and show how a strategy of progressive denuclearization is a better and more effective strategy for enhancing security. We must take on the deterrence argument, pointing to its weaknesses but also its potential transformation in a post-nuclear world. In short, we need a theory of disarmament that matches moral passion with political realism.
The defenders of continued nuclear deterrence dismiss disarmament as a practical impossibility. You cannot “uninvent” the bomb, we are told, and to think otherwise is folly. The point is correct of course, but this does not mean that the elimination of nuclear weapons is impossible or impractical. The realization that nuclear capability will never disappear is not an obstacle to achieving disarmament, but a foundation upon which to build a realistic and secure strategy for eliminating these weapons. The knowledge of nuclear capability can serve as a kind of weaponless deterrent, along with shared missile defenses and cooperative conventional defenses, to protect against nuclear cheating. These realities will serve to remind potential aggressors that an attempt to command a nuclear monopoly is bound to fail.
Jonathan Schell focused on this phenomenon in his 1984 book The Abolition. As nuclear reductions proceed, Schell wrote, “the capacity for retaliation would consist less and less of the possession of weapons and more and more of the capacity for rebuilding them, until, at the level of zero, that capacity would be all.” Nuclear zero in this understanding is less an absolute endpoint than a set of conditions, stages of zero, “in which the key issue is no longer the number of weapons in existence but the extent of the capacity and the level of readiness” for rebuilding. In a 2009 speech at Yale, Schell emphasized the centrality of what he called “The Knowledge” as the basis for deterrence in a world without nuclear weapons. This approach “capitalizes on the danger that radiates from nuclear know-how even in the absence of the hardware. Yes, that know-how is the basis for cheating on the agreement, but it is also the basis for a response, keeping deterrence intact.”
A dose of realism is needed about the claims that are made on behalf of nuclear deterrence. Undoubtedly the presence of nuclear weapons makes the leaders of nuclear-armed nations more cautious about directly confronting each other militarily. This does not mean, however, that nuclear deterrence has prevented war in the past or will do so in the future. Nuclear deterrence during the Cold War did not prevent wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan that took millions of lives. Nor was it the decisive factor in preventing war between the great powers, as political analysts have emphasized. Many other factors, including the development of cooperative political relations in Europe, account for the absence of war between the major states since World War II.
Nuclear weapons are considered by some to be tools against proliferation, but their very existence is an inducement to proliferation. When a country acquires or seeks nuclear weapons, it prompts other states to seek countervailing capability. This is evident in warnings by Egypt and other Middle East states that if Iran acquires the bomb, they will be forced to rethink their non-nuclear status. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar point in remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington in October 2009: “The nuclear status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. It gives other countries the motivation or the excuse to pursue their own nuclear options.”
The process of nuclear disarmament is not without risks. As nations reduce the number of weapons, the value of remaining weapons rises. This may increase the temptation to seek an advantage through nuclear breakout. Historical experience shows, however, that states can maintain relatively stable deterrence relations at minimum force levels. China has managed to maintain its nuclear deterrent with relatively low numbers, even in a very asymmetrical relationship vis-à-vis the huge arsenals of Russia and the United States. Russia today has a very large numerical superiority over the United States and NATO in short-range nuclear weapons, but this disparity does not confer any strategic advantages on Russia. India and Pakistan are in a conflict-prone relationship and possess relatively low numbers, and yet are assumed to be in a mutual deterrent posture. Arms control measures and enhanced transparency procedures can be developed to augment stability.
One strategy that might advance nuclear disarmament is “virtual nuclear deterrence,” which is the separation of warheads from launchers as nations reduce the overall number of weapons. Political leaders nervous about moving directly toward nuclear zero might be more comfortable with an interim stage of disassembling nuclear weapons. Deterrence relationships would persist based on the understanding that in the event of a crisis, states could reassemble and redeploy within a defined period of time. Deterrence would become a function not only of capabilities but of the length of time required for reconstituting weapons components. As disarmament moves to the next stages, from virtual arsenals to nuclear abolition and beyond, the time required to reintroduce nuclear weapons would lengthen. The goal would be to increase that time, to lessen the nuclear danger, and further diminish the role of nuclear weapons. At the end of the process, nuclear knowledge and the ability to reassemble dispersed components would be all that remains, and would constitute the final form of deterrence.
Missile defenses are another element of realistic disarmament. Throughout the atomic age, differences over missile defense have been an obstacle to disarmament. The deployment of defenses by a state that maintains large offensive nuclear capabilities creates the fear of a possible first strike. This undermines security and prompts the other side to expand its offensive weapons. Differences over this issue prevented Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev from reaching a historic agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons at Reykjavík in 1986. The question remains troublesome today. Russian concerns about U.S. missile defense deployments on its borders have complicated recent negotiations for further nuclear arms reductions. So far the technical capabilities of missile defense systems lag far behind their claimed potential. The ability to shoot down ballistic missiles and counter the threat from cruise missiles has not been proven, despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in missile defense development programs in recent decades. These programs have generated more political controversy than actual protection against missiles. Nonetheless, missile defenses are seen by some states as a form of security assurance.
Reagan envisioned missile defenses as protection against cheating in a world where nuclear weapons have been eliminated, and thought such defenses should be shared with Russia and other states. When offensive arsenals have been reduced to zero, and the principal remaining nuclear danger is the threat of cheating, missile defense becomes more feasible. In this scenario, a defensive system would face only the small and technologically immature missile force that a pariah regime might assemble in secret. This more-limited mission became Reagan’s principal rationale for missile defenses. As Schell observes, Reagan was thereby “addressing the most frequently made and most potent objection to nuclear abolition: that if it were ever accomplished, the world might be held hostage by a cheater suddenly in possession of a nuclear monopoly and so capable of forcing the world to bow to its will.”
Shultz and others have argued for a return to the Reagan formula—a commitment to shared defenses as reassurance in a world of zero nuclear weapons, with missile defenses deployed after nuclear weapons are eliminated. The United States should suspend further unilateral missile defense deployments and work with Russia to develop a mutual missile defense program that would become operational as nuclear weapons levels are reduced toward zero. Under this scenario, Russia and other nations would have the option of relying on missile defenses as an extra reassurance and protection against cheating and nuclear breakout.
The most important strategy for achieving greater peace and security is the development of cooperative security relations and effective mechanisms of conflict prevention and resolution. The safer that states perceive their security environment to be, the less incentive they have to seek weapons of mass annihilation. Empirical evidence confirms that peace is most effectively promoted by a cluster of democratic practices, economic interdependence, and commitment to international norms and institutions. These cornerstones of peace create virtuous circles of behavior that reinforce each other and stem the outbreak and escalation of violent conflict. Democratic states do not fight each other, mutual interdependence in trade and finance produce common interests (sometimes involuntarily, as in the China-U.S. relationship), and international institutions establish common normative frameworks that guide cooperative behavior and in some cases permit joint peace enforcement action.
Realist theory argues that conflict prevention must precede disarmament; that states will not reduce their reliance on weapons until they feel more secure in their relations with each other. Reducing the likelihood of armed conflict thus helps to make disarmament more likely. The policies identified here—the institutionalization of democracy, economic interdependence, and participation in multilateral institutions—do not provide simple answers to security dilemmas, but they are steps in the direction of increasing the prospect and sustainability of disarmament.
In his book God’s Politics, Jim Wallis argues that the advocates of peace must address the questions that violence purports to answer, but in a better and more effective manner. Too often disarmament supporters have shied away from tough questions about deterrence and security and have focused only on the moral arguments against indiscriminate mass killing. These ethical concerns are critically important, but they are not sufficient to win the argument for disarmament. It is also necessary to address legitimate international security concerns, and to show that nations are safer and more secure without the bomb. A strategy of progressive denuclearization is fully compatible with political realism.
David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.