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.