The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy
By Harold Brown and John Deutch
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2007
The end of the Cold War changed "the balance of nuclear terror," and with it the centrality of nuclear forces in U.S. security strategy. In consequence, some politicians and analysts, including several former senior foreign policy officials who wrote on this page, want to make the complete elimination of nuclear weapons a principal U.S. foreign policy goal -- as a practical means of mobilizing more resolute international action to combat the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to discourage their possession and use.
We agree that the strongest possible measures must be taken to inhibit the acquisition of and roll back the possession of nuclear weapons. However, the goal, even the aspirational goal, of eliminating all nuclear weapons is counterproductive. It will not advance substantive progress on nonproliferation; and it risks compromising the value that nuclear weapons continue to contribute, through deterrence, to U.S. security and international stability.
A nation that wishes to acquire nuclear weapons believes these weapons will improve its security. The declaration by the U.S. that it will move to eliminate nuclear weapons in a distant future will have no direct effect on changing this calculus. Indeed, nothing that the U.S. does to its nuclear posture will directly influence such a nation's (let alone a terrorist group's) calculus.
Whatever their other merits (and they are significant), it is difficult to argue that a comprehensive test ban treaty, a "no first use" declaration by the U.S., a dramatic reduction in the number of deployed or total nuclear weapons in our stockpile, an end to the production of fissionable material will convince North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan or Israel to give up their nuclear weapons programs.
True enough, the U.S. ratified the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty, whose Article Six states: "Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
No one suggests abandoning the hope embodied in such a well-intentioned statement. However, hope is not a policy, and, at present, there is no realistic path to a world free of nuclear weapons.
One cannot, for example, make the scientific knowledge and technological know-how that make nuclear weapons possible disappear. Proliferating states, even if they abandoned these devices under resolute international pressure, would still be able to clandestinely retain a few of their existing weapons -- or maintain a standby, break-out capability to acquire a few weapons quickly, if needed.
So long as serious political differences exist between nations and peoples, and given that the possibility of nuclear weapons exists, the U.S. should have nuclear weapons to deter potential opponents and to avoid intimidation by other states seeking a capability of weapons of mass destruction. In any case, even in the absence of overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons, the great predominance of U.S. conventional forces would remain a strong motive for aspiring states to seek nuclear weapons.
So what is to be done?
It is possible to slow the spread of nuclear weapons. In the 1970s, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and Argentina were convinced to abandon their weapons programs. In the 1990s, South Africa voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons after apartheid.
During the first Clinton administration, the U.S. successfully persuaded governments of the former Soviet Union to transfer their nuclear weapons to the new Russian state. During the present Bush administration, Libya renounced its nuclear program. In each case, these successes came about by the combined application of the carrots and sticks of proliferation policy, and a change in the way a proliferating state perceived its security circumstances.
Given its predominant conventional weapons capability, the U.S. can safely reduce the total inventory of nuclear weapons to the lowest number needed for the purpose of deterrence. This number is likely to be considerably below the present stockpile of over 8,000 weapons. This reduction will harmonize nuclear weapons policy with our attempt to encourage nonproliferation elsewhere. Meanwhile, the U.S. should not propose or fund large-scale programs or initiatives that suggest new roles for nuclear weapons.
In sum, a significant reduction in the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile could be justified on the ground of cost, compared to the level needed for credible deterrence; however, the vision of zero nuclear weapons is neither necessary nor politically useful for making decisions on those reductions today.
Adopting an aspirational goal -- to eliminate nuclear weapons -- similarly risks obscuring the reasons pro and con for deciding other issues.
For decades, there's been a debate about the desirability of a universal and permanent comprehensive nuclear test ban (CTB). Those favoring the complete elimination of nuclear weapons are unlikely to consider a compromise measure, such as a five-year renewable CTB.
Yet a compromise would likely attract political support in the U.S. Congress. It would also likely attract the support of many of the 44 nations listed in Article XIV of the NPT -- such as India, Israel and Pakistan -- that must become signatories before a test-ban treaty enters into force.
Here is another important issue. The Bush administration has proposed a Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW) to replace existing nuclear warheads with a new design. The RRW, it says, will facilitate reductions in the stockpile; permit confidence in the reliability, security and safety of weapons for the indefinite future; as well as maintain the design capability of the Department of Energy nuclear weapons laboratories. The RRW could lead to a design that is certified without testing, but that surely would be a subject of debate.
Whether this is a good idea or not, the decision should be made on the basis of the infrastructure needed to support the U.S. nuclear force structure and assure its reliability. It should not be decided on the basis of whether the RRW does or does not contribute to a distant and uncertain goal of a nuclear-free world.
There are several critical nonproliferation objectives that should be pursued, but they do not require any unattainable vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world to justify them. Supplier states, for one, should seek to control the transfer of fissile material and relevant technology, using the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Second: Building on the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici program, greater emphasis needs to be given to security of weapons and weapons-usable material, and not just in Russia. Third: Given the potential expansion of nuclear power around the world, it is urgent to put into place new means for controlling the aspects of the fuel cycle -- enrichment and fuel reprocessing -- that present the greatest proliferation risk.
Finally, the most important and difficult task is to change the underlying security circumstances that lead nations to seek nuclear weapons. To that end, direct negotiations involving positive incentives (economic, political and security arrangements) for states willing to abandon nuclear weapons aspirations, as well as cooperation with others to impose negative sanctions across an escalating spectrum on recalcitrant actors, are essential. These are concrete actions, analogous to the Marshall Plan, to take a historical example, not mere gestures like the Kellogg-Briand Treaty of 1928, which "outlawed war."
Nuclear weapons are not empty symbols; they play an important deterrent role, and cannot be eliminated. Foreign policy must be based on this reality; and the U.S. should work with other nations on those achievable objectives that lower the risks of the spread of nuclear weapons capability and the possibility of nuclear weapons use.
Regarding “The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy”, November 19, authors Harold Brown and John Deutch perpetuate the fallacy that Armageddon is somehow “deterred” by the possession of the deadliest weapons known to humankind. But the myth of deterrence is precisely that; a myth.
Deterrence cannot work because the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons are infinite which predicates that our ability to prevent their use must be 100% successful. Since the U.S. and Russia between them retain around 2,000 nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert; and since the spread of civilian nuclear technology, ostensibly for “peaceful purpose” has resulted in the development of nuclear weapons; and since the extreme stresses soon to be felt from climate change could provoke the use of even a regional nuclear exchange; there is no possibility of 100% prevention of the use of nuclear weapons. Our systems are too fallible to prevent human, political or technical error.
Given this, we have no choice but to abandon nuclear weapons – and the civilian nuclear technology that spawns them. The U.S. must lead the way because it is precisely the creation of the club of nuclear “haves and have nots” that invites other countries to develop these most deadly of weapons of mass destruction.
If we are to abandon nuclear weapons, we must also abandon the opportunity to make them. All forms of civilian nuclear reactors keep that opportunity alive. Therefore, we must end both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Otherwise, we may instead exchange global warming for nuclear winter.
The authors state that no gestures toward nuclear disarmament by the US would convince other nuclear powers to get rid of their nuclear arsenals. That judgment , of course, remains a matter of speculation, until the the major nuclear power, instead of threatening first use, begins a set of conciliatory steps toward eliminating the threat and moving toward universal and verifiable inspection. Deterrence assumes a rational decision-maker unwilling to inflict greater harm on one’s own country. The British Intelligence Agency M15 has confirmed that the market place for nuclear weapons capability has been expanding, with proliferation, to include non-state actors and a Rand Corporation study shows that a single modest size nuclear weapon, that might be smuggled into the US and exploded at the port of Long Beach, could push the US and the global economy into free fall before we could even accurately count the dead.
Investing billions to make certain that every nuclear weapon in the US arsenal will still have the reliable killing capacity of its original design will not deter the actual threats. Moreover, the design of nuclear weapons for battlefield use can only increase the motivations for adversaries to harm the US. The security that the current US nuclear weapons planning achieves is for the group of scientists, development contractors, and strategists who benefit most when their own unneeded development of weapons stimulates the same in adversaries. Verification is possible and it could lead to massive disarmament and greater safety for all of us if only the efforts of the nuclear warriors were redirected to finding better ways for the planet to survive.
Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, The University of California
Professor, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center
Harold Brown and John Deutch ’s nuclear fixation is just as foolish as the liberal “nuclear disarmament fantasy” (Nov. 19, 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed page). The inherent dual –use nature of all technology (nuclear, chemical, biological, conventional…) means that any form of disarmament or arms control will ultimately fail. And thinking that we can improve our security by limiting nuclear weapons anywhere misses the far more lethal, affordable and easier to make (and secretly deliver) biological weapons of mass destruction. The largest domestic man hunt in US history still hasn’t yielded the individual that ‘anthraxed’ our nation’s capital with a few envelopes and postage stamps.
Neither armaments or disarmament will lead us to peace. Both paths will yield more wars and increasing insecurity for every person on earth. Peace and security is a function of justice. Justice is a function of laws – laws applied equally to all, democratically determined, and protective of a certain set of inalienable human rights. Until we establish such governance on the global level any attempts to achieve peace and security will lethally and catastrophically fail.