Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently delivered a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which he addressed the future of nuclear weapons. He noted that some past US presidents that he had worked for during the Cold War – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush – all expressed publicly their desire to eliminate nuclear weapons. But these presidents, he points out, along with other leading policymakers expressing a similar desire, “have come up against the reality that as long as others have nuclear weapons, we must maintain some level of these weapons ourselves: to deter potential adversaries and to reassure over two dozen allies and partners who rely on our nuclear umbrella for their security – making it unnecessary for them to develop their own.”

This is the succinct argument he offers for maintaining an arsenal of nuclear weapons. It is based on two pillars: deterrence and assurance. I might note that two pillars provide a highly unstable platform. If we are to succeed in eliminating nuclear weapons globally, Gates’ argument needs to be carefully examined. I will begin with the argument he makes for deterrence. There are currently nine countries with nuclear weapons, but Gates refers to only three of these, plus a non-nuclear weapon state, as being candidates for deterrence. These are Russia, China, North Korea and Iran (which has no nuclear weapons).

North Korea has very few nuclear weapons and thus it would take relatively few nuclear weapons to deter them. More important, North Korea has been willing to negotiate the elimination of its nuclear program in exchange for development assistance and security guarantees. So, in the case of North Korea, it seems reasonable to assume that they could be deterred with a very small arsenal of nuclear weapons, and there is a high probability that with the proper incentives and security guarantees they would eliminate their nuclear arsenal. If one accepts that the theory of deterrence is valid, the deterrent force would not need to exceed 10 nuclear weapons.

Iran currently has no nuclear weapons. It has the capacity to enrich uranium, which could lead to a program to create nuclear weapons. Since an Iranian nuclear capacity would be destabilizing and dangerous, this potential could also require a small nuclear deterrent force on the order of 10 nuclear weapons. The current situation with Iran’s uranium enrichment program raises the question of double standards. While the US has turned a blind eye to the fissile material programs of, for example, India and Israel, it has sought to shut down Iran’s uranium enrichment. There is a need for applying a universal standard to programs generating weapons usable fissile materials. All such programs in all states are potentially dangerous and require strict and effective international control.

The other two nuclear weapons states that Gates refers to are Russia and China. He notes that both countries are pursuing “strategic modernization programs,” but neglects to mention that they have been pushed in this direction by US missile defense programs, which both Russia and China view as giving the US a potential first-strike capability against them. From their perspective, they are strengthening their deterrent capacity in response to a US threat. Both Russia and China have been very vocal in expressing their concerns about the US missile defense program, but the US has waved aside their concerns.

Gates is careful to point out that “we do not consider Russia or China as adversaries.” Given the opportunity this provides, the US should seek agreement with both countries to move the size of all nuclear arsenals to much lower levels and to take other steps that will reduce the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used by accident or design. Russia has in the past expressed a desire to move to lower levels of nuclear weapons than were agreed to in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), but thus far the US has put a floor at 1,700 to 2,200 deployed strategic weapons with the ability to keep more weapons in reserve. The US should seek immediate negotiations with Russia to move the number far lower, say to 1,000 each (in total) by the end of 2010, and to add verification provisions to the SORT agreement.

China’s arsenal of nuclear weapons is below 500 at present, and they and India are the only countries to publicly proclaim a No First Use policy, meaning that they will not use nuclear weapons first under any circumstance. Further, China does not keep its nuclear arsenal on high alert status, as do the US and Russia. China currently has only about 20 long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to US territory. The US should seek an agreement with Russia and China in which all three states commit to a policy of No First Use of nuclear weapons. The US and Russia should further agree to remove their nuclear arsenals from high alert status.

The second pillar of Gates’ argument is assurance to allies and partners that they can feel secure under the US “nuclear umbrella” and do not need to develop their own nuclear arsenals. But if the US led the way in seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons, this would not be an issue. Ronald Reagan argued in relation to the US and Russia, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” The same, it would seem, would hold true for the world. A world without nuclear weapons would be safer for all countries, including our allies and partners. Many of these allies, including Japan, have been active in building consensus in the United Nations for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Secretary Gates goes on in his speech to throw in a few more arguments for maintaining the US nuclear arsenal. “Our nuclear arsenal,” he says, “helps deter enemies from using chemical and biological weapons.” Assuming this is correct and that nuclear weapons could be needed for this purpose, the number of weapons would not exceed the 10 or so needed to deter North Korea or Iran. Gates finds our nuclear arsenal to be “vital” for one further reason: “We simply cannot predict the future.” But this argument cuts both ways. If the US continues to rely upon its nuclear arsenal, other countries are likely to pursue nuclear arsenals as well, making it more likely that these weapons will fall into the hands of terrorist organizations and creating an even more dangerous future.

Secretary Gates acknowledges the errors in security that have occurred with the US nuclear arsenal and argues that these problems are being addressed by new strengthened command structures. He leaves to our imaginations, though, what security problems may be going unattended in the nuclear arsenals of other countries. Gates worries about the “credibility” of our nuclear arsenal, based upon the “safety, security and reliability of our weapons.” He makes an interesting but common inversion in placing greater concern on the safety and security of the weapons than that of the people they are intended to protect. In fact, nuclear weapons cannot provide security to their possessors; they can only be used to threaten or massively destroy an opponent. It also seems unlikely that a potential adversary of the US would believe it could attack the US with impunity because it estimated that the US arsenal was something less than 100 percent reliable.

In the end, Gates believes the US must rely upon a “credible deterrent,” as opposed to providing leadership to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. “To be blunt,” he says, “there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.” He seeks a modernization program that would include the revitalization of the US nuclear weapons infrastructure and the development of a new nuclear warhead, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, which the Congress has turned down on several occasions. To follow the Gates plan would be to send a message to the rest of the world that the US, although the world’s most powerful state, finds nuclear weapons useful and will rely upon them for the foreseeable future. Rather than contributing to US security, this is a formula for promoting nuclear proliferation, which in the end will be harmful to US and global security.

Gates summarizes his position in this way: “Try as we might, and hope as we will, the power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle – at least for a very long time. While we have a long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all, given the world in which we live, we have to be realistic about that proposition.” It seems clear that Gates’ position is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In our current world, only the US, due to its enormous military might, can provide the necessary leadership to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. If US policymakers believe it cannot be done, that the “genie cannot be put back in the bottle,” it will not happen. On the other hand, if US policymakers adopted a different approach, one in which the US sought to end its reliance on nuclear weapons and pressed the other nuclear states to come along, the prospect of a world with zero nuclear weapons would become realistic.

This does not mean unilateral US nuclear disarmament. It means a negotiated agreement for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. It would not be easy, but the alternative is to continue with the status quo and drift toward nuclear catastrophe. Nuclear weapons do not and cannot protect their possessors. Retaliation is not protection. All countries, including the US, would be more secure in a world without nuclear weapons. We can move cautiously, but we must move determinedly toward that goal. Only the US can lead the way.

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( and a councilor on the World Future Council.