For many years the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has advocated the global elimination of nuclear weapons. This advocacy is consistent with the moral position adopted by nearly all major religions as well as with the dictates of international law. It is also consistent with the security interests of all states, including the current nuclear weapons states. Nonetheless, many Americans cling tenaciously to the idea that the US is more secure with nuclear weapons than it would be without them.
In response to an article that I wrote recently on “Global Hiroshima,” a letter to the editor took the position, “The proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons is idealistic, but it is naively unrealistic, unless a creditable concept for protecting the US from other nations’ nuclear weapons is available.” The writer concluded his letter by stating, “Our nuclear weapons are not to use, but to prevent other nations from using theirs.”
This is, unfortunately, a falsely reassuring and illusory viewpoint. Nuclear deterrence – the threat of nuclear retaliation – could fail for many reasons, including accidental launches, miscalculations, poor decisions in time of crisis, or the inability to credibly threaten extremist organizations that cannot be located and therefore retaliated against. A threat to retaliate against an opponent that you cannot locate, such as al Qaeda, is futile.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has never called for the US to unilaterally disarm its nuclear arsenal. What we do advocate is for the US to take a leadership role in negotiating nuclear disarmament among all nations. This is a role that only the US can assume, due to its enormous military and economic power.
By taking on this role, the US would be acting in accord with a unanimous 1996 ruling of the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest court, which concluded: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”
Our position at the Foundation is that the US should take this obligation under international law seriously, both because the US has a responsibility to follow the dictates of international law and because doing so will enhance our national security. This is not a prescription for immediate or unilateral nuclear disarmament. It is a prescription for demonstrating the political will to move judiciously but urgently toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
The first step in following this path would be for the US to convene the other nuclear weapons states and set forth a negotiating agenda. An important confidence building measure would be a legal commitment by all nuclear weapons states to No First Use of nuclear weapons. This would demonstrate that nuclear weapons had no other purpose than deterring another country from using theirs. Other confidence building steps would include the de-alerting of existing nuclear weapons and ratification by all nuclear capable states of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The goal of the negotiations would be the phased elimination of nuclear arsenals under strict and effective international controls. Countries would phase out their nuclear arsenals gradually and in a verifiable manner. Processes would be established to assure that nuclear weapons and materials were not being diverted into secret stores outside the purview of international inspectors.
The plan is simple. It begins with good faith negotiations convened by the US. It ends with a world free of nuclear weapons. In between, there is much to be worked out to assure the security of all states. One thing is certain, however: This is not a “naively unrealistic” plan. It is the only approach that will assure that cities, countries and civilization remain safe from nuclear devastation and that humankind is secure from future Hiroshimas and Nagasakis.