At a recent meeting a question came up concerning how to respond to someone who asks, “Won’t the abolition of nuclear weapons leave the United States vulnerable?”  Here is my response.

First, it is important to make clear that we are not asking for the US alone to disarm its nuclear arsenal.  Rather than seeking unilateral disarmament, we are calling for the US to lead a multilateral process for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.  We are convinced that all countries, and especially the US, would be safer and more secure in a world without nuclear weapons.

Second, we are not calling for going to zero nuclear weapons overnight.  Rather, it would be done cautiously over time and in phases.  The term “phased” in the disarmament process is very important.  By proceeding in phases, it means there would be a plan in place that allows for confidence building in discrete steps.  Each phase would need to be completed before moving on to the next phase.  US military and security professionals would be involved in designing the phases.  If problems arise in a phase, attention can be given to working them out before proceeding to the next phase.

Third, there would need to be means built into the disarmament process by which there is confidence that cheating is not occurring.  This would require verification of the disarmament process.  President Reagan reached the conclusion that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  He supported the abolition of nuclear weapons, but understood the necessity of verification procedures.  He said, “Trust, but verify.”  This makes sense and would be a key element of the disarmament plan.  

Verification procedures would need to include not only technical means, such as remote sensing and satellite imagery, but also the ability to hold on-site inspections, including unscheduled challenge inspections.  All sides would have to feel sufficiently comfortable with the verification procedures to move forward into new phases of the disarmament process.

Fourth, the process would be designed to be irreversible.  It would include provisions that weapons that are dismantled could not later be converted back to weaponry.  Verification procedures would ensure the irreversibility of the process.

Fifth, transparency would be another key element of the disarmament process.  Countries would reveal what weapons and delivery systems they possess in their nuclear arsenals, and the process would be subject to confirmation by means of inspections and verification.  The US has recently taken an important step toward transparency by revealing that its nuclear arsenal contains 5,113 weapons deployed and in reserve (plus several thousand more awaiting dismantlement).

Sixth, the question itself implies that currently the US nuclear arsenal prevents the country from being vulnerable to nuclear attack.  This is clearly not the case.  Nuclear weapons do not provide physical protection to their possessors.  Their power to defend against nuclear attack is based upon their ability to deter by threat of nuclear retaliation.  But deterrence is only a theory and one that cannot be proven.  Deterrence cannot protect against accidents or miscalculations.  Nor can it protect against nuclear armed terrorists.  Additionally, nuclear deterrence may simply fail if the threat of retaliation is not believed.  Nuclear deterrence theory requires leaders to behave rationally, and not all leaders do at all times.  

Seventh, the nuclear status quo of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” supports double standards that encourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries.  Such proliferation makes accidents and proliferation to terrorist groups more likely, diminishing security for all.  The United States and the world would be safer and more secure in a world without nuclear weapons.  

Finally, in a world without nuclear weapons, the US, with its strong conventional military forces, would be far more secure than in a world with many nuclear weapons states and the threat of nuclear terrorism.  Achieving a world without nuclear weapons would leave the US more secure and less vulnerable than it is at the present when the country remains subject to being destroyed by a nuclear attack.

The choice before the US now is to continue to live with the vulnerability of the threats posed by weapons capable of destroying cities, countries, civilization and the human species along with other complex forms of life, or to proceed cautiously on the path to nuclear weapons abolition.  The nuclear status quo is filled with extreme risks.  The path to zero nuclear weapons may also contain risks, but of the options available, it is the safer and more secure path not only for the US but for the world.  To follow this path, which has legal, moral and practical imperatives, will require US leadership and the commitment of US citizens.