A Skeptic's Case for Nuclear Disarmament

A Skeptic's Case for Nuclear Disarmament

by Michael E. O'Hanlon


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815725435
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 08/01/2013
Pages: 174
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and the director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Sydney Stein Jr. Chair. He is the author of numerous books, including Toughing It Out in Afghanistan , with Hassina Sherjan (Brookings, 2010), The Science of War (Princeton University Press, 2009), and Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security , with Kurt Campbell (Basic Books, 2006). He is also senior author of the Brookings Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan indexes.

Read an Excerpt

A Skeptic's Case for Nuclear Disarmament

By Michael E. O'Hanlon

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Michael E. O'Hanlon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-0507-9

Chapter One


CAN MANKIND UNINVENT the nuclear bomb and rid the world of the greatest military threat to the human species and the survival of the planet that has ever been created? Logic might seem to say of course not. But the president of the United States and a number of key foreign policy dignitaries are now on record as saying yes. They acknowledge that a world free of nuclear weapons remains a vision, not immediately attainable and perhaps not achievable within the lifetimes of most contemporary policymakers. But they believe that the vision needs to be made visible, vibrant, and powerful.

Since former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former defense secretary Bill Perry, and former senator Sam Nunn wrote a newspaper column in January 2007 advocating a nuclear-free world, a movement to attempt just that has been gaining in strength. Prominent scholars have lent their voices to the idea. Notably, a group of one hundred signatories (not including the above four) convened in Paris in December 2008 and established Global Zero, a movement whose goal is to rid the world of nuclear weapons by 2030 through a multilateral, universal, verified process. The group wants negotiations on the global zero treaty to begin by 2019-quite possibly during the term of President Barack Obama's successor.

As a "citizens' campaign," Global Zero has drawn inspiration from the recent grass-roots effort to craft a land-mine treaty and from the important work of several wealthy and influential private individuals in spearheading global antipoverty campaigns. Its goal is built on earlier work, including the 1996 report of the influential Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Calls for eliminating the bomb are as old as the bomb itself, and there have also been bursts of energy devoted to the disarmament cause at various other moments in the past such as the early to mid-1980s. But the pace of activity, including the organization of this movement, has accelerated greatly in recent years. The movement now has a serious strategy for moving forward-not at some distant time when miraculous new inventions might make nukes obsolete, but within the next ten years, when a treaty might be written, even if another ten years would be needed to put it into effect.

Will President Obama really pursue Global Zero or some other serious agenda for nuclear disarmament? Will he go beyond the inspiring speech he gave in Prague in 2009, the modest cuts in deployed forces he and the Russians agreed to in the New START Treaty, and the somewhat lowered profile of nuclear weapons set out in his April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review? These steps are not insignificant, but they still leave the world very far from nuclear disarmament. The much-heralded Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 in Washington was worthwhile. But it was primarily notable not for its progress toward nuclear zero but for its promotion of actions to reduce the risks of nuclear theft, accident, and terrorism. For example, Mexico agreed to convert a research reactor from highly enriched uranium (usable in bombs) to lower-enriched uranium (not usable), Ukraine agreed to eliminate its stocks of highly enriched uranium within two years, and the United States and Russia recommitted to eliminating an excess stock of plutonium. These steps, as well as the administration's request for a 25 percent increase to fund global nonproliferation activities (to $2.7 billion in the fiscal year 2011 budget), are entirely sensible. But whether Obama will push nuclear issues in additional bold new ways anytime soon seems dubious-when on other national security matters such as Iraq and Afghanistan he has been extremely pragmatic and deferential to military advisers, who do not generally appear enthusiastic about nuclear disarmament, and when many other priorities beginning with promoting economic recovery compete for his time and attention.

Perhaps Obama will in effect drop the nuclear disarmament goal. But nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea, among other things, may keep it alive. As this American president realizes, the real motivation for the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons is neither utopian nor futuristic. It is not simply to deny extremist countries the excuse of getting the bomb because others already have it. Rather, the motivation is to put significant pressure-more so than is possible today-on rogue countries if they pursue such weapons anyway. With leaders in Teheran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere bent on obtaining nuclear weapons, and charging U.S. policymakers with double standards in their insistence that the United States can have the bomb but they cannot, the president's ability to galvanize a global coalition to pressure Iran and North Korea (and perhaps others) into walking back their weapons programs may depend on regaining the moral high ground. And that in turn may require an American commitment to work toward giving up its own arsenal-once doing so is verifiable and once others agree to do the same.

But how to rid the world of nuclear weapons as well as bomb-ready fissile materials? And how to do so safely? Perhaps a nuclear abolition treaty could constructively contribute to global stability if done right. But it could be hazardous if done wrong. Among other things countries that currently depend on America's military protection could decide they should seek nuclear weapons of their own. If the Turkeys and Saudi Arabias and Japans and Taiwans of the world interpret the U.S. debate over nuclear disarmament to imply that they can no longer rely on the United States as a dependable strategic partner (a formal ally in the cases of Turkey and Japan, an informal but still trusted friend in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Taiwan)-because it no longer takes deterrence as seriously as before-serious consequences could result. The Global Zero movement could wind up sparking the very wave of nuclear proliferation and instability it hopes to prevent. Sam Nunn (not himself a member of the Global Zero movement because of its near-term schedule for pursuing a disarmament treaty) uses the image of nuclear disarmament as a mountain-with the summit currently beyond reach and perhaps out of sight. He advocates moving from the current position to a higher base camp (meaning much deeper disarmament and related measures) to determine if the summit can in fact be reached at some point. That image makes sense-but the United States and its allies must also be safe on the way to the new base camp and avoid committing to a particular route to the top too soon.

So far, not enough advocates of the nuclear disarmament idea are addressing, or even acknowledging, such complexities and complications. Some are doing so, and I have benefited greatly from the work of scholars such as George Perkovich, Barry Blechman, Bruce Blair, Hal Feiveson, and Frank von Hippel in writing this book. Jonathan Schell's original concept from the 1980s of dismantling nuclear arms while recognizing the possible need to reconstitute them-particularly in the cold war setting about which he wrote then-also informs my vision of what a practical nuclear disarmament regime might be. But today's movement as a whole still begins with a desired destination and then tries to find ways to make it happen. My analytical approach is different-instead of working backward from a desired endpoint, it follows an empirical and deductive approach to assess the feasibility of eliminating nuclear weapons, starting with first principles of international security, modern history, and nuclear physics.

This book does not argue against the notion of nuclear abolition; it is in fact a friendly skeptic's case for nuclear disarmament. But I emphasize the conditions and caveats that would have to accompany any such treaty regime-including clear rules for ways the major powers might consider temporarily rearming themselves with nuclear arms in the event of a future violation of the treaty regime, even after weapons had been eliminated. The scenarios here are potentially more complex than many nuclear disarmament advocates have acknowledged to date. What if a dangerous country is suspected of having an active nuclear weapons program, and verification cannot resolve the matter? What if a country develops an advanced biological pathogen with enormous potential lethality-and perhaps even an antidote to protect its own people? Would nuclear deterrence truly be irrelevant or inappropriate as a means of addressing such a problem?

Many, if not most, advocates of nuclear disarmament consider the abolition of nuclear weapons the moral equivalent of the abolition of slavery-and imply that, just as with slavery, once eliminated, nuclear weapons should be gone for good (absent a blatant violation of the treaty by a country that chooses to build a nuclear arsenal in the future). This is a dangerous way to portray the vision of disarmament, however, for it would deprive the United States of deterrent options that may be needed someday given the unpredictable future course of human history. In other words, even once nuclear weapons are eliminated, they may not be eliminated forever. At a practical level, the world will likely have many nuclear power plants as well as all the nuclear waste that nuclear bomb and energy programs will have generated; fissile material can be gleaned from all of these sources. The knowledge to make nuclear weapons will not disappear, and relevant nuclear materials will not do so either.

What of the issue of timing-not only of when to try to negotiate and then implement a treaty but how to describe the vision of nuclear disarmament in the short term? Many nuclear disarmament advocates pull back the minute anyone asks if they want a treaty soon, recognizing the impracticality of trying to abolish nuclear weapons in the next few years. But they are the ones who elevated the idea in the contemporary nuclear debate to a level not seen for many decades, so putting off the timing issue is neither consistent nor advisable. In fact, there are good reasons to have this debate now. Eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth has technically been a goal of U.S. policy since the 1960s, for example. Moreover, the slowness of negotiating the recent New START Treaty with Moscow and the likely slow ratification debates over both it and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the coming years suggest the possibility that nuclear debates will bog down in technicalities and mundane practicalities, losing sight of the big picture. So bold ideas are useful to provoke fresh thinking and serious action. That said, the ideas of nuclear disarmament advocates are already raising questions around the world about how long the American extended deterrent can be depended upon to help ensure regional peace in key theaters. The resulting perceptions can in turn affect countries' decisions about whether to pursue their own bombs-not only extremist nations but even friendly states that worry they may no longer be able to depend on the United States.

I argue for a middle-ground position. Moving to nuclear disarmament soon by trying to write a treaty in the next few years is too fast. But dropping the subject for now and waiting for the twenty-second century or some other distant date is too slow.

In addition to possibly spooking U.S. allies who worry about how they will ensure their security in a dangerous world, there are two problems with trying to abolish nuclear weapons too soon. Deterrent arrangements that are working today, but that are also somewhat fragile, could be disrupted; and states entirely disinterested in nuclear disarmament might be encouraged to build up arsenals in the hope that their nascent nuclear power might be greater as the existing nuclear powers build down. The main problem, though, is that the nuclear disarmament notion simply lacks credibility in a world in which even some existing nuclear powers clearly have no interest in denuclearizing anytime soon (even if the United States did). Absent a serious process for moving toward zero, declaration of ambitious but arbitrary and unattainable deadlines for action is more likely in the end to discredit the initiative than to advance it.

The problem with putting off debate about nuclear disarmament, however, is that existing powers remain in a weak position to pressure would-be proliferators to abstain from the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Procrastination also perpetuates a false sense of complacency about the supposed safety of living with the bomb. What is needed is a prudent form of urgency. Neither haste and impetuousness nor indefinite postponement of the issue will do.

The United States should endorse a nuclear-free world with conviction, as President Obama did in his 2009 Prague speech. But it should not work to create a treaty now and should not sign any treaty that others might create for the foreseeable future. The right time horizon for seriously pushing a new nuclear accord is when most of the world's half dozen or so major territorial and existential issues involving major powers are resolved-and this cannot be set to a calendar as precisely as the Global Zero movement would like. Discussed further below, these issues include the status of Taiwan, the issue of Kashmir, political relations between Russia and the key "near-abroad" states of Georgia and Ukraine, and the state of Israel. Nuclear crises involving Iran and North Korea also need to be addressed, although the beginnings of a move toward nuclear disarmament might not have to await their complete resolution. Once these contentious matters are largely resolved, the plausibility of great-power war over any imaginable issue that one can identify today will be very low. That will in turn make the basic structure and functioning of the international political system stable enough to risk moving toward a nuclear-free world-a process so radical as to be inherently destabilizing in some sense and thus prudent to pursue only when the great powers are in a cooperative mode and undivided by irredentist territorial issues.

Some will argue that there is no foreseeable period of great-power peace and thus no prospect of the preconditions required for moving to a denuclearized world. They believe for the most part that the prospects of great-power war in the future will be as, or nearly as, great as they were in prenuclear eras of human history. Such individuals often call themselves realists and imply that ideas such as nuclear disarmament are just too utopian to be within mankind's reach. But as argued below, this so-called realist argument is also problematic-the history of fallible mankind, and particularly of the nuclear age to date, makes it hard to believe that nuclear weapons will never be used if they continue to occupy a central role in international politics. If realism means that nuclear war likely will occur someday, how can such a worldview be called prudent-indeed, how can it even be called realist, with all the connotations of pragmatism that the term implies?

That said, my vision for nuclear disarmament is one of dismantling nuclear warheads-a vision that should not be confused with their permanent abolition, a term favored by some. The desire to eliminate such weapons forever is understandable, given their incredible destructive power; most plausible uses of nuclear weapons would in fact be inhumane and illegitimate. But it is war itself that is most inhumane, and war targeting civilians through whatever means is the fundamental moral blight we should be trying to eliminate. Certain forms of highly lethal biological weapons attack with advanced pathogens, large-scale conventional conflict resembling the world wars, and wars that include genocide could be every bit as inhumane as a nuclear attack. Outlawing nuclear weapons in a way that increases the prospects of other types of immoral warfare would be no accomplishment at all. Therefore, even as the international community strives to dismantle nuclear weapons, it needs practical options for rebuilding them should other perils present themselves-not only suspected pursuit of nuclear arms by a country bent on violating the accord but perhaps also the development of advanced biological pathogens (a threat the Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review considers) or an especially threatening conventional military buildup by a future extremist state. That is the broad, strategic argument in favor of preserving options for reconstitution, even after a nuclear disarmament treaty is signed and implemented.


Excerpted from A Skeptic's Case for Nuclear Disarmament by Michael E. O'Hanlon Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. O'Hanlon. Excerpted by permission.
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