The Magazine

Advice for the Nuclear Abolitionists

Yes, Ronald Reagan wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but he was a stickler for verification.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By GARY SCHMITT and HENRY SOKOLSKI
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In the old TV commercials for the E.F. Hutton brokerage firm, conversations would come to a screeching halt when someone dropped the Hutton name, and everyone would lean in to hear what E.F. Hutton was advising. The tagline: "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen." The Washington version of this is now playing. In January 2007 and again this year, the Wall Street Journal published an article on its influential opinion page calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. What is most remarkable about these two articles is their joint bylines: Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger. Sam Nunn is a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Bill Perry was secretary of defense in the Clinton administration; both are men respected for their common sense and relatively hawkish approach to security affairs. And of course George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are former secretaries of state for presidents (Reagan, Ford, and Nixon) not known for seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Given the authors' reputations, their recommendations will be taken seriously and could well become points of departure for a fundamental change in U.S. security policy when a new administration enters office next January. When Nunn, Perry, Shultz, and Kissinger talk, people listen. But are they listening as carefully as they should?

A road to zero?

The ultimate goal, Nunn and company argue, is to reach a world in which nuclear weapons no longer exist. Short of that, in the interim, there should be as few of these weapons as is possible. Unless the measures they outline to reach that goal are adopted, they conclude, we will live in a far more dangerous world, in which nuclear proliferation is the norm and a policy of nuclear deterrence may no longer be viable.

Nunn and company recommend several U.S.-Russian arms control undertakings. The Wall Street Journal pieces focused on proposals to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, extend key provisions of the START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement of 1991, reduce tactical nuclear weapons deployments, and develop joint European theater missile defenses with Russia. All of these are primarily bilateral efforts between Moscow and Washington, designed to reduce the size and readiness of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and to manage the future of our strategic forces.

Much of what they recommend in this area is already declared U.S. and Russian policy. And what isn't--for example, turning the existing nuclear testing and military fissile production moratoriums into legally binding treaties--is judged to be unverifiable not only by arms control skeptics, but by the State Department's own Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation. More to the point, the specific proposals to cap "vertical" proliferation (great powers expanding their existing arsenals) have little or nothing to do directly with the problem of "horizontal" proliferation (the spread of nuclear weapon technology to nonnuclear states). Yet it is the latter that is the key nuclear threat we now face.

Russian cooperation on nonproliferation, for example, has never been tied to its calculations about the strategic balance between the United States and itself. Nor is there evidence that reductions in nuclear weapon stockpiles on the part of Moscow and Washington have had a significant impact on the strategic desires of third countries, like North Korea or Iran, to acquire weapons or of countries, such as Libya, Ukraine, and South Africa, to reverse course and get out of the nuclear weapon business.

As for the argument that these measures might allow the United States to come to global nonproliferation issues from the moral high ground--having shown it is serious about reducing its own stock of nuclear weapons--the reality is that neither Russia nor China (let alone India, Pakistan, or Israel) is ever likely to give up its nuclear arsenal entirely. Any state that has conventional forces inferior to its key adversaries or possible competitors will view its nuclear capability as a strategic life insurance policy. Conversely, states such as Mexico, Egypt, and South Africa, are unlikely to be impressed with any arms control "progress" that falls short of total nuclear disarmament. Renewed efforts on the arms control front with Moscow may have benefits in bilateral relations, but creating substantial momentum on the global nonproliferation front is unlikely to be one of them.

Deterrence's end?