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 their push for disarmament, Nunn and company appear to throw cold water on the future viability of nuclear deterrence. In their latest Wall Street Journal op-ed, for example, they remarked that the steps the United States and rest of the world are "taking now to address" the threat of proliferation "are not adequate to the danger. With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous."

It certainly is true that the greater the number of nuclear weapons states, the more difficult it is to defend one's interests and guarantee the security of allies. And it is also true that we need to take nuclear proliferation more seriously and that the steps we have taken so far to reduce the threat are insufficient. Yet arguing that deterrence is "increasingly hazardous" for U.S. and allied security is at the least premature and at worst misleading. Few, for example, would argue that the United States should terminate existing nuclear security guarantees to Japan, South Korea, Australia, or NATO. And there is good reason: Doing so would only encourage more proliferation, among both friends and adversaries and increase the chances that serious disputes would escalate into war.

Nor is it the case that "superpower" arsenals have been a roadblock to addressing the danger of proliferation. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States has dramatically reduced the aggregate yield and number of deployed warheads in its nuclear arsenal. And today, few would question the desirability of continuing to follow the logic of military science, which through precision guidance and other revolutions in the fields of computation, sensors, and software is making America's and Russia's potential use of indiscriminate weapons, e.g., nuclear weapons, far less likely or necessary.

Over the last four decades, the United States and Russia have both heeded this logic; they have reduced their stockpiles, the yields of the weapons they retain, and the numbers deployed by more than three quarters. Beyond recommending the substitution of lower yield and nonnuclear weapons for existing nuclear bombs, this logic also allows us to secure arms understandings with the Russians and others to visibly reduce the world's reliance on nuclear weapons to maintain security. Where this can be done within reasonable bounds of verifiability--as in START and SORT, the strategic arms reduction treaty signed by Bush and Putin in 2002--we have done so. Where verification has been less certain--as in the comprehensive test ban treaty and the fissile material cutoff treaty, which would ban further production of uranium and plutonium for weapons--we have used mutual announcements of national policy to promote such efforts politically.

That said, America's nuclear guarantees still matter and have served to keep other states from going nuclear themselves. The problem is that with more nuclear or near-nuclear nations, the chances for war and strategic miscalculation increase, even with such nuclear guarantees. This suggests the need to think through the effective steps that can be taken to stem nuclear proliferation, rather than focusing on symbolic Cold War-style arms control measures or prematurely abandoning deterrent postures that have actually served the cause of nonproliferation.

Stemming proliferation?

The few proposals put forward by Nunn, Perry, Shultz, and Kissinger that are specifically tailored to address the problem of nuclear proliferation are likely to be ineffective or may actually compound the proliferation challenges we face. One such proposal is to adopt a treaty that would cut off the production of plutonium and other fissile material for military purposes. A fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) would permit any state that now has nuclear weapons to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium so long as this activity served nonmilitary purposes and was internationally monitored. The goal would be to cap current stockpiles of fissile material being used by weapon states for military programs and, in turn, presumably lessen the possibility of leakage from either the civilian or military stockpile.

Unfortunately, whatever increase in safety one might gain by tightening controls over dedicated weapons material production, one loses in allowing fissile production for peaceful purposes, because it is impossible to ensure such programs remain "peaceful." There is no safeguards program that can reliably detect a covert weapons program, deter an abrupt diversion of civilian fuel production into a military program, or adequately account for what nuclear fuel plants produce.