When two former Secretaries of State, a former Secretary of Defense, and one of the leading Senate experts on defense issues during the latter half of the 20th century join their voices to speak as one on an issue, one’s instinct is to pay attention. When two of them happen to be Democrats and two Republicans, the credibility of what they have to say is only enhanced.

More than three years ago, the first of what has become a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz appeared. Bearing the improbable, but uplifting, title “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” it laid out an ambitious agenda for moving the international community toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons forever.

It sounds far-fetched—and it is, but perhaps not quite so much as it sounds. A nuclear free world was after all the explicit goal of that notorious professional peacenik pacifist protestor Ronald Reagan. So perhaps it should not be such a surprise when President Reagan’s own Secretary of State shares the goal and believes it can be achieved.

If you detect any sarcasm in the above, either you are not reading me correctly or I have not written with the care intended. I respect all four of these men and do not believe for a moment that any of them are motivated by partisanship, venality, or any other base desire. I think they sincerely believe in what they are saying and are confident that they can make a real contribution toward making it happen—if not in any of their own lifetimes. They must be aware that, to some extent, they have put their own prestige on the line by advocating something that seems at best wholly unrealistic. That takes a certain courage.

The devil is of course in the details, and in this case there are so many of them that hell would have to contain many more than nine circles to hold them all. For the most part, the four statesmen have recommended what amounts to a rather conventional program of arms control ideas, but proposed with greater scope and pushed with (probably unrealistic) urgency. The idea is to get there gradually, incrementally, following essentially the path we are already on (or aspire to be on) but setting the goal much higher than any of our formal agreements have ever contemplated. The problem with their vision is one that they have addressed only glancingly: What to do about countries that simply want to possess nuclear weapons? How can you talk them out of it? No one has a good answer to this, and neither do the Big Four. It remains the largest hole in their vision.

Since that first piece appeared on January 4, 2007, the four have periodically renewed their call in the pages of the Journal, been feted by President Obama, and credited with inspiring the latter’s own call for a nuclear free world in his Prague speech last April. Each new op-ed from these senior statesmen is therefore an Event—and yesterday we were treated with another. Only this one was a little different.

Thus far, these four men have focused almost solely on steps to reduce arsenals and tighten the nonproliferation regime. Yesterday, however, they stepped into the troubled waters of stockpile reliability. That is, they advocated steps to ensure the U.S. nuclear arsenal is really capable of doing what it is designed to do.

This is not something that President Obama, his lieutenants drafting the Nuclear Poster Review, or most on the left want to hear. They believe that pretty much any step the United States takes to ensure the reliability of its own stockpile sets a bad international example and makes further progress on arms control more difficult.

It is certainly true that, if you ask an American diplomat or expert who has participated in an arms control treaty or resolution negotiation, he will tell you that our side always gets an earful about every conceivable thing we do that might be considered “hypocritical,” which includes essentially any step that is not a cut in arsenal levels.

A lot of this talk must be taken with a shaker of salt. Many of those doing the talking have an interest in seeing our arsenal shrink and its reliability decline. Why wouldn’t they try to guilt-trip us into doing things that help their interests at the expense of ours? It makes sense for them, even if it might not make sense for us to go along.

But many on the left take it at face value. This is one reason why efforts to upgrade the U.S. stockpile runs into to so much domestic opposition.

The United States has not built a new nuclear warhead in more than 20 years. We have not tested in more than 17. Several programs to keep our existing arsenal in reliable working order have been cancelled, put on hold, or are in jeopardy on the Hill. Worse, the “nuclear weapons complex”—the network of labs and the science and engineering schools that feed them—is underfunded and (some insiders argue) demoralized. Worse still, the longer we go without testing, and the smaller our arsenal gets, the more essential it is to be sure that what we have left will surely work. Enormous Cold War stockpiles provided enough redundancy to remove all doubt from the mind of an adversary. Anticipated cuts, scheduled decommissionings and ongoing dismantlement may soon put us in a position where this is no longer true.

Unless we do something to ensure the reliability of the remaining stockpile. There are a handful of ideas on how to do that, ranging from building a new(ish) warhead design using existing fissile material and some existing parts down to “refurbishment” (the replacement of individual parts when those parts reach the point of anticipated degradation).

For many years, the U.S. has followed the latter approach, under the rubric of the “Life Extension Program” (LEP). A recent study from the Department of Energy—conducted by senior scientists—concluded that simply continuing with this approach was good enough. Other Defense experts (including Secretary Gates himself) have disagreed in the past, but given the present administration’s strong commitment to arms control, it would appear that anything more ambitious than refurbishment is off the table for now.

Which makes staying the course with this program, and funding it adequately, especially important. That means, among other things, steeling ourselves for the rhetorical defense when, at the various arms control conferences scheduled for this year, other countries criticize refurbishment as hawkish, destabilizing, and “pro-nuke.” It also means convincing doves in Congress to pony up the necessary cash.

The endorsement of Kissinger, Nunn, Perry, and Shultz for the LEP and for robust funding for the nuclear weapons complex is therefore welcome and notable. No one could accuse any of these men of Strangelovian affection for nuclear weapons. They have more than earned their arms control bona fides. Just as it takes a certain courage for serious men to endorse the seemingly fanciful goal of a nuclear free world, so does it take courage to temper that endorsement with a caution about nuclear security in the world as it is—and will remain for the foreseeable future. They got plenty of hosannas from the left for the former. They are sure to get some brickbats for the latter.

Let’s hope that a president who was eager to claim their mantle for his Prague speech is just as eager to heed their advice on this crucial question.

Next Page