by Cheryl Rofer
Foreign Affairs is the voice of the foreign policy establishment. So it is as remarkable to see it publish a call for the United States to move toward zero nuclear weapons as it is to see such a call in the Wall Street Journal.
The Soviet Union took a lot of steam out of the popular denuclearization movement in 1989 by discarding the theory of class warfare as its basis for state-to-state relations. The great conflict that had threatened worldwide nuclear destruction was gone. But nothing much changed in the nuclear establishment. Bill Clinton temporized, and George Bush actually seemed to like them nukular weapons. The almost-agreement between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev on eliminating nukes by the year 2000 was forgotten in Republican triumphalism.
Congress just recognized last spring that the world has changed and insisted on a statement from the administration on why they want to build new nukes. The Departments of Defense and Energy have responded. State was with them early on, but disappeared in the final report.
The Fab Four of nuclear disarmament, now plus two
Two Democrats and two Republicans, from the Cabinet and the Legislature, have now advocated nuclear abolition in two op-eds in the Wall Street Journal (2007, 2008). Stanford University’s Hoover Institution held a conference on the topic in October 2007, and a number of people, not including either of the authors of the Foreign Affairs paper, signed on.
Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Jan Lodal, immediate past president of the Atlantic Council, also come from both sides of the aisle: Daalder was in the Clinton administration and Lodal in two Republican administrations as well as Clinton’s. Their article carries the program of the Wall Street Journal op-eds a few steps further.
The most striking thing about Daalder and Lodal’s article is its utter honesty in analysis: the dithering of the Clinton administration, the simultaneous irrelevance and danger of today’s nuclear posture, and even a matter-of-fact treatment of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Particularly the first and third of these have seldom been spoken, perhaps never by the foreign policy establishment. The proposals that grow out of this analysis are realistic, perhaps revolutionary by some standards.
I won’t say much more about their analysis than that it is a pleasure to read, clearly written and not hedged about with the usual phrases that arrogate to the United States whatever it may care to do with its forever stock of nuclear weapons. I want to focus on their recommendations.
The United States must lead
That’s their heading. And it’s right. The United States and Russia together hold most of the world’s nuclear weapons. And the United States, whatever its current troubles, is the world’s leading military power and will remain so for some time.
The only purpose of US nuclear weapons, Daalder and Lodal say, should be to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by other countries. Simple, nontrivial, and straightforward. None of the intricate argumentation about if, when and maybe nuclear might be used that has characterized many recent discussions so resembles medieval considerations of angels and pins.
Adherence to such a purpose would lead, they argue, to a need for no more than a total of 1000 nuclear weapons in the US stockpile. I would argue for a lower number, less than five hundred, because that many is enough to inflict enormous damage while providing the much improved symbolism of a three-digit number rather than four.
De-alerting and greatly reducing the numbers of land-based missiles would reduce the need for hasty nuclear decision-making by the President. Decreasing the numbers and de-alerting the missiles are steps that should be taken irrespective of Russian agreement. These steps would allow the negotiation of needed treaties and agreements:
a verifiable end to the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, securing the early ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and strengthening the inspections provisions of international safeguards agreements undertaken by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
More safeguards will be needed
Daalder and Lodal address something else that hasn’t been said clearly and straighforwardly. As the numbers of nuclear weapons decrease, the need for verification increases. Without an inventory of fissile material used in both civilian and military applications, it will not be possible to decrease the numbers of nuclear weapons in a way that promotes confidence. Such an inventory is possible; all nations with nuclear materials have something like it for their internal use. But the nuclear weapon states do not want to share that information.
The justification for not sharing those numbers was that we didn’t want our enemies to know how many nuclear weapons we had, or how much fissile material the various models contained. But many numbers have been declassified, and those with the patience to sift through them have come up with plausible estimates. That sort of secrecy made some sense during the Cold War, but even then, those with the most interest in those numbers probably had them. Thomas D’Agostino, the administrator of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, recently displayed this coyness once again (h/t to JO).
The DOE/NNSA bureaucracy has been adamant that such numbers must be classified forever and ever, and previous administrations have been resistant to anything remotely resembling IAEA inspections of weapons plants. Such an inspections would be part of what is required as we move toward zero. One objection is that the inspectors, many of whom would be from non nuclear weapon states, would learn about bomb manufacture. But methods have been developed to measure fissile material without giving away information about shapes and other details of bomb design and have been tested by joint US-Russian teams.
Safeguards for the states that have refused to sign the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons would also be difficult to negotiate. India showed us that much in the negotiations for the 123 nuclear trade agreement with the US; they kept the reactors to be safeguarded to the minimum they could get away with. If the US led in decreasing nuclear numbers and accepting safeguards on its nuclear weapons programs, it would make a difference, but the negotiations, particularly with Israel, would be difficult.
And onward to zero
The United States would then aim to create a coalition of countries that “accept the logic of zero.” The US’s nuclear umbrella for its allies would be closed slowly, as conditions allow. The countries that retain nuclear arsenals would be the most difficult to convince, although I think that Daalder and Lodal are too pessimistic about Russia. Russia’s recent withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and its various nuclear saber-rattlings are responses to US actions; if allowed to save face, I suspect that Russia would readily accept the logic of zero. Leadership by the US and creation of a broad-based consensus would allow such face-saving.
Daalder is said to be Barack Obama’s point man on nonproliferation. His previous writings have tended more toward the hawkish. Obama’s fact sheet on defense is less detailed than this article, but sounds very similar. Obama has spoken in favor of the Fab Four’s program.
John McCain has endorsed some of the elements presented in this article. Although his campaign’s “fighting” theme would seem to indicate otherwise, he is positioned so that it would be possible for a McCain administration to follow Daalder and Lodal’s recommendations.
The coincidence of the world financial crisis with the desire for change that has been building in the United States will allow the next president to take bold steps. Daalder and Lodal’s recommendations are one more aspect of the new world we are going to have to build.