Making it Feasible to Rid the World of Nuclear Weapons

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By Barry Blechman – The resilience of international terrorist networks despite nearly six years of efforts to root them out, combined with the proliferation of nuclear weapons to such hostile nations as North Korea, have focused the attention of many Americans on the possibility that a terrorist organization might acquire a nuclear weapon and detonate it in an American city – a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions in the United States. As a result, even such political/military “realists” like former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Senator Sam Nunn and former Secretary of Defense William Perry have come to believe that President Ronald Reagan had it right: The dangers of nuclear weapons far outweigh their benefits and they should therefore be eliminated from all nations.

Despite the impeccable credentials of many of those now advocating this vision of a world without nuclear weapons, many others are skeptical, in view of the state of world affairs. Over the past ten years, the number of countries with nuclear weapons has risen from six to nine, and, in all likelihood, will soon be ten. Wars and internal conflicts rage throughout Africa and Asia and relations among the largest powers, while not hostile, are not exactly friendly, either. Particularly troubling is the deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia. How can the world contemplate eliminating weapons believed by many to convey ultimate security in the face of this troubling global picture?

The answer lies in the Stimson Center’s motto: Pragmatic steps toward ideal objectives. The US Government should embrace the goal of zero nuclear weapons now, and pursue it seriously by working with other nations. Such a step could change the psychology and motivations of nuclear weapons aspirants. It would require serious efforts to set in place the international agreements, organizations, and processes necessary to eliminate these weapons safely and to ensure that nations do not cheat or suddenly break out from such an agreement. These measures include:

  • Declaring the stocks of nuclear weapon and special materials, as well as of their facilities to produce such items, by all nation states;


  • Strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency so that it could audit these declarations and supervise the elimination process once it gets underway;


  • Revising the 1968 Non-proliferation Treaty, the primary international treaty now governing these matters, to (i) eliminate the current distinction between states permitted to have nuclear weapons and those not so permitted; (ii) re-committing all nations to eliminating nuclear weapons, this time by a date certain; (iii) guaranteeing all nations the right to nuclear power for civilian purposes; yet (iv) placing all nuclear fuel cycles under international control.


  • Establishing an automatic system of UN sanctions that would completely isolate any state cheating on the agreement and include the possibility of collective military action against that cheater.


  • Completing the unfinished agenda of existing agreements that constrain weapons of mass destruction to include (i) efforts to secure nuclear facilities in Russia and other nations, (ii) ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty, (iii) implementation of the 1997 Convention banning lethal chemical weapons, and (iv) negotiation of a verification annex to the 1975 Convention banning biological weapons.

The US also needs to take steps to protect itself from nuclear terrorism during the lengthy transitional period that would be required to eliminate nuclear weapons, including accelerated efforts to secure US borders and ports of entry, improved intelligence capabilities, and the further development of capabilities to interdict transfers of nuclear weapons, including the deployment of long-range missiles armed with precise, non-nuclear warheads.

Eliminating nuclear weapons would be a radical step, one that requires re-thinking many of the basic arrangements that governed international relationships throughout the Cold War. We live in a new age, however, in which the dangers posed by these weapons far outweigh any potential benefits that the United States or any other nation might gain from them. It is time for the US to embrace the goal seriously, and pursue it relentlessly, on a sustained basis.

Barry M. Blechman is the co-founder and Chairman of the Stimson Center

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