The Limits of Zero: How the Rush to Abolition May Not Make Us More Secure

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Brian Finlay – On June 10th, 1963, a mere seven months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy traveled the four miles from the White House to American University to deliver the commencement address. The focus of his remarks was on freedom from the nuclear threat. He urged the audience not to focus on some abstract or ideal freedom based on the complete abolition of nuclear weapons-which he firmly supported-but rather, “a more practical, more attainable peace-based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions-on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.”

Forty-four years later in January 2007, four senior American statesmen breathed new life into the long-moribund debate over global abolition of atomic weaponry. In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, these “four horsemen” wrote that, “reliance on nuclear weapons… is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.” As such, they endorsed the goal of a world that was free of nuclear weapons. In a similar article only days ago, the four reiterated their stand.

The policy community in Washington, DC was astonished by the initial article. Once considered the sole purview of the “radical left,” the nuclear abolitionist movement was reborn. The debate over the present and future utility of nuclear weapons spawned by the WSJ op-ed can only be a viewed as a positive development. No such debate has occurred in this country since the end of the Cold War, leaving us with a patchwork of dated policy prescriptions attempting to reorient our nuclear strategy to a radically different threat environment. But, while a reinvigorated debate over the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is healthy, we should not be deluded into believing that the policies of the next administration will get us any closer to zero than those of the current administration-at least, not without a nuanced recognition of the political, bureaucratic, and strategic hurdles required to do so.

The Bush administration’s failure to recalibrate US nuclear strategy to the new threat environment has been rightly criticized in this country and abroad. But whatever its motivations, we should not assume that circumventing the strategic complexities nor the bureaucratic and financial interests that undergird our nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons is a simple task. The failure of the last administration-one committed to a radical rethinking of nuclear doctrine-to bring dramatic change to US nuclear policy through the 1990s is testament to the complexities of challenging the prevailing nuclear interests in this country. The lessons drawn from the last head-long engagement of the nuclear guardians should be instructive as Washington contemplates both abolition and the arrival of the next administration-whether Republican or Democratic.

Remembering Recent History…

The Clinton administration assumed office full of idealism. While out of government, many of the appointees who would assume leadership roles in key departments had spoken out aggressively about the need for radical rethinking about the utility of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world. It was against this backdrop that the new administration undertook a congressionally-mandated review of America’s nuclear posture that would define the Clinton policy toward nuclear weapons for the next eight years.

The review was aimed at redefining the criteria dictating the future size, character, safety, and potential use of nuclear forces. The Clinton team promised a radical rethinking that would lead to bold new policy alternatives and a devaluation of the nuclear currency. But despite the urging of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the bipartisan National Defense Panel, the continued support of activists and academia, and their own political appointees who had pilloried the previous Republican administration for inaction, the promised review ultimately collapsed from mid-level bureaucratic opposition, a lack of presidential leadership, negative congressional intervention, and powerful business and other vested interests in the status quo. More importantly, by miscalculating the strategy in the early years of the administration, its capacity to control the nuclear agenda for the next seven years was hobbled. While they succeeded in securing indefinite extension of the NPT and the denuclearization of three former Soviet Republics, US nuclear forces remained on so-called “hair trigger” alert status. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was finally signed by the President and then brought to Congress for ratification, only to fall victim to political calculations that transcended issues of national security. No new strategic arms reduction measures were introduced. No agreement was initiated to eliminate the scourge of tactical nuclear weapons beyond the George H.W. Bush administration’s parallel agreement with President Gorbachev in 1991. Cooperative nonproliferation measures were expanded in a piecemeal fashion, their budget quickly flattened and their implementation delayed by intransigence abroad and disorganization at home; and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty remained mired in the Conference on Disarmament amidst a complex array of regional calculations.

… And Dooming Ourselves to Repeat It

No one can question the certainty that a world free of nuclear weapons would be in the best interest of every citizen of this planet. But the barriers to this ideal are both real and complex. Although op-eds, focus groups and public education initiatives are critical elements in the overdue debate over the future utility of nuclear weapons the abolitionist movement should tread carefully and avoid needlessly agitating the nuclear guardians who may well be intent on derailing efforts toward complete disarmament.

Getting to zero must be the goal of every US policymaker. But achieving that goal will require a multi-front strategy that recognizes and responds to the complex forces that motivate the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons-regional insecurity, proliferation, state competition, bureaucratic inertia, political intransigence, and human and financial interests. Abolitionists have long held the monopoly on logic-this time, they need to get the strategy right.

Photo Credit: United States Federal Government

Brian Finlay co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, a multifaceted project designed to accelerate existing efforts and design innovative new initiatives aimed at more rapidly and sustainably securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and expertise.

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