Commentary

Getting to Zero

in Program

By Michael Krepon – Mohamed ElBaradei proposes a five point plan to eliminate nuclear weapons. The British Government issues a White Paper on abolition, accompanied by Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s six point plan. A distinguished commission chaired by Hans Blix issues a comprehensive report listing sixty action items to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Sam Nunn, George Shultz, William Perry, and Henry Kissinger call for national leadership to eliminate nuclear weapons, and near-term steps to help advance this goal. Global Zero, an effort ledby Bruce Blair and Stimson Co-founderBarryBlechman, has recruited 137leading figures from around the world to endorse this end-state.President Barack Obama has articulated this goal.

It is remarkable how unremarkable these calls for eliminating nuclear weapons have become. As before, they have elicited push-back from those who believe abolition is unrealistic and dangerous. These rejoinders must be taken seriously, but no one has proposed a safer end-state to our nuclear dilemma. The pursuit of nuclear dominance is dangerous and politically untenable in the United States, the only country capable of its serious pursuit. The objective of “managed” proliferation is too slippery and politically objectionable for national leaders to articulate. Proliferation, managed or otherwise, may indeed happen – especially if countervailing efforts to move toward abolition lose traction. But even the “more is better” school of proliferation optimists is losing conviction with the challenges to deterrence orthodoxy posed by Pakistan, Iran, and nuclear terrorism. “Stable” deterrence – another alternative end-state to abolition – becomes harder as proliferation occurs, even assuming that Murphy’s Law does not apply to nuclear weapons. Deterrence must serve as the companion to a long-term process of elimination, but it is not an end to itself. The same could be said of arms control. Another alternative end-state, nuclear anarchy, is to be avoided at all costs.

While abolition is the safest end-state, its pursuitis fraught with dangers that most abolition plans do not address. National, regional, andglobal security must be reinforced at every stage of theprocess, or else progress toward abolition will screech to a halt. This overriding security dynamic does not figure prominently inaction plans for nuclear disarmament. These planshave much in common. Most everyone acknowledges that burdens fall disproportionately on those countries with the largest nuclear arsenals, and there is a working consensus on steps upon which more ambitious initiatives can be built. Since a successful process leading toward abolition requires the progressive devaluation of nuclear weapons, and since every test of a nuclear weapon confers value, the complete cessation of testing and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are essential near-term steps.

Most of the blueprints for abolition are straightforward. Numbers should be reduced by certain amounts, and goals should be achieved within specified timeframes. Usage of the word “should” is these plans is not incidental, given the “outsider” status of their sponsors and the resistance of “insiders” to implementation. (The Blix Commission report used the words “should” and “must” no less than 462 times.)

It is therefore understandable why some plans for abolition stress the need for an international treaty and a deadline for nuclear disarmament. In this view, without a legally-binding framework and a deadline for nuclear disarmament, political resistance cannot be surmounted. In this spirit, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi proposed a deadline of twenty-two years in his 1988 action plan for nuclear disarmament.

Deadlines and treaties make sense when achievements are within reach and when they help negotiators to cross the finish line. Deadlines and treaties can be counterproductive when these conditions do not apply. Take, for example, Rajiv Gandhi’s timeline: It was too distant to impel near-term steps, and yet near enough to generate resistance to its practical pursuit. Seeking an international treaty to affirm a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament could also have the perverse effect of diverting energy away from necessary, near-term steps.

Existing multi-step plans for nuclear disarmament touch the right bases, but this is an intensely political process, given the power and symbolism of these weapons, the domestic constituencies they attract, and the geopolitical stakes attached to their disposition. Abolition schemes that focus on numbers and timelines provide little traction against states that find security in nuclear options. The presumption behind these plans seems to be that “political will” from those with the most nuclear weapons can fuel this process, with added propulsion provided by enlightened leaders and global public opinion.

Top-down leadership is essential for any abolition plan, as was evident by the impulses provided by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The world has been rid of approximately 30,000 nuclear weapons since they met at Reykjavik in 1986 to negotiate the unthinkable. Their plans, and subsequent agreements negotiated by their successors, provided nuclear order to the chaos that could otherwise have ensued with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Evidently, top-down leadership has still not inspired sufficient “followship.” While Great Britain and France have reduced their nuclear arsenals, China, India, and Pakistan are moving in the opposite direction. Russia is now signaling retrenchment, holdouts continue to prevent entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and negotiations of a treaty banning new production of bomb-making material have yet to begin. Many states that have abstained from acquiring nuclear weapons also refrain from measures to strengthen global nonproliferation norms, such as accepting more intrusive inspections at their nuclear facilities. While singing the praises of abolition, at least a dozen states are hedging their bets against a more threatening nuclear future.

These recalcitrant parties have well-rehearsed explanations for deflecting necessary tasks: Someone else must go first or do more before they can act appropriately. A turn-of-the-last century U.S. comic strip, starring Alphonse and Gaston, made this act famous. Neither could walk through a door without inviting his companion to go first, so they were often stuck at the threshold.

Is there a better way than deadlines and numbers to make this Alphonse and Gaston act more politically untenable? One way is for nongovernmental champions of abolition to issue annual report cards. Their marks would be predicated on three obvious, unarguable premises. First, that all states have duties and obligations to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, regardless of their status. Second, whatever positive steps have been taken to date are insufficient to achieve these oft-declared objectives. And third, everyone has a responsibility to do more. Distinguished champions of abolition might then list the menu of immediate actions required of states – nuclear, non-nuclear, and hedgers – to match words with deeds. Laggards may continue to articulate reasons for delay, but doing nothing would warrant a failing grade. Report cards from unimpeachable graders mightgenerate more near-term traction for nuclear disarmament than grand, multi-step plans.


Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and author of Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009).

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