Is Zero Nukes Possible?

Three former government officials involved in nuclear policy debate whether we can eliminate atomic weapons.

"Nuclear Abolition, A Reverie," Fred C. Iklé's article from the September/October 2009 National Interest, provoked responses from former-Ambassador Max M. Kampelman and Stimson Center cofounder Barry M. Blechman. Click here to view Kampelman's retort, here to read Blechman's and here to read Iklé's rebuttal to both.


Max M. Kampelman:

The National Interest performed a constructive public service in publishing Fred Ikle's important article critical of those of us who have been energetically striving to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. Indeed, before writing an essay urging that goal, I consulted with Fred whom I respect. I had been greatly influenced toward the abolition position by President Reagan and by my role as his negotiator on nuclear arms with the Russians. Fred was skeptical. This was disappointing because I consider him to be one of our country's most impressive scholars on the subject. His skepticism at the time has now apparently turned to opposition. In any event, I continue to believe that the strength, stability and possibly the survival of our civilization require our leadership toward ending nuclear weapons.

At the outset, let me express my doubts about Fred's belief that Reagan was not committed to a nuclear free world. That may have been the president's feeling prior to Reykjavik, but I had a number of conversations with him in which he consistently advocated zero nuclear missiles as his goal. I can only explain Fred's belief to the contrary by noting the possibility that the president's ambition to abolish the weapons was strengthened during his negotiations with the Russians.

Fred doubts that we can persuade all the atomic countries to believe in a nuclear-free world and questions whether we can convince states without nuclear weapons not to build them. He also seems to assume that nations such as ours will have to lead the way by setting an example and reducing our stockpiles. Let me assure him that his concerns are unwarranted. The serious and experienced men and women with whom I work toward the goal of zero are well aware of the complexities of achieving that goal. The large numbers of political leaders and scientists throughout the world who associate themselves with the goal of zero are not naïve about the complexity of disarmament. I, for one, would not want to abandon or weaken our current military position unless the elimination of nuclear weapons is world-wide. Fred and your readers should not assume a leadership toward zero which is naïve in the world of politics. We are fully and realistically aware of the fact that the zero goal means that nuclear weapons "must become fully dismantled . . . and safeguarded," a process which is "costly and takes time."

There is a process by which we could eliminate nuclear weapons that is practical and achievable, and necessary if our civilization is to be protected. Our president (with or without the Russians) should submit a resolution to the UN General Assembly declaring the abolition of nuclear missiles to be a fundamental premise of our civilized international body politic. In effect, the role of the General Assembly would be to declare a civilized world without nuclear weapons to be its goal.

It should be remembered that, at the inaugural opening of the United Nations, President Truman declared nuclear weapons to be contrary to the very purpose of the organization and that they should be abolished. I have spoken at three different UN activities in New York and have met with UN officials as well. If such a resolution were submitted by the United States (with or without others), it would be overwhelmingly (if not unanimously) adopted by the General Assembly. I look upon this as a declaration by the world of what "ought" to be our goal. (As a teacher of political science, I told my students that civilization was the movement of the "ought" to the "is.")

The UN General Assembly resolution would also provide that the Security Council should be charged with the task of enforcement and preventing cheating. Such a procedure should also provide a punishment provision of total political, economic and social isolation directed at "guilty" states. The Security Council procedure will and should take careful steps and months of deliberation, but there is no doubt in my mind that the civilized world can move the "ought" of zero to the "is." The United States should obviously not reduce its weapons unless and until it is satisfied that the world is on the same wavelength.

Nuclear abolition is and should be considered as indispensable in a civilized world. The alternative is chaos.

Max M. Kampelman served as U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1980-1984; ambassador and head of the U.S. delegation to negotiate with the Soviet Union on nuclear and space arms, 1985-1989; Counselor, Department of State, 1987-1989; chairman emeritus of the American Academy of Diplomacy; and chairman emeritus of the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.



Barry M. Blechman: