Nuclear Zero After Crimea

The path got longer—but the arguments are still sound.

On April 5, 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obama proclaimed the goal of freeing the world from the unique dangers posed by nuclear weapons. The massive Czech crowd applauded, as did many others around the world. Six months later, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Obama its Peace Prize.

Today, five years after Prague, the idea of seeking to eliminate all nuclear weapons has nearly evaporated from international politics. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine inflames memories of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. Russia’s bullying leaders cling to nuclear weapons as badges of great power and bulwarks against Western and Chinese coercion. In Asia, China and Japan mobilize air and naval forces to contest disputed islands in the East China Sea, prompting the U.S. to buttress capabilities and resolve to defend Japan while warning both sides not to precipitate a crisis.

Long before Crimea and the Senkaku islands entered their consciousness, Republicans in the U.S. Senate determined to block ratification of new treaties. They refuse even to discuss limitations on ballistic-missile defenses and other forms of arms control that could motivate Russia and China to limit and perhaps reverse the modernization of their forces.

Meanwhile, France bristles at anything that might complicate its perpetual retention of nuclear weapons. Pakistan and India expand their nuclear arsenals. North Korea rattles its nuclear sabre. And non-nuclear-weapon states such as South Africa and Brazil that could have been expected to support the disarmament agenda by strengthening nonproliferation rules and their enforcement instead stand on the sidelines and grumble.

In this environment it is tempting to dismiss the goal of nuclear abolition as a fleeting dream of a new president and international do-gooders. However, turning away from fundamental questions about the future role of nuclear weapons cedes too much importance to transient political trends and neglects issues of great strategic import. The happenings of the past five years should not be allowed to foreclose serious analysis and debate looking to the future.

Defenders of nuclear weapons (and opponents of Obama) emphasize that nuclear weapons deter warfare. The president knows this, of course. In Prague he said, “As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies—including the Czech Republic.”

However, unlike many of his opponents, the president and his supporters remember that deterrence is not fail-proof—otherwise it would not work. The weapons deter because they could be used, and any use could escalate to mass destruction. Even if deterrence is stable between the U.S. and Russia, it may have a higher probability of failure between less experienced pairs or, more ominously, groups of nuclear-armed states. As the eminent nuclear strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman put it several years ago: “The case for abolition…is that it is hard to believe that the past 60 years of self-restraint can continue for the next 60 years.”

Rather than prejudicially dismiss or embrace the goal of nuclear abolition, it makes more sense to continually analyze what threats the U.S. and its allies plausibly face and whether nuclear weapons are necessary to deter or defeat them. In other words, if no one else had nuclear weapons, would the U.S. still need them?

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine raises—for some—the prospect of a similar future move into Estonia or Latvia, which also have large Russian minorities. Unlike Ukraine, the small Baltic states are now members of NATO. The United States and other allies are obligated to come to their defense if they are attacked. If NATO membership itself did not deter Russia from encroaching on these states, would NATO plausibly use nuclear weapons to stop it?

Russian forces thus far have not fired shots at Ukrainians. Against a NATO state Russia would be at least as careful. Launching massive-scale attack on a state or alliance that possesses nuclear weapons (or knows how to make them) would make sense only if the precipitating threat were of a scale commensurate with the risk of nuclear war. This is one reason why aggressors in recent years have kept the scope and scale of their attacks below the threshold that would invite nuclear use.

If Russia did intervene against a NATO state, then both sides would face strong pressures to escalate until the costs got so high that one was compelled to withdraw. Here the temptation to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons would arise. But if NATO went first it would invite Russian retaliation which would be more injurious to the Estonians or Latvians and other NATO members than the initial Russian intervention. This is one reason why it is difficult to imagine the twenty-eight democracies of NATO agreeing to initiate the use of nuclear weapons if Russia did not use its own nuclear weapons first. (A U.S. president independently could use nuclear weapons over the objections of many NATO allies, but that would have daunting consequences too.)

In a world without nuclear weapons, NATO would be more confident that over time it could muster conventional forces to compel Russia to withdraw or else face defeat. This is one reason why President Putin resists Obama’s Prague Agenda as a clever American plot. Russia’s resistance challenges the feasibility of achieving nuclear disarmament, but affirms that the goal itself could clarify what the U.S., other NATO states, and Russia can do to remove causes of potential conflict among them.