Nuclear Abolition, A Reverie

Nuclear Abolition, A Reverie

Mini Teaser: The hope that we might one day rid the world of nuclear weapons is as old as the technology itself. Atomic destruction has always seemed too great a risk to bear. Yet a nuclear-free world is nothing but a dream—world government, a Praetorian Guard

by Author(s): Fred C. Ikle

From the September/October 2009 issue of The National Interest.


SIXTY-TWO years ago, Dean Acheson warned President Truman that nuclear weaponry was "a discovery more revolutionary in human society than the invention of the wheel" and that "if the invention is developed and used destructively there will be no victor and there may be no civilization remaining." Dean Acheson was certainly no woolly-eyed disarmer. He promoted the Atlantic alliance as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Yet, he recommended approaching Stalin to explore international controls for a global ban on nuclear weapons.

Two months later, U.S. and British officials reached the extraordinary decision that international controls must be the responsibility of the United Nations-a new and yet-untested organization. Dean Acheson chaired a committee which recommended an international authority to restrict the use of atomic energy to entirely peaceful purposes. The United States and its allies were convinced our world should never have nuclear weapons and indeed at the time there were none. Alas, because of Stalin's opposition to intrusive verification and his distrust of the United States, this well-intentioned American transformation of the international order reached a dead end.

But this idea of abolishing nuclear weapons has now been revived. Distinguished American statesmen and strategic experts have begun to advocate a world free of nuclear weapons as a long-term goal. In fact, when President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met in London on April 1, 2009, their joint statement said: "We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world..."

I have long been a proponent of the abolition of ballistic missiles. As then-Secretary of State George Shultz explains in his autobiography, I originated this idea before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at Reykjavik in 1986. Reagan was more interested in his Strategic Defense Initiative, and zero missiles rather than zero nuclear weapons. Yet, for Americans who are promoting a nuclear-free world, it is tempting to allege-wrongly-that the Gipper had endorsed their goal.

One might well wonder, how can all nuclear states be persuaded to believe in a nuclear-free world? And how can states without atomic weapons-Iran comes to mind-be convinced not to build them? Advocates of nuclear abolition often assert that the nations with the largest nuclear arsenals can lead the way by reducing their stockpiles to a few hundred weapons. But once the largest arsenals have been shrunk so much, the small arsenals of North Korea, Iran and other countries will become a powerful military asset. Making matters worse, decommissioning nuclear-weapons stockpiles is complex. Nuclear weapons must be carefully dismantled and their plutonium or enriched uranium must be safeguarded. This process is costly and takes time. The United States already has a fifteen-year backlog of weapons to be dismantled.


UNFORTUNATELY, MOST proponents of zero nuclear weapons ignore important facts, forget the lessons of similar arms-control proposals and disregard insurmountable obstacles. With such a cavalier approach, the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free world becomes a mere reverie.

To achieve a nuclear-free world we would need an international organization so powerful that it can implement, supervise, protect and enforce the dispensation of zero nuclear weapons. This will not be an easy task. The organization would have to accomplish five exceedingly difficult missions. First, it would have to generate irresistible political pressure to convince all nations with nuclear weapons that they must ratify the new treaty obligating them to abolish all of their nuclear armaments. Second, it would have to control all fissionable materials that could be used to build nuclear bombs. Third, it would have to verify that no nation has kept nuclear weapons or has started to produce them. Fourth, in the event a nation has embarked on massive violations that would put an end to a nuclear-free world, the body must be authorized to call on the United Nations Security Council to intervene with military force, and to defeat this violator. Fifth, to cope with the threat of terrorists who might acquire nuclear weapons, the organization would have to be authorized to request that the International Criminal Court punish every one of these terrorists for war crimes, plus all of their supporters and providers of weapons technology. Moreover, the organization would need a Praetorian Guard endorsed by the United Nations to annihilate terrorists who prepare, or who have carried out, an attack with a nuclear weapon.

Creating such an organization would be far more difficult than was the creation of the United Nations at the end of World War II. And hard facts are aplenty to spoil the fantasy that this organization will be successful. For example, North Korea does not allow the United States or other nations to verify its commitments regarding nuclear weapons. Neither massive bribes nor significant sanctions have given us access to North Korea's nuclear facilities. As the Congressional Research Service revealed, the United States donated over $1 billion during the last ten years to propitiate North Korea. All in vain. Rogue nations and repressive dictatorships pose a virtually intractable barrier to global nuclear disarmament.

On top of this, the assumption that this international organization could control all of the fissionable material usable for nuclear weapons is not supported by intelligence experts. Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the United States does not know the location of Pakistan's nuclear weapons: "We don't have, frankly, the intelligence to know where they all are located. . . ." If this holds true even for Pakistan, a country with which the United States has active military links, think how much harder it would be to control fissionable material in Syria, Burma or Iran.

The persistent lack of success in managing inspection regimes and arms-control agreements should serve as a lesson. The Hague Convention of 1899 prohibited the use of asphyxiating gases. Fifteen years later, horrible gases were used on the battlefields of Flanders. In 1974, the U.S. Senate ratified President Nixon's convention prohibiting the stockpiling and production of biological weapons. Yet, the Soviet Union started to violate this convention immediately following U.S. ratification. Proponents of a nuclear-free world like to assert that we are already committed to abolition because the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons requires in Article VI that each party "undertakes to pursue negotiations" for nuclear disarmament. But this article also obligates the parties to "general and complete disarmament" which is the most drastic arms-control measure ever proposed. It requires the destruction of all armaments except those needed to maintain internal order. By being so all-encompassing and unrealistic, the treaty merely makes nuclear abolition seem an idyll. The sad history of arms-control agreements provides an important lesson. It must be studied by those proposing we attempt nuclear abolition.


DESPITE THE many obstacles, a world free of nuclear weapons is a noble cause, provided it can be realized in a way that will protect political freedom and will do no harm. It is a cause that deserves serious effort, exploring how the political order would need to be transformed before nuclear abolition could be implemented.

After the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in June 1946 Albert Einstein asserted that world government had become "necessary for survival," and that Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union must draft a constitution for world government. Also in 1946, the Federation of American Scientists published a best seller, One World or None. In 1947, the United World Federalists (a new national organization with considerable influence at that time) agreed that world government will be needed.

Today, many promoters of zero nuclear weapons also see world government as necessary to maintain and secure a global order free of nuclear bombs. Though we have no experience building a world government, the European Union offers a potential model for success. The creation of the EU effectively changed the political structure of Europe. Ever since the Middle Ages, Europe has been plagued by war. Now, thanks to this supranational governing body, violent conflict among the major powers on the Continent is extremely unlikely. Certainly, within the European Union nuclear weapons have no strategic function.

Instead, today's internal conflicts within the EU are primarily about economic issues, changes in its political structure or the Union's further expansion, and occasionally about human rights and migration. Given time, we might be able to create a worldwide governance structure similar to the European Union.

The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used for sixty-four years gives us hope. This tradition of nonuse is almost miraculous. In at least four wars a nuclear-armed power fought against an enemy who had no nuclear weapons, and yet the nuclear power accepted defeat or a stalemate instead of using its nuclear dominance to win the war. This was the case in the Korean War, America's invasion of Vietnam, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and China's cross-border attack on Vietnam in 1979. This is a tradition we can build upon. If it lasts at least a hundred years, say until 2050-and if we are lucky-a global version of the EU may be possible.

Essay Types: The Realist