The Fantasy of Zero Nukes

April 23, 2012 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Region: Russia

The Fantasy of Zero Nukes

Obama's nuclear disarmament strategy is misguided and out of sync with current threats.

Nowhere is President Obama’s tendency to confuse speech making with policy making more evident than in his treatment of nuclear weapons, the greatest threat to both U.S. security and world peace.

The main hot spots are well known: North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. Instead, the president has focused for the last three years on Russia. President Obama believes that the best way to deal with WMD is to lead by example. He holds that, as the United States and Russia recommit themselves to nuclear disarmament, other nations will be inspired to either give up their nuclear arms or refrain from acquiring any. It is a policy Keith B. Payne fairly labeled “nuclear utopianism.”

The strategy that calls for the United States and Russia to lead the parade to nuclear disarmament was formed by four highly regarded statesmen: the quad of two Republicans, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, as well as two Democrats, Sam Nunn and William Perry. All four are very senior veterans of the Cold War. Their strategy relies on reductions in the number of warheads loaded on the two powers’ strategic bombers and missiles, a major threat before 1990 but not a hot issue today.

The quad’s position is best understood in the context of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that took effect in 1970, which created two groups of nations: those that had nuclear weapons and agreed to give them up, and those that did not have them and promised not to seek them.  Many of the nuclear have-not class of countries lived up to their NPT obligations and ended their nascent military nuclear programs in the years that followed, including South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Egypt. But the members of the “nuclear club”—China, Russia, the UK, France and the United States—failed to honor their commitments. These failures are often cited by nations such as Iran when they vent their outrage at being pressured by the United States and other nuclear “haves” to not acquire nuclear weapons.

During his first major speech about nuclear arms, in Prague in 2009, President Obama promised to make amends by moving toward the promised land of zero nukes. In the following months, his administration invested much energy in fashioning a treaty with Russia that did reduce the nuclear weapons of the old Cold War adversaries. But the treaty had no effect on the main sources of current threats: terrorists acquiring nukes in Pakistan or North Korea and mounting them on long-range missiles, or Iran employing them to threaten Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Moreover, zero is a dangerous notion. If either Russia or the U.S. concealed ten weapons more than the levels currently permitted by the treaty, it would matter little, since both countries have hundreds of them. However, if one of the superpowers indeed gave up its entire nuclear arsenal and the other then pulled ten out of a hiding place, it would pose a major threat. Moreover, even if both Russia and the United States move to a true and verified zero, any other nation that did not could blackmail one or both superpowers and the rest of the world merely by threatening to use its nuclear weapons.

A world of zero nukes may be merely a vision President Obama projected to inspire other nations to give up their nuclear ambitions, but he has failed to inspire any nation to give up its bombs or to stop making more.

Consider the reasons nations develop a nuclear arsenal. Whatever Russia and the United States do to their nukes will not stop other nations from seeking them. For example, Pakistan is retaining its weapons stockpile because India has a much bigger population and can sustain a much larger conventional army than Pakistan. A nuclear capability thus serves, from the viewpoint of Islamabad, as the main deterrent against being overrun—Pakistan would maintain its arsenal even if the US. and Russia dismantled their last nukes.

Iran seeks a nuclear weapon to deter attacks by the United States and its allies, as a source of prestige and possibly as the means needed to wipe out Israel. North Korea claims to need nuclear weapons to deter the United States, Japan and South Korea from what it sees as their aggressive tendencies—and views them as a major source of prestige as well. None of these reasons are much affected by whatever deals Moscow and Washington are making.

Chasing the mirage of a world without nukes distracts attention and uses up political capital badly needed for addressing urgent problems concerning these arms. Top among these—if one is to focus on Russia—are not strategic arms but the tactical nuclear bombs and fissile materials terrorists seek. Russia has an estimated arsenal of tactical nukes between five thousand and fourteen thousand, while the United States has about one thousand. However, New START does not cover tactical weapons. It deals exclusively with strategic weapons, which terrorists are extremely unlikely to be able to handle.

The nuclear arsenals of rogue states and failing states are not being ignored by the Obama administration. It is trying diplomacy, engagement and even some sanctions in dealing with Iran, and it is desperately seeking ways to deal with Pakistan and North Korea. But these discussions are on a different track, where zero is not so much as mentioned.

Thus, we see another example in which Obama's speeches—which presumably set the direction of US. foreign policy and are intended to inspire other nations—are out of sync with the small efforts his administration is making in handling the nuclear hot spots. Anyway you look at it, the rhetoric about zero nukes is completely disconnected from the international reality.

Amitai Etzioni's book The Hot Spots will be published by Transaction in 2012.