Reaching Zero | The Nation


Reaching Zero

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

Toward a New Nuclear Strategy

To escape from this scene of halfhearted and ineffectual measures serving unclear or contradictory goals, the United States needs new strategic thinking. In exploring what it should be, perhaps it will be useful to look back at past strategic thought.

The great intellectual artifact of cold war strategy was the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. It adopted a new aim for military deployments. In the renowned words of Bernard Brodie in 1946, "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose." This insight, which was recognized as a basis of policy in the early 1960s by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, marked a true revolution in military affairs. Broadly speaking, war-fighting strategies were replaced by war-not-fighting strategies. Not to fight, according to this policy, was to win. And yet under this policy the way not to fight was nevertheless to plan to fight. The trick was to restrict the plan for fighting to nuclear retaliation, in the hope that that day would never come. Thus was born the paradoxical, or contradictory, policy on which survival in the nuclear age was believed to rest. Safety from nuclear destruction depended not on getting rid of the arms that threatened it but on threats to inflict that same nuclear destruction.

In retrospect, it seems the doctrine of deterrence has been a true Janus: it has been based on one thoroughgoing absurdity and one profound truth. The absurdity was the idea that you could lastingly and reliably avoid an action--mutual suicide in a nuclear war--by threatening the action. The problem, as many critics noted, was that at any given moment--but especially in a crisis--you did not know whether you would get the nuclear non-use that was the new strategic goal or the use whose threat was the tactical means to achieve the non-use. Strategists and moralists twisted and turned in the coils of this dilemma, even as the world lived (as it still technically lives) on the knife-edge of catastrophe. Moralists pondered the virtue of threatening a crime in order not to commit it; strategists wondered how a threat of "suicide" (McNamara) could be "credible" to the one so threatened. None of them found answers, yet the policy became so deeply ingrained in policy circles that today people refer to the American nuclear arsenal as "our deterrent," as if the hardware and its alleged purpose were one.

And yet the doctrine did also rest on one profound truth--its acknowledgment that "nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," as Reagan and Gorbachev put it in 1985.Implicit in this revolution in military affairs was a strategic revolution. The political gains that governments had pursued through wars were given up, now replaced by a need to preserve the peace, which itself became the only sane strategic objective. You might say that deterrence has pursued a sane goal by insane means--a cleavage manifested in the fact that even as deterrence fought off nuclear use, and in a certain sense fortified what has been called the "nuclear taboo" and the "tradition of non-use," it at the same time pinioned the world permanently on the brink of such use.

Is it then possible that abolition can be seen as a rectification and completion of the strategic revolution begun but left unfinished by deterrence? How great, after all, would be the shift from the strategic goal of "non-use," or the "tradition of non-use," to the strategic goal of "nonpossession," to a "tradition of nonpossession"? Doesn't non-use in a way already cast nuclear weapons on history's scrap heap?

It is a peculiarity of deterrence that the weapons themselves, rather than political developments, dictate the strategic aim (non-use). In its pathological form, this peculiarity leads to the divorce of deployments and posture from politics that we see now. But in the benign form of abolition, the strategy dictated by arms and the strategy dictated by policy would coincide. Both would say, with the new Henry Kissinger: there is no quarrel in the world worth a nuclear war, so don't fight one or arm yourself to do so.

The conclusion is strengthened when you recall that even at zero, deterrence does not melt away completely. The reason is that the roots of the nuclear dilemma lie in inextinguishable advances in scientific knowledge. For even as this knowledge could permit cheaters to violate an abolition agreement, so it would permit the international community to respond in kind. The point is not to propose overelaborate schemes of nuclear rearmament if a crisis were to occur at zero (the conventional forces of the threatened international community would surely suffice) but to point out that there is no sharp discontinuity, as is often suggested, between the "minimum deterrence" represented by, say, a few hundred weapons and zero. Rather there is a smooth continuity all the way to zero, and even beyond, as political and legal as well as technical arrangements needed to keep the world at zero gradually strengthened. Unfortunately, technical bans are all in principle reversible. It has been otherwise with a few moral and legal revolutions, including the abolition of slavery, and there is reason to hope that the abolition of nuclear arms would be one of these. When that happened, deterrence would have been left finally and completely behind.

The Architecture of Zero

The needed change is to turn abolition from a far-off goal into an active organizing principle that gives direction to everything that is done in the nuclear arena--in other words, a strategic goal. The indivisible nuclear surge under way in today's world can be mastered only with an indivisible program to defeat it. Let us, then, borrowing from Obama in Prague, take "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" as the new strategic objective--the political goal in the pursuit of which all tactics become the means. That goal has two requisites. The first is getting rid of existing nuclear weapons. The tactical means to that goal are of course negotiations among the nuclear powers. The second requisite is building a system that safeguards the world from the recrudescence of nuclear weapons once they are gone. This system will be the true architecture of zero. The tactical means to that goal are negotiating an ever-tightening web of restrictions imposed on all technology usable for nuclear weapons.

Of the two, the second is more difficult. For while the process of nuclear disarmament will continue for only a limited time, until zero is reached, the architecture of zero must be built to last forever, since the knowledge that underlies nuclear weapons will never disappear. The tactics for reaching this goal only begin with the construction of systems of inspection and enforcement. More important over the long run is building a political and legal order in which the attempt to build a nuclear weapon would be designated a crime against humanity. More important still would be the moral deepening of the taboo.

The art of strategy--so notably absent in today's contradictory mélange of policies--is to combine the measures needed to achieve the two goals into a single, coherent, self-reinforcing plan. Above all, the nonproliferation efforts that are the precursors to an architecture of zero are in mortal need of the united planetary political will that can be created only by a clear, credible commitment to a time-bound plan for abolition to which all nuclear powers are formally agreed. It should take the form of a commitment to create the sort of nuclear weapons convention that the antinuclear movement has long advocated--one that, as noted earlier, seeks to ban all weapons of mass destruction.

To postpone abolition is to postpone nonproliferation. Today arms control and nonproliferation proceed in two parallel negotiating universes--the NPT review on the one side and START talks on the other. The two need to be brought together in a simple bargain that is already implicit in the provisions of the NPT: the nuclear powers will surrender their arsenals on condition that other powers agree not to obtain any.

Such a strategy would build on the truth underlying deterrence doctrine while gradually retiring its absurd features. It would enable nuclear strategy, at last, to catch up with history. It would deliver Russia and the United States from the weapons-forged hostility that politically no longer exists. It would unify the world around a common goal--one already embraced under the NPT by 184 countries and enshrined in their laws. Nuclear states (as long as they persist as such) would be at one with nonnuclear states in preventing proliferation, even as they all worked together to put in place the architecture of zero that would make the ban permanent and safe. Finally, the strategy would provide a measuring rod for judging the merit of interim steps, such as START and no first use. They would be judged by the specific contribution they made to reaching the common strategic goal. To give some examples: adoption of no first use by all nuclear powers would be highly valued as a way station toward abolition. In principle at least, nuclear weapons would have been completely retired from use, for if no one strikes first, no one can strike in retaliation--thus no one will strike with a nuclear weapon at all, and no one will threaten to do so.

Arms reductions would, of course, have value as steps toward zero; but the inspection regimes accompanying them would be especially prized, not just for their own sake but because an ever-stronger regime of inspection is a sine qua non of life in a world without nuclear weapons.

Influence would flow from nonproliferation measures to arms control as well. The more nonnuclear-weapons states accepted stringent inspections, the more they permitted transparency of their nuclear facilities and the more they accepted restrictions on withdrawal from the NPT, the more ready would the nuclear powers be, less afraid now of cheating, to surrender their arsenals.

What would nuclear weapons then be for? They almost tell us themselves. "We are here," they say, "to abolish ourselves, and--a big bonus--to put up a barrier to major power war forever after into the bargain. For even after you are rid of us, we will hover in the wings, as a potential that cannot ever be removed." The bomb is waiting for us to hear the message. It has been waiting a long time. If we do not, it can always return to what has always been its plan B, and abolish us.


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