Reaching Zero

Reaching Zero

The nuclear dilemma in the Obama era.


Listen to Jonathan Schell and Tom Engelhardt discuss America’s nuclear trajectory and the dilemma of nuclear weaponry in the Obama era.

What is the purpose, if any, of the nuclear bomb, that brooding presence that has shadowed all human life for sixty-five years? The question has haunted the nuclear age. It may be that no satisfactory answer has ever been given. Nuclear strategic thinking, in particular, has disappointed. Many of its pioneers have wound up in a state of something like despair regarding their art. For example, Bernard Brodie, one of the originators of nuclear strategy in the 1940s, was forced near the end of his life to realize that "nuclear strategy itself–the body of thoughts that he himself had helped formulate–was something of an illusion," according to historian Fred Kaplan. In the introduction to The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Lawrence Freedman airs the suspicion that the phrase "nuclear strategy" may be a "contradiction in terms." Henry Kissinger, a leading figure in nuclear strategizing for a half-century, has expressed a similar feeling of futility. In a remarkable reconsideration, amounting to an oblique recantation of his past thinking, he has written recently in Newsweek:

The basic dilemma of the nuclear age has been with us since Hiroshima: how to bring the destructiveness of modern weapons into some moral or political relationship with the objectives that are being pursued. Any use of nuclear weapons is certain to involve a level of casualties and devastation out of proportion to foreseeable foreign-policy objectives. Efforts to develop a more nuanced application have never succeeded, from the doctrine of a geographically limited nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s to the "mutual assured destruction" theory of general nuclear war in the 1970s.

Now a new moment, full of fresh promise but also with novel perils, has arrived in the nuclear story, and all the old questions have to be asked again. As if responding to some secret signal sent out by a restless zeitgeist, the globe is seething with events large and small in the nuclear arena. Here in the United States, certainly, all the policy pots on the nuclear stove are at a boil. Soon, the Obama administration will complete its overdue Nuclear Posture Review, a statement that Congress requires of the president every four years on the disposition of the country’s nuclear forces.

It will give the administration’s answer to the key questions: What nuclear forces should the United States deploy? Why? What, if anything, does the United States propose to do with them? On April 8 the United States and Russia will sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) agreement, which will reduce warheads to 1,550 on each side and restrict delivery vehicles to 800 apiece. Also in early April, President Obama will hold a Nuclear Security Summit with the heads of state of forty-four other nations to consider measures to prevent the diversion of nuclear weapon materials into unauthorized hands. In early May will come the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which is a kind of nuclear posture review for the entire world. Decisions on passage of the long-rejected Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well as a resurrected Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty are also likely very soon.

The key question, of course, is whether the policies and actions will meet the mounting perils of the new situation. What’s needed for success, I will suggest, is a revival precisely of the discredited art of nuclear strategic thinking, which may, with suitable adjustments, yet have something to offer us. Strategy, military thinkers have long told us, is the art of marrying up tactical means with broad political ends. That is exactly what is most sorely missing in nuclear policy today. Certainly, no mere piecemeal examination will suffice. A comprehensive approach is needed.

The Nuclear Surge

For taken together, the dangers mark the world’s arrival at a new stage in the evolution of nuclear danger, forcing fundamental decisions on nuclear and nonnuclear powers alike. In a word, the nuclear predicament is coming of age, which is to say that it is fulfilling a potential that every competent scientist has known it possessed since the advent of the bomb in 1945: nuclear technology, no longer the preserve of a few privileged powers, is becoming available on a global basis. This is because of the simple but decisive fact that the bomb is based on scientific knowledge, which is in its nature unconfinable. This spread is at the heart of the growing nuclear peril–a kind of nuclear surge–in today’s world.

To say that the technology is becoming available to all, however, is not to say that it is possessed by all or even that it will be. It means only that if nations or others want it, they will be able to have it. Japan, for example, does not have a nuclear bomb. But one is available to Japan in short order if it so chooses. According to the State Department, the bomb is thus available to some fifty other countries. This number of potential nuclear powers is destined to grow. If those countries do not build the bomb, the reason can only be a domestic and international political decision that they should not. The more this availability spreads (as it must), the higher and stronger the political barriers against proliferation must become.

Of course, at a certain point, which may not be far off, availability, if not possession, will spill beyond national confines and reach smaller groups. At that point the political walls will have to be high and strong indeed. Otherwise, a nuclear 9/11 may be upon us.

Obviously, any deliberate spread of nuclear technology, such as the "renaissance" of nuclear power that has apparently begun, will only accelerate the surge.

This underlying and irreversible pressure of availability is the backdrop for today’s widespread and well-founded dread that proliferation by just a few countries–above all, North Korea and Iran–will push the world over what the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, a group set up by the Japanese and Australian governments, calls a "tipping point," precipitating a "cascade" of proliferation that will wash away the current nuclear order. South Asia has of course already gone nuclear, with India and Pakistan engaged in an arms race. India, aping the United States, has planned a triad of air, land and sea nuclear forces while impoverished, crisis-ridden Pakistan struggles to keep up.

The Middle East and East Asia, led by Iran and North Korea, could become the next regions to travel down this path. According to the Washington Post, A.Q. Khan, the "father" of Pakistan’s bomb and the arch-proliferator of its nuclear technology, has said that Iranian officials asked him in the 1980s to sell them ready-made bombs. Since then Iran has appeared to many to be using its right to develop nuclear power technology as a pathway to building the bomb from scratch. If it does, other countries in the Middle East may well follow suit. More immediately, Iran and nuclear-armed Israel would find themselves in a perilous balance–or rather, extreme imbalance, since Israel already has an undeclared arsenal of perhaps 200 warheads. If North Korea, which already has the bomb, refuses, as seems likely, to give it up under pressure from the world community, then something similar could happen in East Asia, and Japan might indeed produce its own bomb.

And yet if it’s tempting to some in the United States and elsewhere to define the new nuclear moment solely as a crisis of proliferation, they should be brought up short by a single brute fact: more than 95 percent of the world’s 23,000 or so nuclear warheads remain in the possession of two countries: the United States, with some 9,000, and Russia, with some 13,000.

If one ineluctable truth of Year 65 of the bomb is that the sources of nuclear danger are destined to be global, another is that the world’s existing arsenals are likewise indivisibly global. They are joined in a kind of unity of hostility. Each nuclear nation (Israel, which has no nuclear adversary, may be the odd man out) cites the arsenal of another or others as the rationale for possessing its own, in multiple chains that link them together into a network of threats and counterthreats. For example, in one such chain, Pakistan fears India, which fears China, which fears Russia, which fears the United States. This network of terror and counterterror underscores another truth of the nuclear age: every possessor of the bomb, by its very existence, teaches possible proliferators a pair of lessons that are the prime (if not the only) motives for proliferation. First, you will be living in a nuclear-armed world; second, if you want to be protected in that world you must have nuclear arms yourself. (In addition, it has of course occurred to many countries, especially North Korea and Iran, that nuclear weapons could deter overwhelming conventional power such as that possessed by the United States.) From national points of view, each arsenal is distinct, but from a global proliferation point of view they are a joint inducement for the further spread of nuclear arms.

The necessary conclusion is clear: proliferation can’t be stopped unless possession is dealt with concurrently. In the seventh decade of the nuclear age, the time for half-solutions is over. The head of state with his finger on the button of some aging cold war arsenal, the head of state itching to put his finger on such a button, the nuclear power operator, the nuclear smuggler and the terrorist in his hideout dreaming of unparalleled mass murder are actors on a single playing field. In this respect, too, the nuclear dilemma has become indivisibly global.

This is a truth, however, that the world’s nine nuclear powers do not like to acknowledge, because it has an implication they are reluctant to accept, which is that if they want to be safe from nuclear danger they must commit themselves to surrendering their own nuclear arms.

Strategic Incoherence

And yet that is exactly what Barack Obama did in his speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, saying, "So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Encouragingly, his commitment has been accompanied by the widest support for nuclear abolition since President Harry Truman sent Bernard Baruch to ask the world in 1946 to choose between "the quick and the dead." For one thing, a remarkable phalanx of former and current officials, Republican as well as Democratic, have embraced the goal. Their calls originated with the by-now-famous article by the "Gang of Four"–former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn–who in a January 2007 Wall Street Journal article announced their support for "a world free of nuclear weapons" and called for "working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal." This unlikely foursome harked back to the previously underappreciated fact that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, had come within an ace of agreeing to nuclear abolition. (The deal foundered because Gorbachev would agree to it only if Reagan dropped his Strategic Defense Initiative, and Reagan would not.) Today, a majority of former secretaries of state and defense support a world free of nuclear weapons.

A remarkable number of new government and civil panels, commissions and other initiatives have also sprung up to support the goal. Among them is a new group, Global Zero, which proposes abolition by 2030 and is supported by a Who’s Who of international as well as American signatories, including, for example, Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter and former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Henry L. Stimson Center and the Nuclear Threat Initiative all have serious, well-funded programs to scout the path to zero and determine what would be required to stay there. Meanwhile, the traditional antinuclear movement, led by such groups as Peace Action, the American Friends Service Committee and the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, are marshaling support for a nuclear weapons convention.

If Obama’s commitment to abolition and the movement in support of it were setting the tone and agenda of current nuclear negotiations, the world might now be in the first stage of a final solution (to give that dread phrase a new and positive meaning) of the nuclear dilemma. Each proposal in the negotiations would be weighed in the light of the distance it traveled toward a nuclear-weapons-free world. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Instead, what have been offered are at best a series of timid makeshifts or, at worst, de facto subversion of the Prague objective. If this trend continues, it is entirely possible that the ultimate mockery will occur: nuclear arsenals will march forward into the future under a banner that reads Ban the Bomb.

Let us consider two policy arenas: the START agreement and the Nuclear Posture Review.

Nothing on the nuclear stage today is stranger or less adequately explained than the spectacle, still on view twenty years after the end of the cold war, of the United States and Russia holding each other hostage to nuclear annihilation with arsenals in the thousands poised on alert. The current agreement, which will remain in force until 2020, sets a ceiling of 1,550 warheads on each side that must be reached by 2017. The reduction from the old ceiling of 2,200 is of course welcome. The continuation of a system of inspections is even more welcome. But what are we to make of the 1,550 warheads that remain? After all, the limit on the 1,550 is also a permission for the 1,550. The arrangement indefinitely leaves intact the essential fact that the United States and Russia are poised to blow each other up many times over, as if the cold war had never ended. What is that about?

If strategy is the art of using tactics to achieve political ends, then the persistence of these arsenals represents its nemesis. What political purpose is served? There is no quarrel between the two nations that would justify deployment of even a single nuclear weapon. An answer is often made that the United States must have such an arsenal because Russia still does–as a "deterrent." But this begs the question. For today, as in the past forty years, since the beginning of arms control agreements in 1972, the size of the US arsenal has of course been a negotiated figure. The question is not, as is sometimes pretended, whether in the face of a Russian threat the United States needs to protect itself and size its forces accordingly; it is what figure the two sides should jointly set in talks like the ones just concluded. What stopped Hillary Clinton when she went to Moscow from proposing a force on each side of, say, 300 weapons, as has been suggested by a prominent Air Force officer and two Air University professors recently in Strategic Studies Quarterly? For that matter, why not zero? That step admittedly would require bringing the other nuclear powers into the talks. But why not do that–or at least set a time frame for doing so, thereby explicitly linking the current agreement to the president’s announced goal?

It is here that the strategic deficit becomes most glaring. It’s not just that tactics have lost contact with political goals, it is that nuclear tactics (in this case, deployments) are weighed without any reference to politics whatsoever. Admittedly, the possibility of Russia backsliding into hostilities with the United States is sometimes cited as a reason for strategic "hedging," but the obvious next question is whether the United States would prefer to be in a nuclear confrontation with a backslid Russia or in a merely conventional confrontation. Has Washington decided that in case of any hostilities nuclear confrontations are preferable to nonnuclear ones?

Behind this issue looms a larger unasked strategic question. Are nations in general safer when they aim nuclear weapons at one another ("deter" one another)? Are some pairs safer and others not? Which ones? For example, do Americans think India and Pakistan were wise in 1998 to jointly go nuclear and threaten each other with annihilation? Are they safer today for having taken that step? The refusal of the United States and Russia to show the way by denuclearizing their own relationship is an answer that speaks louder than the Prague commitment and undercuts it. That refusal says that nuclear weapons are useful and do make you safer. But this lesson cuts the legs out from under any serious nonproliferation effort. Wasn’t the need for nonproliferation where we began? Isn’t that now the main professed goal of the United States in the nuclear field? Here is strategic incoherence in its acutest form. Deployments to meet a vanished threat spoil any effort to deal with a current real one.

What we have heard so far of the Nuclear Posture Review exemplifies the same intellectual debacle. Reportedly, the document will reject the proposal for "no first use." No first use is the policy of using nuclear weapons only in retaliation for nuclear attacks. All other attacks, including ones with biological or chemical weapons, would be met by conventional forces.

The rejection of no first use would crystallize, as perhaps nothing else can, the strategic disarray of American nuclear policy. Like the persistence of the forces of mutual assured destruction, it would represent the banishment of politics from strategy (meaning in fact that strategy no longer is strategy). The first-use policy was born in the 1950s, when US leaders believed they could deter perceived Soviet conventional superiority in Europe only by threatening a nuclear response. Is it really necessary to state once again that the cold war is over? Apparently it is, because in this arena, too, news of the geopolitical revolution of 1989-91 has yet to reach the American strategic brain. There, "extended deterrence" seems to be permanently planted on the basis of a kind of incurable nostalgia for the cold war. Fantastically, surreally, the United States is still using nuclear arms to repel a Russian conventional attack on Europe, as if it were 1958. (We might as well say "Soviet attack," since the threat is imaginary.) This obsolete readiness is symbolically embodied in the deployment even today of some 200 American tactical nuclear warheads in Europe, ready at a moment’s notice to repel Soviet hordes coming through the Fulda Gap. In February, five of the European countries thus "defended" (Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Norway) recommended that the weapons be withdrawn. Washington is still thinking about it.

More important for today’s concerns is that a no-first-use policy is the sine qua non of any effective nonproliferation strategy. If nuclear weapons are needed not only to counter other nuclear weapons but to repel conventional, chemical and biological attacks as well, then what responsible national leader can afford to do without them? The problem is not merely symbolic. If the nine nuclear powers are ready to use their arms to perform a grab bag of tasks, then the dangers to nonnuclear countries really do multiply, perhaps inspiring them to acquire these devices, evidently so versatile and useful, for themselves.

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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