WPR Feature Issue: The Road to Zero

I’d like to say that when we scheduled this week’s feature issue on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, it was with the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in mind. But the truth is that it was a total coincidence. I remember as a kid, at the Red Diaper Baby summer camp I attended for several years, waking early and dressing in white on Hiroshima Day, taking the “peace crane” origami that each of us had folded the previous afternoon while listening to histories of the attack, and filing down the dirt road with the rest of the campers toward the lake to place them all on the water. Oddly enough, I remember the image of all of us, dressed in white, raising dust in the early morning twilight along that road to the lake, but when I try to picture the peace cranes fanning out across the water, I draw a blank.

At the time — the mid-70s — the Cold War was at its peak, and confidence that we were on the right path to winning it had flagged. At the same camp, we were ushered into the rec hall one evening to watch on a small black and white TV screen as Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. Even as a child, I could feel the collective sense of confusion and loss of way surrounding me. And to know, as we did very viscerally, that to boot, there were thousands of warheads — any one of which could leave us mere shadows burned into the ground beneath us — trained on our every major city seemed to add a sense of daunting madness to the gloomy mood.

It’s strange to think of everything that has occurred since then: the unpredictable and thankfully anti-climactic dénouement to the Cold War, the dismantling of the Soviet empire, and the invention, on the fly, of a new global order. Perhaps most strange is the fact that, far from disappearing as a central preoccupation of global security, nuclear weapons have displayed a disturbing resilience.

I’d suggest that there exist four historical stages of nuclear proliferation. The first comprises the bipolar U.S.-Soviet standoff. The second consists of proliferation among second-order powers, like Britain, France and China. The third, possibly just a long tail of the second, consists of the spread of nuclear weapons to third-order powers — namely India and Pakistan. And the fourth, most recent stage is the nuclearization — real, potential or imagined — of the “rogue” states: North Korea, Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

With the growing suspicions and emerging consensus that Syria and Burma have, at the least, entertained nuclear ambitions, it’s clear that we’ve now entered a fifth stage of nuclear proliferation, which for lack of a better word, I’d call the banalization stage. This isn’t to say that the weapons themselves represent any less of a risk. But it’s clear that the strategic logic behind pursuing them has been drastically downgraded.

No longer are nuclear weapons part of a carefully calculated policy of maintaining a strategic deterrent against a real and mortal enemy. Instead, they’ve been reduced to functioning as an insurance policy for regime survival, whose very strategic value lies in the lack of any realistic scenario for their use. Once every petty tyrant has one lying around, their function is effectively decoupled from their terrible destructiveness, even if the latter has by no means disappeared.

If there was one redeeming feature of the Cold War nuclear standoff, it was that no one, for a single moment, could decouple the function of nuclear weapons from their terrible destructiveness. That, along with the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, created a fierce urgency to never again use them. To his credit, President Barack Obama has brought the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons front and center. And this week’s feature includes three very informative articles that explain the contours of his effort. It’s worth a look.