Yes We Can – Get Rid of Nuclear Weapons?

In less than one week’s time, U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed the vision of a world without nuclear weapons on three separate occasions, outlining a broad and ambitious arms control agenda for his administration on his recent trip to Europe.

The president has announced as his first arms control priority the negotiation of a successor accord to the 1991 START 1 U.S.-Russian agreement, which expires in December of this year. Obama also announced that his administration would “immediately and aggressively” seek U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and launch a diplomatic effort to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile materials (commonly referred to as a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, or FMCT) for use in nuclear weapons.

The contrast with his predecessor could not be starker. The administration of President George W. Bush negotiated only one arms control agreement during its tenure, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) with Moscow. Though its flexibility was intended to represent a shift away from Cold War-era relations between the U.S. and Russia, critics bemoaned the fact that it lacked verification provisions, did not address delivery systems, and narrowly focused on operationally deployed warheads rather than requiring the actual destruction of warheads. The Bush administration also did not revisit the CTBT after the Senate’s failure to ratify it in 1999 and tabled a draft FMCT at the Conference on Disarmament in 2006 that did not include verification.

Both the CTBT and an eventual FMCT are consistent with U.S. behavior. The U.S. has not produced fissile material since 1988 and has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1992. And together with Russia, it has gradually been reducing the overall size of its nuclear arsenal. Further reductions between the two countries will continue the trend toward lower and lower stockpile sizes for the U.S. and Russia, the two countries with by far the world’s largest accumulation of nuclear weapons.

The president’s speech in Prague spurred immediate and predictable caution and concern. Anne Applebaum called it “peculiar.” The Wall Street Journal editorialized that “rarely has a Presidential speech been so immediately and transparently divorced from reality.” The Journal went on to note that Obama was proposing a sweeping commitment to arms control “at the very moment that North Korea and Iran are bidding to trigger the greatest proliferation breakout in the nuclear age.” Yet I think its editorial board is exhibiting a grim fatalism that a nuclear-armed Iran is a foregone conclusion and that North Korea’s present nuclear status is irreversible. Such charges also make the erroneous assumption that the U.S. cannot simultaneously pursue both vigorous nonproliferation efforts against rogue states and undertake nuclear cuts of its own.

And Obama did not pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons overnight. Indeed, he noted that the goal may not even be reached within his lifetime. What Obama did call for is a series of steps that will increase the prospects of a nuclear-free world, while at the same time improving regional and international security in their own right if adopted.

But any process that seeks to reverse over 60 years of strategic thinking is guaranteed to encounter a few bumps along the road:

1. There are legitimate concerns that moving toward a world with fewer nuclear weapons will ultimately have negative security consequences for the United States and its allies. A reliance on the U.S. nuclear arsenal underpins the security of several U.S. allies, and some fear that moving too quickly toward zero without addressing strategic concerns could heighten insecurity at the regional level and endanger important partners. Yet in preparation for a world in which nuclear weapons will play a downsized role, Washington will need to enter into a frank dialogue with its allies over the role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century. Extended deterrence needs to transcend a fixation on hardware (i.e. limited to nuclear weapons) and move toward a firm commitment to alliance security that is political rather than technical in nature.

2. Another fear is that unencumbered by the constraints of mutual deterrence, states may be more adventurous than they otherwise would in the nuclear context in which we live today. At the same time, one could argue that nuclear weapons serve as a shield for weaker, revisionist states that hide behind nuclear deterrence to act in ways they would not in a nuclear-free world. Correcting such behavior requires addressing underlying strategic fears and political enmities.

3. Other states will have to come to the same conclusion as President Obama has. While the trend in the size of the US, Russian, French, and UK nuclear arsenal is downward, China seems intent on modernizing its arsenal and making qualitative improvements to guarantee its survivability. In the area of fissile material production, China is believed to have joined the other P5 members in enacting a production moratorium, but this is not the case elsewhere. Both Pakistan and India are still in the production business. The Middle East poses a similar challenge, where a verifiable ban on fissile material production could force Israel to sacrifice one aspect of its policy of “strategic ambiguity” and Iran’s recent advances present more immediate difficulties. More broadly speaking, the status of nuclear weapons as the currency of great powers will have to be diminished — a shift that will not come easily. Obama is right to say that steps in this direction by the U.S. provide it with the credibility to lead and prod others to follow.

What often escapes mention in discussion of nuclear disarmament is the importance of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The political value of the NPT is that it transforms what is undoubtedly a top national security priority of the U.S. — prohibiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons — into an international legal barrier. It serves as the normative framework from which action against proliferation is derived. The other side of the bargain, however, is that as signatories to the treaty, nuclear-weapon states are obligated under Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to… nuclear disarmament.” The U.S. of all parties must come to terms with its own treaty obligations if it is to expect the NPT to be worth the paper it is printed on.

Ultimately, realizing a world without nuclear weapons will be a tedious task deserving of decades of concerted efforts to assuage regional tensions, improve the enforcement of existing treaties and inspection mechanisms, and harness the political will to disrupt the status quo. But it is not impossible.

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