International Security on the Road to Nuclear Zero

Publication Date: 
July 2011

Nonproliferation Review

Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

The final and definitive form of this article is published in the Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2011 © Taylor & Francis and is available on the Taylor & Francis website.

In meetings among like-minded states and advocacy organizations trying to reduce nuclear risks, optimism generated by influential endorsements of the idea that everybody would be safer in a world without nuclear weapons is tempered by intense frustration about the difficulty of inching forward toward that goal.  It is tempting to blame all the obstacles on somebody else—states that cling to the power and prestige associated with nuclear weapons, or special interest groups that prevent national leaders from acting for the greater good. A more constructive response might include examining whether some strategic choices made by those who want to reach domestic and international agreement on major nuclear risk reduction measures might be having unintended, and counter-productive effects, because these choices are within our direct control.

If we in the broad community of international arms control and nonproliferation are honest, we will admit that deep ambivalence exists, not only among those who doubt the possibility or desirability of eliminating all nuclear weapons, but also among many who wholeheartedly support that goal, but are uncomfortable about the larger changes to security policy that would be necessary to reach it. Uniting around the vision of “no nuclear weapons” obscures important, but highly divisive, questions about the kind of alternative security arrangements that will be needed as we reduce, and then eliminate or fundamentally transform the role of nuclear weapons and the institutions built around them.

I want to highlight four main areas of ambivalence among members of the arms control and nonproliferation community. The first involves strategic stability on the road to zero, especially among Russia, China, and the United States. The second involves alliance relations, particularly how to ensure NATO cohesion and preserve extended deterrence as nuclear arsenals decline. The third involves global governance at a time when states care more about preserving flexibility and minimizing short-term costs than they do about the long-term benefits of cooperation. The fourth involves peaceful nuclear technology, now and if global use expands dramatically to avert catastrophic climate change.

Disagreements about how to handle these four areas of ambivalence reflect real and current concerns, not just misperceptions or outmoded Cold War mindsets. Failure to address them will make the diplomatic and political environment progressively less favorable even for incremental arms control or nonproliferation advances, let alone for truly transformational leaps. Mishandling them by making domestic and allied support for nuclear cooperation contingent on moves that will predictably increase international opposition, or vice versa, will make it impossible to get the multi-level support required to move forward.
A more productive strategy involves confronting our own ambivalence, then considering how individuals, nongovernmental organizations, analysts, and national representatives can practice systematic mutual reassurance not only among those considered part of their like-minded group, but including everybody whose cooperation is needed to fulfill the long-term objectives of the Non-ProliferationTreaty (NPT). It is daunting to contemplate broadening the agenda of challenging issues that must be simultaneously addressed to make sure that the level of nuclear cooperation rises faster the growing risks from residual arsenals, proliferators, and catastrophic terrorists. But pursuing this broader cooperative security agenda is essential to build winning coalitions needed to secure domestic and international agreement on practical measures that will eliminate, not perpetuate, nuclear risks.