No nukes

Once a quixotic slogan, the idea of actually dismantling every nuclear weapon is attracting mainstream policy thinkers

By Drake Bennett
November 23, 2008
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FOR MANY AMERICANS, the idea of a world without nuclear weapons is a bit like the idea of a world without war or disease - it would be nice, but, contra John Lennon, it's hard to imagine.

That's not to say lots of people haven't devoted themselves to the cause. As the atomic age was dawning, Gandhi was already demanding its end, and today Pope Benedict XVI echoes that call. A host of international organizations, from Greenpeace to Mayors for Peace to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the German Green Party, are dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Many of them have been at it for decades.

The movement, however, has always carried utopian associations, and been conflated in the popular imagination with pacifism. The leaders of the world's nuclear powers, their global stature buttressed by their atomic arsenals, have, with a few exceptions, shown little real interest in the idea.

This is changing. Total nuclear disarmament - "getting to zero" in the arms-control argot - has become a mainstream cause. Voices from the heights of the American foreign policy establishment have begun to argue that, in a world of inevitably unruly globalization, increasing interest in nuclear energy, incomplete alliances, ambitious suicide terrorists, and ever-present human fallibility, it will never be enough to improve controls on the world's nuclear weapons, or to reduce their numbers. We have to commit to eliminating them altogether.

These arguments are being made not by popes and mahatmas and Greens but by former secretaries of state and secretaries of defense, by generals and nuclear scientists, Democrats and Republicans. The leaders of the new no-nuke movement are George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, four of the most respected figures in American foreign policy circles. Over the past two years, they have, in speeches, at arms-control conferences and, most prominently, in two widely circulated op-ed pieces, lent their authority to an idea that is still seen as fairly radical.

And there is evidence that these arguments are being taken seriously by the people who are going to be making decisions about nuclear policy in the new administration. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama repeatedly committed himself to a nuclear-free future. One of his key foreign policy advisers, Ivo Daalder, coauthored an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal, laying out a plan for how to get there.

No one is arguing that this is a goal that will be reached in the next eight years, but there's a sense that for the first time in a long while, real and significant movement in that direction is possible.

"The reaction has amazed me," says Shultz, who served as Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. "People realize that the future, if we just keep going as we are, is not very inviting."

The newfound prominence of the nuclear abolitionist idea has heartened longtime activists, and it has alarmed some nuclear experts, who see it as a rash rejection of a strategy that, for all its perils, proved effective at making the second half of the 20th century far less bloody than the first.

"It's an unserious idea espoused by serious people," says Robert Jervis, a professor of international affairs and security policy at Columbia University. "It's a little puzzling."

Regardless, though, this new vision has pushed a reexamination of not only how to get to a nonnuclear world, but how to stay there. And it raises a set of koan-like questions with thorny practical implications. In a world in which former nuclear powers could keep their bomb-building know-how even if they get rid of their bombs, is zero enough? If not, then what would be? How can we ever ensure that a technology as potent as this one will not be used? The new no-nukes forces realize the enormity of the challenge, and they're beginning to offer answers.

It took time for nuclear weapons to acquire their air of ineradicability. Even before Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Japan, some of the very scientists who had brought the weapons into existence were arguing that the world would be better off without them. In 1946, the Truman administration submitted to the United Nations a now unimaginable plan under which the United States - at that point still the world's sole nuclear power - would turn over its arsenal to an international body, as long as the rest of the world's nations pledged not to develop atomic weapons of their own and submitted to regular inspections to verify it. The Soviet Union balked, and the plan was dropped.

After the Soviet Union acquired its own nuclear arsenal, and as the Cold War began in earnest, such efforts came to seem unworkable and naive. With little trust between the two superpowers, American policy makers saw the threat of overwhelming nuclear devastation as the only guarantee of peace - especially given the clear advantage in conventional forces that the Soviets would possess in a European conflict. And while the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the United States signed in 1968, committed those nations with nuclear weapons to work toward total disarmament, none of them truly have.

For George Shultz, the first vision of what that disarmament might look like came at the Reykjavik summit in 1986. With Shultz at the table with them, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev famously found themselves on the brink of agreeing to give up their nations' entire nuclear arsenals - the plan only collapsed over Reagan's refusal to relinquish his ambitions for a missile defense system and Gorbachev's equally stubborn refusal to accept such a system.

But for all its historical drama, many of Reagan's top aides and allies saw Reykjavik as a catastrophe narrowly averted. As Shultz describes it, when Reagan talked about a nuclear-free future, "most of the experts around him sort of patted him on the head and tolerated it, but didn't take it seriously." Immediately after returning from Iceland, Shultz was summoned to a meeting with Margaret Thatcher at which she subjected him to a ferocious tongue-lashing for his complicity in what she saw as Reagan's recklessness. Richard Nixon claimed that the summit had been as perilous to Western interests as any since Yalta, when Eastern Europe was ceded to the Soviets. Among the other vocal critics was Sam Nunn, then a Democratic US senator from Georgia and one of his party's leading voices on foreign affairs.

The fact that Nunn is now one of the leading nuclear abolitionists suggests how much the landscape has changed. In a move that reverberated loudly through the small world of nuclear policy thinkers, Nunn, along with Shultz, Perry, and Kissinger, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007 urging a commitment to "a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal." Many of the concrete steps they outlined, both in that piece and in a follow-up a year later, were uncontroversial: better security for nuclear weapons and weapons materials, taking missiles off high alert so they're less likely to be launched accidentally, reducing stockpiles, and strengthening compliance with existing arms-control agreements. But their explicit invocation of a post-nuclear-weapons world gave their argument a galvanizing power.

Rather than recoiling in horror, much of the foreign policy establishment has embraced the abolitionist idea. In one form or another, former high-ranking officials including Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, James A. Baker III, Zbigniew Brzezinski, William Cohen, Lawrence Eagleburger, Anthony Lake and Robert McNamara, among others, have signed on to the cause.

Today's abolitionists argue that the international picture has changed dramatically since Reykjavik, in a way that scrambles the traditional cost-benefit calculation around nuclear weapons. Most obviously, the Cold War is over, and with it much of the logic of a massive nuclear deterrent. And at the same time, the risks that come with nuclear weapons have only grown. In place of an expansionist Soviet Union, one of the greatest threats to the United States today is a suicide terrorist with a crude nuclear device in a truck, or on a motorboat in a big-city harbor. And with more countries now possessing nuclear weapons - and a still larger number pursuing nuclear energy - the number of places where nuclear materials could be acquired is growing. All of this is on top of the continued risk of an accidental apocalypse from malfunction or human error.

"There's a greater danger today [from nuclear weapons], and they've become less relevant to our defense," says Sidney Drell, a physicist and emeritus Stanford professor who has worked closely with Shultz in developing his arguments for abolition.

Nunn's own "evolution," as he describes it, came from the realization that even the most basic efforts at international coordination on nuclear issues were increasingly hampered by a sense among nonnuclear states that nuclear powers like the United States were ignoring their own obligation to disarm. "That's what we signed up for in 1968," he says, referring to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "The general view out there when you get behind the scenes, even with some of our allies, is, 'We don't like Iran and North Korea, but what kind of hypocrites are you?' "

Skeptics of going to zero don't so much disagree with any of these arguments as find them wholly inadequate as a justification for so radical a step. First of all, they argue, there is the question of how we could ensure that no one decided to keep a few carefully hidden weapons. Even with a moderately intrusive inspection regime, a country could easily secret away a dozen warheads, and in a world in which no one else has them, that would be an extremely potent threat.

"Zero is a very unstable number," says Jervis.

But the real danger would arise if the world actually did manage to stay free of nuclear weapons, critics say. They worry that, freed from the nuclear shadow, national leaders would be more reckless, picking fights that they would have shied away from in a nuclear world, where all-out war has cataclysmic consequences. Michael May, the former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, uses the example of the recent conflagration between Russia and Georgia, which, he argues, would have been more likely to draw in the United States and escalate into a broader war if not for the clarifying backdrop of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals.

"The real example is not the Cold War," May says. "It is World War I or II. They show how advanced countries, no matter their interests, can stumble into war, or be led by a demagogue."

. . .

But while the abolitionists concede that the path will be difficult, they maintain that the greater risk is to keep the weapons. And a few analysts have started thinking, in as specific a way as possible, about the steps necessary to get there.

In the coming years, arms-control experts believe one of the trickiest tensions is going to be between the need to control the world's supply of weapons-grade fissile material and the need to feed the world's growing nuclear energy industry - an expansion helped along by concerns about climate change, pollution, and the world's long-term oil and gas supplies.

One suggestion is to create a single international body, with a sweeping global mandate, that would control and track all of the world's fissile material, no matter its form - something like the current-day International Atomic Energy Agency, but far larger and better-funded. Such a body would be able to spot any diversions to potential terrorists, and would trace and verify cuts in stockpiles.

The other major question is what, if anything, countries can use as a deterrent in place of nuclear missiles. (This is less of a worry for the United States than other countries - in a nuclear-free world our conventional military dominance would be all the more pronounced.) In a paper published this summer, George Perkovich and James Acton, two nuclear proliferation experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, weighed two options. One was an international body that would control the world's remaining nuclear weapons and be empowered to use them on rogue nations - a set-up that seems, for the foreseeable future, politically implausible.

The second was more intriguing. It was a proposal, first suggested in 1984 by the writer and nuclear analyst Jonathan Schell, for "virtual" nuclear arsenals. In effect, the world's nuclear powers would dismantle all of their weapons, but maintain everything they need to quickly build new ones - fissile material, trained engineers, production facilities. If threatened, a country could have a new arsenal built in weeks.

Whether or not nations would consider this an effective deterrent, Schell's idea also raises the question of what, exactly, going to zero means. Would we actually be living in a nuclear-free world if there were no nuclear weapons but dozens of nuclear-weapons facilities poised to churn them out if need be?

Some thinkers have suggested that better than zero might actually be, say, 10 weapons, if those bare-bones arsenals were combined with a coordinated missile-defense system to protect against the risks of accidental launches.

Schell himself prefers to talk in terms of "degrees below zero."

"If you took all the bombs off the delivery vehicles and took the guts out of the bombs, and you stored them in underground locations, in some sense that might be zero or some level below that. If you melted down the fissile material that's another degree below it," he says. "You're driving the technology ever backward."

Even if we wanted to, of course, we could not make the world's nuclear scientists forget how to build bombs. What is possible, say the abolitionists, is that, through patient, determined effort, we find ways to make that knowledge as obsolete as possible.

"It's a bad phrase, 'Putting the genie back in the bottle,' " says Jan Lodal, a former senior Pentagon and White House official in the Nixon, Ford, and Clinton administrations and the coauthor of the current Foreign Affairs article. "You can't uninvent the technology. But you build a new bottle, a bigger bottle, and you make it stronger."

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail

(Globe Staff Illustration)
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