Outside View: Getting to nuke zero

By MICHAEL KREPON, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Feb. 12, 2009 at 7:09 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Mohamed ElBaradei proposes a five-point plan to eliminate nuclear weapons. The British government issues a white paper on abolition, accompanied by Foreign Secretary David Miliband's six-point plan. A distinguished commission chaired by Hans Blix issues a comprehensive report listing 60 action items to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Four distinguished U.S. public servants -- Sam Nunn, George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger -- call for national leadership to eliminate nuclear weapons and near-term steps to help advance this goal. Leading figures in Great Britain, Germany, China, Russia and elsewhere follow suit. President Barack Obama believes the United States should pursue a global zero end-state.

It is remarkable how unremarkable these calls for eliminating nuclear weapons have become. As before, they have elicited push-back from those who believe abolition is unrealistic and dangerous. Such rejoinders must be taken seriously, but no one has proposed a safer end-state to our nuclear dilemma. The pursuit of nuclear dominance is dangerous and politically untenable in the United States, the only country capable of obtaining it. The objective of "managed" proliferation is too slippery and politically objectionable for national leaders to articulate.

Proliferation -- managed or otherwise -- may indeed happen; especially if countervailing efforts to move toward abolition lose traction. But even the "more is better" school of proliferation optimists is losing conviction with the challenges to deterrence orthodoxy posed by Pakistan, Iran and nuclear terrorism.

"Stable" deterrence -- another alternative end-state to abolition -- becomes harder as proliferation advances, even assuming that Murphy's Law does not apply to nuclear weapons. Deterrence must serve as the companion to a long-term process of elimination, but it is not an end to itself. The same could be said of arms control. Another alternative end-state, nuclear anarchy, is to be avoided at all costs.

Getting to the safe end-state of abolition is fraught with dangers that most abolition plans do not dwell upon. These action plans have much in common. Most everyone acknowledges that burdens fall disproportionately on those countries with the largest nuclear arsenals, and there is a working consensus on steps upon which more ambitious initiatives can be built. Since a successful process leading toward abolition requires the progressive devaluation of nuclear weapons, and since every test of a nuclear weapon confers value, the complete cessation of testing and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty are essential near-term steps.

Plans for progress toward abolition are usually simple and straightforward. Numbers should be reduced by certain amounts, and goals should be achieved within specified time frames. Usage of the word "should" in these plans is not incidental, given the "outsider" status of their sponsors and the resistance of "insiders" to implementation. (The Blix Commission report used the words "should" and "must" no less than 462 times.)

It is therefore understandable that some plans for abolition stress the need for an international treaty and a deadline for nuclear disarmament. In this view, without a legally binding framework and a deadline for nuclear agreement, political resistance cannot be surmounted. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi proposed a deadline of 22 years in his 1988 action plan for nuclear disarmament.

Deadlines and treaties make sense when achievements are within reach and when they can help negotiators to cross the finish line. Deadlines and treaties can be counterproductive when these conditions do not apply. Take, for example, Rajiv Gandhi's timeline: It is too distant to impel near-term steps, and yet near enough to generate resistance to its practical pursuit. Seeking an international treaty to affirm a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament could also have the perverse effect of diverting efforts away from necessary, near-term steps.

Existing multi-step plans for nuclear disarmament touch the right bases, but this is an intensely political process, given the power and symbolism of these weapons, the domestic constituencies they attract, and the geopolitical stakes attached to their disposition. Abolition schemes that focus on numbers and timelines provide little traction against states that find security in nuclear options. The presumption behind these plans seems to be that "political will" from those with the most nuclear weapons can fuel this process, with added propulsion provided by enlightened leaders and global public opinion.

Top-down leadership is essential for any abolition plan, as was evident by the impulses provided by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The world has been rid of approximately 30,000 nuclear weapons since they met at Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986 to negotiate the unthinkable. Their plans, and subsequent agreements negotiated by their successors, provided nuclear order to the chaos that otherwise could have ensued with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Top-down leadership has still not inspired sufficient followers. While Great Britain and France have reduced their nuclear arsenals, China, India and Pakistan are moving in the opposite direction. Russia is now signaling retrenchment, holdouts continue to prevent entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and negotiations of a treaty banning new production of bomb-making material have yet to begin. Many states that have abstained from acquiring nuclear weapons also refrain from measures to strengthen global non-proliferation norms, such as accepting more intrusive inspections at their nuclear facilities. While singing the praises of abolition, at least a dozen states are hedging their bets against a more threatening nuclear future.

These recalcitrant parties have well-rehearsed explanations for deflecting necessary tasks: Someone else must go first or do more before they can act appropriately. A turn-of-the-last century U.S. comic strip, starring Alphonse and Gaston, made this act famous. Neither could walk through a door without inviting his companion to go first, so they were often stuck at the threshold.

Is there a better way than deadlines and numbers to make this Alphonse and Gaston act more politically untenable? One way is for champions of abolition to issue annual report cards. Their marks would be predicated on three obvious, unarguable premises. First, that all states have duties and obligations to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, regardless of their status. Second, whatever positive steps have been taken to date are insufficient to achieve these oft-declared objectives. And third, everyone has a responsibility to do more. Our distinguished panel might then list the menu of immediate actions required of states -- nuclear, non-nuclear, and hedgers -- to match words with deeds. Laggards may continue to articulate reasons for delay, but doing nothing would warrant a failing grade. Report cards from unimpeachable graders might generate more near-term traction for nuclear disarmament than grand, multi-step plans.


(Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and author of "Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb," published by Stanford University Press, 2009.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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