Saturday, November 15, 2008

A World With No Nukes?

Wired has a feature called Danger Room, with advice from experts to President-elect Obama on issues related to national security. The latest installment is about nuclear weaponry by Joseph Cirincione. His credentials?
He's the president of the Ploughshares Fund, and the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. During the election, Cirincione was an informal advisor to the Obama campaign. Previously, he served as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Okay, what's his advice?
On nuclear weaponry, the United States must lead by example. Expect President-elect Barack Obama to call for a nuclear summit of leading nations on practical steps that all can take towards a world without nuclear weapons. Their ultimate elimination should be a core principle of his national security strategy. Look for early talks with Russia on mutual reductions to show we are serious. There are dozens of other steps to take, but cleaning out our own nuclear house would be an important early move.

Stopping new nuclear states and preventing nuclear terrorism will also be at the core of Obama's new, more effective nuclear security policy. Fortunately, Obama developed during the campaign the most comprehensive nuclear policy program any candidate has ever detailed. He now must implement it, beginning with a multi-level effort to prevent nuclear terrorism, then quickly pivoting to preventing new nuclear states and eliminating the 26,000 weapons in global arsenals.

The key to is stop terrorists from getting the stuff for the bomb core—highly enriched uranium or plutonium. No material, no bomb, no nuclear terrorism. Obama pledged to lead a global effort to secure all the weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years, destroying as much as possible. Look for him to appoint a deputy national security advisor to coordinate the work.

The more countries with weapons, the greater the risk, so expect also a quick start on tough, direct diplomacy to roll back the North Korean nuclear program and preventing a nuclear Iran. He will gain leverage by dealing with our weapons. If we cling to our thousands of hydrogen bombs, how can we convince others that they cannot have one?
There's a key problem with this line of reasoning. It assumes that if current nuclear powers eliminate their nuclear weaponry this will "lead by example" and no other states will have motivation to develop or acquire nuclear weaponry. This type of thinking would be nice, if it actually had some kind of basis in reality. In fact, it's incredibly foolish with a moment's reflection.

Imagine a world in the near future where the US, UK, Russia, France, Israel, China, Pakistan, and India (and whoever I might be leaving out) all agree to a pact completely eliminating all of their stores of nuclear weapons. What does the world look like now? If anything, the US has actually increased its military standing, because it still retains the most powerful conventional force by far, but there are no nuclear trump cards to keep it in check.

The equalizing power of nukes is patently clear; they enable a military with weaker conventional forces to provide a clear deterrent to a military with far stronger conventional forces.

This is the simple strategic argument for why it would probably be impossible to get countries like Russia and China to ever give up nuclear weapons. On the practical side, how could we ever enforce such an agreement? We have seen how difficult verification is even in relatively small countries such as North Korea and Iraq. A case in point: In 1972 162 states signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), including the Soviet Union. The treaty banned the development and production of biological weapons. However, we now know from former researchers in the USSR's biological research program that they continued development on biological weapons, despite the treaty, including attempts to weaponize smallpox, a scourge that humanity had declared eradicated.

If a given country does not want to cooperate with a given arms agreement, especially if that country has sufficient resources, there is simply no practical way to ensure cooperation. So even if all the current nuclear powers all agreed to get rid of their weapons, there would be no way to make sure that everyone was abiding by the agreement, and there would be little motivation to cooperate, especially for those with weaker conventional forces.

Finally, in a fantasy world where all the current nuclear powers gave up their stockpiles and we were actually able to verify complete cooperation, why would small states necessarily give up on development of nuclear programs of their own? The naive perspective of Cirincione is that if no one has nukes, no one will want nukes. The implication is that nukes are only ever strategically defensive. But imagine a world where no other power has nukes, but North Korea has secretly developed them. A dictator who was the sole possessor of nuclear weaponry would have carte blanche in annexing neighboring states. They would be able to conquer their neighbors without firing a shot with a nuclear trump card.

No, I'm afraid you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. For both strategic and practical reasons, nuclear weapons simply will not be expunged from the world stage. I would like to live in such a world, but then, I also entertain a number of other utopian fantasies. I do agree that we need to try to reduce the stores to the lowest possible levels, and implement better controls and tracking for existing nukes. But getting rid of them altogether? That's a silly pipe dream.

1 comment:

mark said...

It's like leaving home or the garden of eden. Once you've lost the innocence, you can never go back!