07/15/2009 - 11:06

Rebutting the standard arguments against disarmament

George PerkovichJames M. Acton

James M. Acton

A physicist, Acton is an associate in the...

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George Perkovich

Perkovich is a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for...

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In any debate, there is a tendency to set up and knock down straw men. The emerging debate about whether the United States should work toward abolishing nuclear weapons is no different.

Certainly, there is much room for serious disagreement about whether a nuclear-weapon-free world is achievable or even worthwhile. In fact, such discussion is welcomed. Unfortunately, opponents of abolishing nuclear weapons tend to make their case by rebutting a selection of five weak arguments that the growing bipartisan movement of nuclear zero supporters led by realists such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn rarely use. In the interest of improving the quality of the debate in future, here's how disarmament proponents should respond to the "fatuous five":

(1) We know that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. No human invention can be uninvented. However, uninvention is neither necessary nor sufficient for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The real prerequisites are twofold. First, verification and enforcement procedures capable of detecting and responding to rearmament swiftly and effectively would have to be developed. Second, states that possess nuclear weapons today would need to be convinced they could protect their vital interests without them. When chemical weapons were abolished, states felt that they could fulfill these conditions. Politicians, analysts, and activists can (and do) disagree over whether it's possible to fulfill them in the much harder case of nuclear weapons. But if it is, then the fact that nuclear weapons can't be uninvented wouldn't be a barrier to abolition.

(2) No serious proponent of disarmament argues that the United States should eliminate its nuclear arsenal unilaterally. As long as other states have nuclear weapons, the United States should maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. Period.

(3) We recognize that steps toward zero by the United States won't cause North Korea to disarm or Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions. By committing itself to working toward a world without nuclear weapons, the United States wouldn't be seeking to influence North Korea, Iran, or any other would-be proliferant directly. Rather, it would be seeking to garner the support of the other 180 or so non-nuclear weapon states that are members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The United States needs these states on its side because tougher nonproliferation rules cannot be enacted without them. Their support also is needed if robust sanctions against rule-breakers are to be agreed upon and actually enforced. For example, currently, many non-nuclear weapon states don't consider nonproliferation a priority. They view much needed new rules as burdensome, and they are reluctant to agree to stricter enforcement as long as the nuclear-armed states appear unwilling to end the double standard of nuclear "haves" and "have-nots." Non-nuclear weapon states have conditioned their support for strengthening the nonproliferation regime on the nuclear weapon states' commitment to pursue disarmament in good faith. It's a change in the attitude of these states that the United States would hope to effect by working toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

(4) The United States shouldn't ignore its allies. Washington "extends" its nuclear arsenal to deter threats against a number of its allies--namely, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. The argument par excellence against the United States working toward disarmament is that this policy might lead some U.S. allies to seek their own nuclear weapons. Implicit in this argument is the assertion that working toward disarmament involves ignoring the concerns of allies.

In contrast, taking disarmament seriously must involve Washington starting a serious and sustained dialogue with its allies to reassure them that, in the decades required to abolish nuclear weapons, the United States will have both the will and means to defend them with conventional and, if necessary, nuclear capabilities. Concrete actions--such as sharing theater missile defense systems--may be required to back up these words. Throughout this dialogue, Washington should remind its allies that the United States will retain nuclear weapons for as long as others have them and won't give them up until the threats that require them have ceased.

(5) U.S. disarmament efforts cannot and should not be delinked from the wider security picture. Nuclear disarmament isn't an end in itself; it's a means to enhanced national and global security. Therefore, the pace of U.S. disarmament efforts should be contingent upon improvements in the wider security environment.

There is much that the United States can and should do now to start down the long road to zero. It should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, finish negotiating reciprocal cuts in nuclear weapon numbers with Russia, and publicly state that its nuclear weapons exist only to deter threats to its own existence and the existence of its allies, and that only nuclear weapons pose such threats today. None of these steps would compromise national security. Washington would take them hoping, and expecting, that non-nuclear weapon states would reciprocate by strengthening the nonproliferation regime. If they do not, however, nothing would compel the United States to take further disarmament steps.

Abolishing nuclear weapons will require the involvement of all states whether they possess nuclear weapons or not. Washington must lead, but if others turn out not to be willing to follow, it need not march alone.