Reintroducing arms control to higher education

By Douglas B. Shaw, May 26, 2009

When it comes to nuclear disarmament, Nuclear Threat Initiative Chairman Sam Nunn has admitted that “we can’t see the top of the mountain.” In part, this is because the U.S. higher education community lags behind in educating the next generation of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament experts and scholars.

When it comes to nuclear disarmament, Nuclear Threat Initiative Chairman Sam Nunn has admitted that “we can’t see the top of the mountain.” In part, this is because the U.S. higher education community lags behind in educating the next generation of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament experts and scholars. The drift of resources, course offerings, and scholarly attention away from nuclear weapons has obscured the growth of at least four sets of implicit tensions within the nuclear epistemic community, and it is now up to higher education institutions to surface and manage these tensions.

The first set of tensions involves the transformation of nonproliferation regime institutions. This comes, in part, from the temptation to look backward in nuclear negotiations. The U.N. General Assembly has failed to control nuclear weapons. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and other commitments embedded in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are years overdue. The “thirteen steps” on a practical path toward nuclear disarmament identified at the 2000 NPT Review Conference are a good start, but there have been few new ideas to realize the potential of technological, political, and social developments. Higher education must educate a next generation to look forward in examining these institutions. Prudent and verifiable progress may include new fora for negotiations, new governmental structures, new issue linkages, and new technologies and procedures for enhancing global confidence.

The second set of tensions involves universality. In reality, the exclusive superpower prerogative over the nuclear future ended long ago. Every human being is threatened by nuclear weapons and has a legitimate stake in nuclear negotiations. But vastly more people need to understand these topics in order to create a global order that can control nuclear weapons permanently. Moving forward, useful negotiations will involve an increasing number of parties–and this must extend beyond inviting the British, French, and Chinese to participate directly in U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction negotiations or the pursuit of a global nuclear weapons convention. More far-reaching and innovative solutions must be put forward. For example, we might consider how follow-on generations of nuclear safeguard enhancements might expand the use of transparency. In addition, we might consider confidence-building measures that enhance global verification in the arms reduction process or reinforce nuclear weapon states’ negative security assurances.

Peaceful uses of nuclear energy encompass a third group of tensions. The prospect of “power too cheap to meter” has tantalized leaders into compromises about proliferation risk since the dawn of the nuclear age. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vision of “Atoms for Peace” led to these compromises being written into the NPT and the mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Internationalization of the nuclear fuel supply, the dilution of international safeguards to suit any one state, the spread of nuclear power to additional countries, and the widening understanding of plutonium as an energy resource may each have a purpose, but they also imply identifiable risks for the future. Going forward, experts must be trained to assess these current challenges to nuclear energy. They must also look further afield and learn to examine the effects climate change and oil dependence will have on future proliferation compromises since such new risks will undoubtedly accompany any “nuclear renaissance.”

Most importantly, a fourth group of tensions involves deterrence stability on the way to zero. Deterrence isn’t a reliable piece of hardware, so we must be increasingly clear about why we have nuclear weapons, what we imagine destroying, how many we need available on short notice, and how others will react to our choices. Currently, Al Qaeda aims to provoke the United States to overreact, and at the same time, is attempting to convince the world the United States must be resisted. But in a key moment we may find that the fear nuclear weapons are built to instill doesn’t necessarily serve our interests. The perceptions of allies and billions of innocent bystanders too often are assumed irrelevant or even requiring a larger nuclear arsenal for “extended deterrence.” Looking forward, it is incumbent that the soundness and costs of each of these assumptions are continuously tested and improved.

The trade-offs between uncertain paths forward should be explicitly debated both by today’s experts and tomorrow’s nascent explorers. These tensions of zero–institutional transformation, universality, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and deterrence–will never be cleanly resolved. But if we’re lucky, we will be managing them long after the legal abolition of nuclear weapons. Learning to do so effectively is the work of a generation, and we are a generation behind in preparing our best and brightest for this work. This suggests an intimidating, but attainable, goal for higher education institutions.


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