Zero: The correct goal?

By Wael Al Assad, Li Bin, Sinan Ülgen, October 31, 2014

The United States and Russia have obligated themselves to pursuing complete nuclear disarmament. But despite the two countries' treaty obligations, it's reasonable to wonder if Russia and the United States will ever accept the constraints on power that total disarmament implies. Therefore, is complete abolition of nuclear weapons an appropriate goal for the disarmament movement? Or would disarmament proceed faster if its aim were reducing stockpiles to the point that they represented only a minimum possible deterrent?

Round 1

The case against total nuclear disarmament

Complete nuclear disarmament is a dangerous chimera. For three fundamental reasons, pursuing this theoretically laudable goal would likely produce a more dangerous world.

First, as a means for maintaining security, it is difficult to identify a credible alternative to nuclear deterrence. Simply put, nuclear deterrence has worked. Even at the height of the Cold War's ideological polarization, the world never witnessed the sort of large-scale wars that, in the absence of a nuclear deterrent, were fought in the first half of the 20th century. Policy makers fully recognize the destructive capability of nuclear weapons and have come to understand the complexities inherent in a nuclear world. The concept of mutually assured destruction has provided, and continues to provide, a sound basis for limiting the scope and scale of confrontations between nuclear weapon states.

Devoid of a nuclear deterrent, the world would immediately become more dangerous. If military assets were limited to conventional weapons, nations would experience fewer inhibitions against armed conflict. This would hold true even for the major powers. With disincentives to conflict reduced, the renewal of conventional arms races would likely be unstoppable. Among other things, this would have an important effect on national budgets. Today, at least for nuclear weapon states, the existence of a nuclear deterrent allows for drastic reductions in defense spending during times of austerity. In a similar vein, countries that fall under another nation's extended nuclear deterrence can spend less on conventional military capabilities than they otherwise would; they benefit from a nuclear dividend. So overall, though it may sound paradoxical, nuclear weapons are a force for stability. It is hard to imagine how similar levels of stability could be achieved through any means other than nuclear weapons.

Second, how would a world without nuclear weapons be managed? If the world were essentially one big "peace cartel," this cartel would be very fragile indeed. Economic theory indicates that members of a cartel become more likely to engage in cartel-busting behavior as the rewards for doing so increase and the penalties decrease. A similar logic would pertain where nuclear weapons are concerned. In a world without nuclear weapons, breaking one's cartel commitments by developing a nuclear deterrent would seem to have enormous security benefits. And as for penalties, nothing short of a sanctioned military attack intended to destroy the country in question would change the calculus of a rogue regime intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. In other words, ensuring that the world remained free of nuclear weapons would require the establishment of a universal regime devoted to that purpose, backed by the unambiguously credible use of force. The world has never witnessed the emergence of such an institution, and likely never will.

The third factor agitating against total disarmament is the difficulty of effecting a transition to a nuclear-free world. States have developed nuclear deterrents for a variety of reasons, but chief among these—whether for the great powers, or for middle powers such as India, Pakistan, and Israel—has been threat perception. Until the threats that have led these powers to acquire nuclear weapons are permanently eliminated, it is difficult to envision them agreeing to disarm completely. For example, Pakistan's security and policy establishment will never agree to total disarmament until Pakistan feels secure vis-à-vis India, its more powerful neighbour and its geopolitical rival. A similar argument could be made about Israel. The world will have to become much more adept at peacefully solving or at least managing its regional conflicts, whether through a universal security architecture or a multiplicity of regional architectures, for the middle powers in particular to perceive complete disarmament as safe.

Eliminating nuclear weapons, though a lofty goal, is a difficult proposition. But this is not to say that disarmament efforts should be abandoned. To the contrary, the nuclear weapon states (with the United States and Russia in the lead) should move forward with reducing their arsenals. Otherwise, the consensus that underlies the entire nonproliferation regime will be increasingly open to challenge. But there is a limit to what nuclear disarmament can accomplish without introducing new security risks.

Nuclear deterrence has served the world well for many decades. It would continue doing so even if arsenals were much smaller. Stability could be maintained if arsenals approached—but did not reach—zero. Indeed, that should be the goal of the global nuclear community.

Major problems with minimum deterrence

Nuclear disarmament is proceeding very slowly. Some have suggested that the pace might pick up if disarmament's goal were, instead of eliminating nuclear stockpiles completely, reducing them so that they constituted only a minimum deterrent. But realistically speaking, how would this approach affect the existing disarmament and nonproliferation regimes?

First, it would undermine the five nuclear weapon states' solemn political commitments to disarm. Second (and as a result), it would undermine the nonproliferation commitments made by the non-nuclear parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To these nations, complete disarmament is the core of the treaty. If abolition were no longer the goal, it would be very difficult for the nuclear weapon states to explain why they should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons while other countries should not. And non-nuclear states could be expected to withhold their support from important nonproliferation efforts.

Still, under certain circumstances, a minimum-deterrence approach could have some value. If focusing on minimum deterrence could achieve deep nuclear cuts faster than an abolition focus could achieve its goal, deep cuts would have to be considered a positive development. Even so, these cuts would represent only an interim step in the process toward achieving "zero"—not a replacement for disarmament's original goal.

Disruptive innovation. Over the years, one of the main principles guiding the nuclear reductions carried out by the United States and Russia (or the Soviet Union) has been strategic stability. According to the theory of strategic stability, nuclear rivals have very little incentive to launch a nuclear attack against the other, or for that matter to enlarge their nuclear arsenals, if the other side's arsenal contains a certain number of survivable weapons. Minimum nuclear deterrence, then, is the strategy of maintaining the smallest force necessary to deter nuclear attack.

In a given country, the size of a minimum nuclear deterrent depends on the offensive and defensive capabilities of its rivals. Today, US and Russian strategic nuclear forces seem too large for the purposes of minimum nuclear deterrence, while those of France, the United Kingdom, and China may come closer to the mark. If the United States and Russia reduced their nuclear forces to a level appropriate for minimum deterrence, and the other three nuclear weapon states joined in the process, this would represent real progress toward global disarmament.

But this doesn't tell the whole story. True, a multilateral arrangement for minimum nuclear deterrence would at first glance seem to promote stability—under such a regime, no one would have to worry about the size of other countries' nuclear forces. But this holds true only if nuclear factors are taken into account and non-nuclear factors are ignored. That is, new technological developments in the non-nuclear realm could change weapon states' nuclear calculations and complicate the situation radically.

One arena for such developments might be in intelligence capabilities. Improved intelligence in one nuclear weapon state always has the potential to reduce the survivability of nuclear weapons in another nation. The state with decreased survivability then must compensate somehow—one obvious solution being to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal. A second arena for disruptive technological developments is missile defense. If any state develops an effective missile defense system, its rivals may feel the need for a larger nuclear arsenal to penetrate the defenses. A third arena is that of precision conventional strikes. Some long-range conventional weapons may become capable of destroying an enemy’s nuclear weapons or disrupting nuclear launches. Again, increasing the size of nuclear arsenals would be a possible response. So even if a multilateral regime for minimum nuclear deterrence could be developed, the arrangement would be neither stable nor permanent. Nations might support the regime under certain circumstances but—when conditions changed in intelligence, missile defense, or conventional strike capability—become uneasy.

None of this would pertain if nuclear weapons were abolished. Under an abolition scenario, strong intelligence capabilities would be a positive force because they could detect violations against the disarmament regime. Missile defense could deter violations because it would make a small number of hidden nuclear weapons less effective. Overall, technological innovations would likely support rather than undermine a "global zero" world.

Define your terms. Perhaps a more fundamental problem with striving for minimum nuclear deterrence is that minimum deterrence is a difficult thing to quantify. First, no consensus exists regarding how many retaliatory warheads are sufficient to deter a nuclear attack. Estimates might vary from a few dozen to a few hundred. Second, no consensus exists regarding how many extra nuclear warheads might be needed to ensure survivability against an enemy's nuclear and conventional attacks and to ensure penetration of the enemy's missile interception capabilities (estimates will depend significantly on assumptions about a rival's counter-nuclear capabilities). In the absence of a universally accepted way to calculate the proper size of a minimum nuclear deterrent, limits would have to be arrived at through negotiations. Such limits, unavoidably, would have an arbitrary aspect. But as for defining "complete abolition of nuclear weapons?" It would be enough to say that no country can possess any nuclear explosive device.

Similarly, verification would be simpler in a nuclear-free world than in a regime built on minimum deterrence. In a nuclear-free world, nations would not need laboratories or production facilities for nuclear weapons. They wouldn't need stockpiles of fissile material. They wouldn't need military nuclear personnel. Any evidence that these facilities, stockpiles, or personnel existed would be evidence of a violation. So verification would be very straightforward. Moreover, the intrusiveness of verification procedures would be no great concern—if nations had no nuclear weapons facilities or capabilities, they would not have to worry that their nuclear weapon designs would be detected by intrusive inspections. Compare this to a minimum deterrence regime, where nuclear laboratories and all the rest would still exist, making verification much more complicated and doing nothing to reduce concerns about intrusiveness.

These difficulties with definitions and verification provide further evidence that minimum deterrence cannot be a workable long-term solution to the problem of nuclear weapons. A minimum deterrence regime might prove a useful interim step toward disarmament. But the ultimate goal must remain complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

No commitments for the powerful?

If each of the five recognized nuclear weapon states possessed just 30 nuclear warheads, would the world be a safer place? Yes, probably so. But it wouldn't be safe enough. Nor would these smaller stockpiles be consistent with "general and complete disarmament," something to which the nuclear weapon states committed themselves under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Reductions in the number of weapons cannot, and should not, be considered disarmament's ultimate goal—no matter how big the reductions might be. A focus on reductions would provide a false sense of security. It would divert attention from the objective of complete disarmament. In any event, some argue that when nuclear weapon states reduce their arsenals, they do so only out of economic necessity. What they really want, according to this argument, is to establish arsenals of optimal size—affordable, yet capable of conferring national power and prestige. So smaller arsenals would not change the essential nature of international power dynamics, according to which the nuclear weapon states maintain supremacy based on their possession of nuclear weapons.

No equivalence. In 2005, when Kofi Annan was secretary general of the United Nations, he said that "[p]rogress in both disarmament and nonproliferation [is] essential, and neither should be held hostage to the other." I am not sure that Annan's framing is correct, or that non-nuclear weapon states should act in accordance with it. Granted, disarmament and nonproliferation are linked. Incentives for proliferation will remain, and non-nuclear states will resist tighter nonproliferation controls, unless serious steps are taken toward disarmament. And nuclear weapon states will never seriously consider eliminating their weapons without tough nonproliferation measures in place. But all this obscures a central fact: that nuclear weapons are a threat to global peace and security no matter who possesses them, and the uniquely inhumane nature of these weapons confers unique responsibilities on the countries that do possess them. So, though nonproliferation and disarmament are linked, there can be no real equivalence between nuclear and non-nuclear nations.

One area in which nuclear and non-nuclear nations demonstrate little equivalence is in their adherence to treaty commitments. The non-nuclear weapon states, with very few exceptions, have kept their end of the NPT bargain—while nuclear weapon states have failed to keep theirs. Or perhaps a more cynical take is in order: The nuclear weapon states, in exchange for the treaty's nonproliferation commitments, made disarmament promises that they had no intention of honoring.

This pattern seems to have continued throughout the treaty's existence. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the nuclear weapon states agreed to additional disarmament commitments to secure the treaty's indefinite extension. (These commitments included, among other things, implementing the Resolution on the Middle East, which endorsed creating in that region a zone without weapons of mass destruction.) Now, because those commitments haven't been honored, some non-nuclear weapon states are questioning the extension's validity.

In 2000, the nuclear weapon states made another set of commitments, widely known as the "13 practical steps" toward nuclear disarmament. But in negotiations toward an agreement at the 2005 conference, the United States resisted including any reference to the 1995 and 2000 commitments—which is one reason that no substantive agreement could be reached.

It has become quite evident, then, that nuclear weapon states do not take their disarmament pledges seriously. Rather, they make audacious claims about their great strides in disarmament and their full compliance with their obligations. What's needed, they assert, is additional constraints on non-nuclear nations to ensure that they don't become proliferators!

New approach. Amid all this, the credibility of multilateral disarmament is seriously in question—and the nonproliferation regime may be unraveling. So what can non-nuclear states expect to occur at the 2015 review conference? Will nuclear weapon states make yet more commitments that they have no intention of honoring? Averting that outcome requires that drastic new measures be taken. Only drastic measures will prevent the powerful few from overwhelming the interests of the many.

A core group of non-nuclear states should forge a new alliance with like-minded nations from all regions. This alliance should launch a campaign emphasizing that the current state of affairs is neither sustainable nor acceptable, and should work to win both public opinion and the support of nongovernmental organizations. The alliance should create an annual forum where non-nuclear states coordinate their positions. Most crucially, the alliance should declare that it will accept no new nonproliferation commitments until four specific steps toward disarmament are taken.

The first step is to outline a framework for the disarmament negotiations that are required under the NPT's Article VI. As part of this, the legal, political, and technical requirements for eliminating nuclear weapons must be identified. (For example, specific verification mechanisms would need to be established.) The second step is to form a body, as part of the treaty review process, that would oversee implementation of the 13 practical steps toward nuclear disarmament. The third step is for nuclear weapon states, within a declared time frame, to cease nuclear sharing with non-nuclear states. (I am referring here to NATO's nuclear deterrence policy, according to which nuclear weapons are placed on the territory of non-nuclear states and these countries' militaries are contemplated in the weapons' delivery.) The fourth step is for weapon states to stop all nuclear cooperation with the de facto nuclear weapon states, and also to exert serious pressure on them to join the treaty process as non-nuclear weapon states.

Admittedly, this approach carries risk. If the nuclear weapon states decide that they have no use for a regime that limits their powers, the already fragile treaty regime could collapse entirely. This would leave a void in the international system that would be difficult to fill. Still, I believe that such an approach is necessary. The global security environment is power-based, and the powerful few feel no need to play by the same rules as others. Only a radically different approach can alter the status quo.

Round 2

Moralism and its failures

From an ethical perspective, championing nuclear weapons is a difficult proposition. But from a practical perspective, moral arguments for complete nuclear disarmament are highly problematic. Disarmament advocates such as my roundtable colleagues have their hearts in the right place, but their moral approach to disarmament exhibits two serious shortcomings. First, their approach fails to explain how security will be maintained if nuclear weapons are eliminated. Second, it fails to acknowledge that, if total disarmament is in fact achieved, renewed nuclear proliferation will represent a very grave danger.

The disarmament advocates who urge the world toward Global Zero generally propose a mechanistic approach to disarmament, one that depends on gradual elimination of nuclear stockpiles. But can such an approach really lead to zero? To assume it can is naïve. Simply put, nuclear weapon states retain their arsenals because they believe that nuclear weapons contribute to their security. They will continue relying on nuclear weapons until they develop better strategies for addressing security challenges—and no such strategies are immediately apparent. Li Bin acknowledged as much earlier in Round Two when he wrote, "If nuclear weapon states believe that their weapons are useful, important, and (notwithstanding their treaty commitments) legitimate, they will be in no special hurry to eliminate their nuclear arsenals." So disarmament arguments will lack credibility as long as they fail to address the world’s broad-ranging security challenges and—without lapsing into moralism—provide policy makers good reasons to forsake their nuclear deterrents.

But nuclear weapons don’t provide security only to weapon states—like it or not, they provide security to non-weapon states as well. This is a point that Wael Al Assad skipped over when, also in Round Two, he posed this rhetorical question:  "[I]f nuclear weapons prevent arms races, shouldn’t all states maintain nuclear arsenals?" To answer his question, not all states need to maintain nuclear arsenals as long as certain other states do maintain them. That is the whole idea behind NATO’s nuclear umbrella. It is the whole idea behind US extended deterrence.

The danger of zero. The atom cannot be unsplit; nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. Therefore it is a dangerous fallacy to believe that rogue states could be prevented from reintroducing nuclear weapons to a world from which these weapons had been eliminated. Failing to acknowledge this reality is where the disarmament moralizers exhibit their second major shortcoming. In a "zero" world, the incentives for a rogue state to go nuclear would be so powerful that no threat could overcome them—short of the guaranteed destruction of the state and elimination of its leadership.

From the perspective of international security, living in such a world would represent a difficult trade-off, to say the least. But when disarmament advocates make their arguments, I see no discussion of trade-offs such as these. It’s as if they believe, once nuclear weapons disappear, that the world will suddenly be capable of policing itself effectively. That assumption is very dangerous.

The nonproliferation regime would likely fall apart completely when the first rogue state went nuclear. Today, the regime is not universal—countries such as India, Pakistan, and Israel, not parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, have developed a nuclear deterrent. Yet the regime remains effective in constraining the nuclear ambitions of nations such as Iran and is generally able to withstand its lack of universality. In a world without the security that nuclear weapons provide, a single episode of noncompliance would likely cause many nations to seek their own deterrents. The result would be a collapse of the regime and a cascade of proliferation. Does that sound like a world where anyone really wants to live?

Nuclear weapons can’t maintain security

In Round One, Sinan Ulgen maintained that nuclear weapons deterred the United States and Soviet Union from engaging in direct conflict during the Cold War. He argued that nuclear weapons can deter future wars as well. Though Wael Al Assad has already taken issue with elements of this argument, I have my own reasons—related, but distinct—for disputing Ulgen's notion that nuclear weapons are irreplaceable in security maintenance.

First, Cold War history does little to prove that nuclear weapons are a stabilizing force. While it is true that the United States and Soviet Union maintained a "cold peace" during the Cold War, it's not necessarily true that nuclear weapons explain this lack of direct conflict. Nor is it a certainty that the two countries would have fought a direct war if they had not had nuclear weapons. So the notion that nuclear weapons are responsible for the cold peace can only be a hypothesis. And according to a theory called the stability-instability paradox, nuclear weapons may make conventional wars more likely. That is, if nations feel safe from strategic retaliation because of their nuclear arsenals, they may be tempted to fight proxy wars or engage in gradual aggression when otherwise they would not do so.

But beyond this, nuclear weapons can easily create a classic security dilemma—a situation in which one nation's efforts to improve its security are perceived as threatening by another nation, leading to heightened tension and perhaps war. Inevitably, countries view their own nuclear weapons and their rivals' weapons in very different ways. Their own weapons, or their allies', are tools for preserving national security. Rivals' weapons are security threats. And though nuclear-armed countries portray their nuclear strategies as deterrence strategies, this does nothing to eliminate the weapons' aggressive potential, or alleviate other nations' concern about that potential. In a nutshell, that's the situation that pertained between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it's the situation that pertains on the Korean peninsula today (even if South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own).

But even if one accepts the argument that nuclear weapons have had some stabilizing effect in the past, nuclear proliferation holds grave potential for creating instability in the future. Unless nuclear weapons are abolished, more and more countries will go nuclear over time. Some nations will find it very difficult to make sound decisions where strategic stability is concerned—they may be unable to distinguish between manageable conventional conflicts and desperate situations in which use of nuclear weapons could come under consideration. Small conflicts could quickly escalate into nuclear exchanges. In addition, as more and more players are involved, nuclear signaling will become increasingly complex. Misunderstandings and miscalculations will become more likely. The only way to avoid these risks is to abolish nuclear weapons.

Step by step. In both his essays so far, Assad has questioned nuclear weapon states' commitment to disarmament. Frankly, it makes perfect sense that these nations are reluctant to disarm completely. If nuclear weapon states believe that their weapons are useful, important, and (notwithstanding their treaty commitments) legitimate, they will be in no special hurry to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. But nuclear disarmament might proceed more efficiently if it took lessons from chemical weapons disarmament, something to which Assad referred in Round Two.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical (and biological) weapons. But many countries reserved the right when they joined the Protocol to retaliate with chemical weapons against a chemical attack. So chemical disarmament essentially began with a no-first-use pledge. Then it proceeded to delegitimization of chemical weapons; then to their devaluation; and finally to total disarmament, a process that is nearly complete today. So it may be more fruitful to place constraints on the use of nuclear weapons than to focus on their absolute numbers.

Four decades of pre-negotiations: Enough

In Round One, my colleagues Li Bin and Sinan Ulgen advanced highly contrasting visions of nuclear disarmament. Ulgen argued that complete disarmament is an impractical goal and that nuclear deterrence has proven itself extremely useful for security. Deterrence, Ulgen argued, has prevented large-scale wars and conventional arms races for decades. Li, meanwhile, argued that reducing nuclear stockpiles to a level consistent with minimum deterrence would represent welcome progress toward "zero"—as long as such an approach were only an intermediate step toward complete disarmament.

I'm more in sympathy with Li's views than Ulgen's—but those who accept gradual reductions as a stepping stone to total disarmament seem to believe that nuclear weapon states are actually serious about disarmament. I do not believe that they are. More than four decades have elapsed since the nuclear weapon states committed themselves to starting good-faith disarmament negotiations. Somehow they are still in the pre-negotiation phase. Every time they are asked to fulfill their disarmament commitments, they claim that security, technical, or political obstacles prevent them from doing so. Something always stands in the way—verification problems, or threat perceptions, or non-state actors. But what, other than serious negotiations, can overcome such obstacles? And if the world can nearly eliminate chemical weapons—though the same set of obstacles has complicated that project—why can't it do so with nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapon states have demonstrated time and again that they have no political will to pursue serious disarmament negotiations. That is why, in Round One, I reluctantly proposed a set of drastic steps through which non-nuclear weapon states could put pressure on their nuclear-armed counterparts. To be sure, non-nuclear weapon states should support the ongoing initiative toward declaring the use of nuclear weapons illegal for humanitarian reasons—but if that approach fails, only drastic measures will be capable of forcing the nuclear weapon states to honor their commitments.

As for Ulgen's argument that nuclear deterrence and an emphasis on strategic stability have proven useful, I consider this proposition dangerous and alarming. If nuclear deterrence provides security, after all, it has done so for the few nations that possess nuclear weapons—so shouldn't other nations strengthen their security by obtaining their own nuclear deterrents? And if nuclear weapons prevent arms races, shouldn't all states maintain nuclear arsenals? The more nuclear weapons, the safer the world!

According to Ulgen's reasoning, nuclear weapons are responsible for the lack of large-scale wars over recent decades. But why not reverse this logic—why not conclude that nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945 because no large-scale wars have occurred? Why not credit the relatively fresh memory of World War II with preventing additional conflicts on that scale?

Then again, with the passage of time, humanity forgets its own terrible history—and tends to repeat it. In the meantime, the idea that nuclear weapons contribute to security dilutes the disarmament commitments of the nuclear weapon states and renders obsolete the entire nonproliferation regime.

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Round 3

Where morality and reality converge

Sinan Ulgen has criticized Li Bin and me for taking a "moral" approach to disarmament. He has cast his own views as more realistic than ours. But when Li Bin and I advocate complete disarmament, the main point is to address real threat perceptions and solve real-world security problems. Support for disarmament happens to be the morally correct attitude—but where is the inherent contradiction between moral attitudes and realistic ones?

I can identify several moments in this roundtable when my (and Li's) "moralistic" views have accorded better with global security imperatives than have Ulgen's putatively realistic views. First, Ulgen argues that the world is safer today, when a few states possess nuclear weapons, than it would be if no nuclear weapons existed. But if that's true, why did the nuclear weapon states join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to begin with? Did they naively accede to a treaty that would make the world less safe? Unlikely. A more convincing explanation is that in order to preserve their nuclear monopoly they gave dishonest (albeit legally binding) disarmament commitments. But a basic requirement for a secure international system is that nations can trust one another to honor their commitments (or can trust, when commitments aren't honored, that viable enforcement mechanisms will come into play). The trust that the international system requires is now eroding where nuclear weapons are concerned. A collapse of trust would threaten global security and ultimately the international system itself. Under such circumstances, is it unrealistic, and merely moralistic, to insist on general disarmament?

Second, Ulgen argues against total disarmament by noting that nuclear weapons, via NATO's nuclear umbrella and US extended deterrence, provide security to non-nuclear weapon states. But even putting aside the illegality of extending a nuclear umbrella to a group of non-nuclear treaty members, many parties to the NPT perceive extended deterrence and NATO's nuclear umbrella as serious security concerns. The problem is that extended deterrence has created a third class of treaty parties. In addition to the nuclear weapon states, there are now two types of non-nuclear weapon states—those that receive the benefits of nuclear deterrence and those that don't. It is this last category of states to which I was referring in Round Two when I wrote that, if nuclear weapons provide security to the nations that have them, "[S]houldn't other nations strengthen their security by obtaining their own nuclear deterrents?" If they do so, the security implications will be quite real.

Third, Ulgen writes that "In a 'zero' world, the incentives for a rogue state to go nuclear would be so powerful that no threat could overcome them—short of the guaranteed destruction of the state and elimination of its leadership." Ulgen believes, in fact, that the disarmament and nonproliferation regime would collapse when the first "rogue state" went nuclear. The term "rogue state" is a subjective, biased classification, not to mention an unpleasant reminder of the George W. Bush era. But beyond that, one state often considered "rogue" has already gone nuclear—North Korea. Has the nonproliferation regime crumbled as a result? It hasn't, so I don't know what lessons can be drawn from a single instance of proliferation.

On the other hand, Israel's possession of nuclear weapons is eroding, in the minds of many Middle Eastern policy makers, the credibility of the disarmament and nonproliferation regime. States in the Middle East perceive Israel's nuclear capability as a direct threat to their security and they have started to question the wisdom of long-ago decisions to join the treaty. If countries across the region withdrew from the treaty, the security implications would be serious indeed. The only workable way to forestall this outcome in the long term is to achieve general disarmament. Once again, Li and I have argued for "zero" on the basis of real threat perceptions and security concerns. Disarmament may be moral—but that is far from the only point.

No nukes? No—no first use

In his final essay, Li Bin makes the case that delegitimizing nuclear weapons represents a promising alternative to disarmament initiatives that, with their focus on numerical controls, are probably doomed to failure. I don't agree that numerical limits on arsenals are doomed to failure—especially if disarmament's aim, as I wrote in Round One, is to approach but not reach "zero."

To buttress his views on numerical limits, Li discusses the failed Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This treaty limited the number and size of warships that nations could maintain in their fleets, and it collapsed in the 1930s. Li writes that the treaty collapsed because "controlling numbers of warships didn't change attitudes toward warships." I disagree. The real reason the treaty failed was that it lacked a proper enforcement mechanism. Its failure says little about the disarmament and nonproliferation regime. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the International Atomic Energy Agency, and ultimately the UN Security Council provide the regime with institutional underpinnings for enforcement, and because of this the regime has managed to survive for several decades in the face of numerous challenges. With the participation of these institutions, limiting the size of nuclear arsenals on a multilateral basis is indeed a viable proposition (though a code of transparency would also be required, one that allowed nuclear weapon states to monitor one another's compliance with agreements).

I continue to believe that, due to the nature of the world's security threats and the character of established security architectures on both the global and regional levels, total abolition of nuclear weapons is a far-fetched objective. But here's something that can be achieved: a universal commitment by nuclear weapon states not to use these weapons first. Today, China espouses a no-first-use policy. The United States foreswears first use against non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the NPT and are in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations—though Washington places some restrictions on that commitment. Russia does not maintain a no-first-use policy. This is a complicated picture, and prevailing on all nuclear weapon states to adopt no-first-use policies would be challenging. Ultimately, though, the goal is achievable. If every nuclear-armed state adopted an unconditional no-first-use policy, the risk of nuclear war would be greatly reduced.

The world came to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that was more than 50 years ago. Nuclear weapons haven't been used in conflict since 1945. By now, the record suggests that nations have learned to manage these terrible weapons. They have adapted their security concepts to the realities of the nuclear era, developing first the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and then extended deterrence. The system that exists may not be desirable—a residual risk of nuclear warfare persists—but the system has proven itself to work. As this roundtable nears its end, I remain unconvinced by my colleagues' arguments that abolition of nuclear weapons would produce a safer world than exists today. Abolition is a laudable objective in many ways. The problem is that there is no realistic way of achieving it—or of remaining safe once it is achieved.

The practical path toward disarmament

In his second essay, Sinan Ulgen wrote that Wael Al Assad and I exhibit a moralistic approach to nuclear disarmament. We argue for a world without nuclear weapons, he writes, but we fail to advance practical, specific methods for maintaining security and preventing proliferation in a world where nuclear weapons no longer exist. Essentially, Ulgen faults Assad and me for taking a normative approach to nuclear weapons—describing how the world should be, on the basis of our values—instead of taking a positive approach—describing how the world is, on the basis of empirical evidence.

I think it's fair to say that all authors in this roundtable have advanced both normative and positive arguments. Indeed, all the authors take a normative approach to security simply by assuming that security is important. But the word "security" means different things to different people. For Ulgen, "security" is often synonymous with "national security." For Assad, global security is the emphasis, along with fairness in the way nations carry out their disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. My own use of the word tends to emphasize the idea that security issues must be managed in such a way that security dilemmas are avoided. Personally, I don't think that my belief in the desirability and feasibility of complete nuclear disarmament is normative. Rather, my disarmament views flow from my approach to security, which unavoidably has a normative element.

Though Ulgen and I both start from a normative belief that international security must be maintained, he and I disagree on three positive points. The first point of disagreement is whether nuclear weapons are useful in maintaining international security; much of the roundtable has been devoted to our divergent views on this question. The second point is whether nuclear arsenals are useful in preventing nuclear proliferation. Ulgen says yes and I say no—as I wrote in the first round, verifying compliance with the nonproliferation regime would be more effective and efficient, from a political and technical standpoint, if no nuclear weapons existed. The third point of disagreement is whether a practical path toward complete nuclear disarmament exists. Ulgen assumes that nuclear-armed states will never disarm completely because they place so much value on nuclear weapons' role in security. I believe that, over time, states can become willing to disarm. But such a change requires that new attitudes emerge toward nuclear weapons' acceptability and efficacy. This in turn requires that the disarmament movement alter the emphasis of its efforts.

For decades, the focus of nuclear disarmament has been reductions in, and numerical limitations on, nuclear arsenals. But this was exactly the approach underlying the failed Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which limited the number and size of the warships that nations deployed but did nothing to change the notion that warships were useful, legal weapons. As the treaty was negotiated, the major naval powers calculated their quantitative need for warships based on the size of rival fleets; the unsurprising result was that, by the middle of the next decade, an even more intense naval arms race had developed. The treaty collapsed—because controlling numbers of warships didn't change attitudes toward warships. The same principle holds in nuclear disarmament. A focus on numerical controls without any focus on underlying attitudes will make "zero" a very difficult goal to reach.

As I mentioned in the second round, the history of chemical weapons disarmament demonstrates a more promising approach. The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited signatories from using chemical weapons (or, in some cases, from using them first). The Protocol helped establish the idea that, for any nation using chemical weapons, costs would outweigh benefits. Thus it became less likely that chemical weapons would be used, the value of these weapons dropped precipitously, and nations became more willing to relinquish their weapons. Today, chemical disarmament is in its final stages.

The history of chemical disarmament suggests two things: Beliefs about weapons are mutable and banning the use of weapons is a good way to devalue them. For the nuclear disarmament community, the priority now should be delegitimizing the use of nuclear weapons and working to devalue them in the eyes of national decision makers. If the notion ever truly takes hold that nuclear weapons' disadvantages outweigh their benefits, nuclear abolition has a real chance of becoming reality.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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