Last Sunday the New York Times’ Room For Debate blog hosted a discussion on nuclear abolition. There were four participants: Nina Tannenwald, associate research professor of international relations at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, Ken Adelman, former Director of the Arms Control Agency, Joe Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, and John Mueller, Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University.
Overall I thought the discussion did a good job of laying out some of the key fault lines in the debate over abolition. It also exposed the weakness of many of the arguments against the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Some comments below the fold.
1. Nina Tannenwald makes an excellent point in noting that “[t]oday, no U.S. agency is devoted primarily to promoting nuclear self-restraint, and the unsurprising consequence is that American policy has, until President Obama, focused mainly on the restraint of others.” The gutting of the arms control and nonproliferation bureaucracy under the Bush administration is an issue I’ve followed for a while, and it’s good to see that the FY 2010 Foreign Relations Authorization Bill, on the House floor today, contains a number of provisions aimed at strengthening arms control and nonproliferation activities at the Department of State.
2. After asserting that we’ll never “be able to verify nuclear matters everywhere around the world,” Ken Adelman suggests that we would be better off pursing “real steps” to reduce nuclear dangers. Such steps include stabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan as a cohesive state; stopping the Iranian effort; assuring the security of Russian nuclear weapons; precluding trade in enriched uranium and plutonium; and making sure existing nuclear states have PALs (permissive action links) and other devices to render the weapons useless for non-authorized personnel (like terrorists).
First, as George Perkovich and James Action, co-authors of the Adelphi Paper, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, note, “verification is important but ultimately not as vital as political-security dynamics and enforcement, because verification cannot be perfect, and even if it were, the challenges of deterring and defeating an actor that chose to break a prohibition would remain.”
Second, it’s telling that the “real steps” proposed by Adelman do not include deep reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, ratification of the CTBT, achieving a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, U.S. adoption of a declaratory policy of “no first use” (or even of “defensive last resort), etc. Based on the priorities highlighted by Adelman, it seems pretty clear that he believes that nuclear weapons remain as important to the security of the United States as ever, and that we should not be concerned about reducing their salience.
3. The always provocative John Mueller argues that the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is misguided. Instead, we should “just let it happen.” According to Mueller, nuclear weapons “have proved to be useless and a very substantial waste of money and of scientific and technical talent,” and “the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than routinely predicted because.” “To the degree that these observations come to be accepted,” he writes, “nuclear weapons will naturally fade — though probably never disappear — from the scene.”
While I’m sympathetic to much of Mueller’s argument, the problem with letting nuclear weapons “naturally fade…from the scene” is that we cannot simply assume that the logic of deterrence or the slow pace of proliferation that has characterized the past 60 years will characterize the next 60. Moreover, the nuclear weapons establishment in the United States and other nuclear weapons states is notorious for being incredibly resistant to change. Without guidance from high-level civilian leaders to significantly reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, significant change is unlikely to take place. Finally, failure on the part of the U.S. to explicitly endorse abolition as a goal could make it impossible to secure the support we need to constrain the Iranian and North Korea nuclear programs, limit the spread of dangerous enrichment and reprocessing technologies, and reduce other nuclear dangers.