In an editorial published in last Friday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal (“Our Endangered Nuclear Weaponeers”) Dr. J. Douglas Beason argues against eliminating America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Certainly, there are reasonable arguments to be made about the feasibility and desirability of large-scale nuclear arms reductions. Beason’s editorial, however, is not an example of such an argument.
First, Beason seems to base his editorial on the curious assumption that the ultimate elimination of the American nuclear arsenal would also result in the demise of the class of professionals who “build the sensors that can detect nuclear explosions from space” and “know whether to ‘cut the red or blue wire’ in a terrorist device.” Obviously, in a world without nuclear weapons, the “nuclear weaponeer,” per se, would not exist. However, the world would still need people with nuclear expertise to serve as inspectors and verifiers, in order to ensure that nuclear weapons are not being developed, tested, or used. In other words, a world free of nuclear weapons would still require individuals with many of the skills of a nuclear weaponeer.
More problematic for Beason’s argument, however, is the fact that, rather than engaging with the actual arguments put forth by arms control experts, Beason chooses to argue against a flimsy, straw-man version of the Global Zero argument. Throughout his editorial, Beason makes it clear that he lacks a basic understanding of the positions taken by arms control advocates. Yes, it is true that foreign policy heavyweights, such as William Perry and George Shultz, have called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. And yes, in 2009, President Obama did make reference to “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” But, what these arms control advocates have also made clear is that the goal of Global Zero will not be realized overnight, and cannot be accomplished through American efforts alone.
Beason, however, does not seem to grasp these nuances. In his mind, the vision of Obama, Perry, Shultz, and others involves the United States unilaterally eliminating its nuclear stockpile, in the hope that others countries will then follow suit. Beason views such a policy as reckless and dangerous. On this point, I absolutely agree with him – it would be extremely ill-advised for the US to destroy its nuclear stockpile without similar moves by other nuclear weapons states. President Obama agrees, too – in a 2009 speech, he declared that, “As long as [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies”
Unfortunately for Beason, his conception of the argument for nuclear arms control could not be farther from the truth. Since taking office, President Obama has decreased the size of the US nuclear arsenal – however, most of these reductions have taken place in the context of bilateral efforts with Russia via the New START treaty of 2010. It is true that the Obama administration has made some unilateral nuclear cuts, such as its retirement of the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (TLAM-N). However, the concept of US Presidents making unilateral nuclear reductions, as the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer has pointed out, is one with a strong historical precedent. Most importantly, the notion of unilaterally eliminating the American nuclear stockpile is not one that has been entertained by any serious policymakers, contrary to what Beason seems to believe. Essentially, he is arguing against an idea that no one is arguing for.