Is there a link between the nuclear postures of the nuclear weapons states and nonproliferation?
In their recent Op-Ed attacking President Obama’s approach toward nuclear weapons, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Richard Perle argued that there is such a link, but only in so far as the nuclear umbrella that the United States extends to protect its allies ensures that these allies do not have to acquire their own nuclear weapons. They scoffed at another interpretation of this link, which is that in maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapons states, particularly the U.S. and Russia, increase the incentives other states have to acquire nuclear weapons and make it more difficult to, among other objectives, marshal international support to put added pressure on North Korea and Iran. As Kyl and Perle put it:
There is a fashionable notion that if only we and the Russians reduced our nuclear forces, other nations would reduce their existing arsenals or abandon plans to acquire nuclear weapons altogether. This idea, an article of faith of the “soft power” approach to halting nuclear proliferation, assumes that the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be curtailed or abandoned in response to reductions in the American and Russian deterrent forces — or that India, Pakistan or China would respond with reductions of their own.
As I noted at the time, this fashionable notion is a straw man. Over at Democracy Arsenal, David Shorr does a much better job than I did of explaining the relevance of U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions to stemming the spread of nuclear weapons. “I don’t know anyone who believes that nuclear arms cuts will cause a spontaneous change of heart in Iranian or North Korean leaders,” writes Shorr, “but here’s what I do believe:
-that disarmament moves by the nuclear ‘haves’ will serve the ball into their court, lessening US policy as the topic of focus in nonproliferation diplomacy and putting the spotlight squarely on the nuclear wannabes
-that living up to our end of the bargain will give us a strong argument to draw greater international support and increased pressure on Iran and North Korea
-that no regime is immune to outside pressure and that such regimes have countervailing interests that weigh against building nuclear arsenals (otherwise there wouldn’t be such a hot debate in Iran over relations with the West)
-that moral authority must be combined with tough diplomacy and the remote but implicit threat of hard (conventional armed) power
-that we have many times more nuclear weapons than can be reasonably justified
-and that taking a hard line — preserving military strength regardless of strategic rationale, issuing demands rather than bargaining hard over possible solutions — makes even less of an impact and offers zero possibility of inducing cooperation.
“In other words,” Shorr concludes, “we have no choice.”
The key takeaway here is that we do not know for sure that U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions will set the example or have the impact that we hope. However, we have very little to lose and everything to gain from testing this hypothesis, not only because it is a promise we made to the non-nuclear weapons states at the 1995 NPT Review Conference in return for their agreement to extend the NPT indefinitely, but also because the status quo has done nothing to alter North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Or to quote the bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission:
at a time when the United States is considering how to reduce nuclear dangers globally, it is essential that it pursue cooperative, binding measures with others….The Commission does not believe that unilateral nuclear reductions by the United States would have any positive impact on countries like North Korea and Iran. But some other nations may not show the nuclear restraint the United States desires or support nonproliferation efforts if the nuclear weapon states take no further agreed steps to decrease their reliance on nuclear arms. [emphasis mine].