Josef Joffe and James W. Davis
Once again, a global movement is afoot to free the world of nuclear weapons. Unlike the Easter marches of the 1950s and 1960s or the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, however, this time around, the policy elites themselves are leading the charge. The list of supporters of Global Zero, the new campaign's flagship organization, reads like a Who's Who of international strategy: from
Global Zero calls for "the phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide" on the grounds that this is "the only way to eliminate the nuclear threat -- including proliferation and nuclear terrorism." All previous such attempts at nuclear disarmament have failed, grabbing headlines for a while but then waning as strategic logic and state interest prevail. And a similar fate is almost certain for Global Zero, for similar reasons. So why not just sit back and let the pantomime play out once more, as the nobly expressed intentions of the good and the great founder on the hard realities of world politics? Because words have consequences. The calls for disarmament have started to spread from op-ed pages to cabinet rooms and are being invoked to legitimate shortsighted and ultimately dangerous positions on nuclear policy and strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. The intellectual coalition behind Global Zero is unprecedented and needs to be engaged head-on, even if the movement's practical prospects are dim.
The proponents of Global Zero are rightly worried by the renewed spread of nuclear weapons, which had appeared to be halted for a quarter century after
IT'S NOT US, IT'S THEM
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 enshrined a deal in which the five original nuclear powers promised to reduce their nuclear arsenals in exchange for a pledge by the nonnuclear states to refrain from acquiring them. But the premise that the have-nots will arm because the haves have not disarmed does not hold. It reflects neither history nor present-day realities. The truth is that the decision-making of aspiring nuclear powers is only remotely related, if it is related at all, to the strategic choices of the existing nuclear powers and that the two top nuclear powers have indeed cut back, with little effect on proliferation.
Competitive proliferation does explain the choices of the original five proliferators.
Did Pyongyang reach for the bomb because
The main focus of all proliferators since
The idea that nonnuclear powers arm because the existing nuclear powers do not disarm is contradicted by the actual history of the superpower arms competition. If there is any correlation between the behavior of the haves and that of the have-nots, it is in the reverse direction. By a rough count, including both deployed and undeployed warheads, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has dropped from a peak of well over 30,000 warheads in the mid-1960s to about 10,000 today.
If the "good example" theory were correct, such massive cuts -- about 70 percent of the total number of warheads -- should have started turning
The lesson is a familiar one: hard power -- or, more accurately, hard power combined with a reputation for the will to use it -- is a more efficient deproliferator than disarmament. Great-power virtue makes for good words, but truly effective proselytizing, as missionaries know, requires the fear of God.
Because nuclear weapons serve many purposes, they are often simply too useful to forego. They are good for blackmail (
Given nuclear logic and history, it is hard to be sanguine about a plan to convert the wayward by way of example. But what about a regime with teeth, such as that proposed by Global Zero -- with obligatory monitoring, including unannounced on-site inspections? Let us assume an agency that could identify nuclear facilities, although neither
GETTING THERE IS HALF THE HORROR
Proponents of Global Zero believe that peril comes from numbers. Cut stockpiles, they reason, and make the world a safer place. Alas, sheer numbers are not the most critical item in the nuclear age. Stability now plays the starring role -- and stability is a function of incentives, not simply numbers. As
Stability did not require the obsessive accumulation of nuclear weapons to the insane levels of the height of the Cold War. But neither does it allow for zero. So what is enough? Global Zero proposes a phased approach. In the first stage (2010-13),
These calculations include
Of course, such factors would not matter if nuclear disarmament ushered in perpetual peace. But such a heaven did not exist before nuclear weapons were deployed, so why should it exist once they are removed? The peace that disarmament advocates take for granted has been the product of the very arsenals they want to eliminate. The correlation between nuclear weapons and great-power peace is perfect -- 65 years, the longest such period in world history. Conversely, with the nuclear threat lifted, conventional war among the great powers might no longer look so terrifying. If the last rung on the escalation ladder is gone, stepping onto the first one might not lead straight to Armageddon.
But surely, it must be possible to safely bring down the number of weapons, given how even today's arsenals still constitute massive global overkill? At first glance, gradualism does seem sensible. But behind the process of disarmament lurks the ugly face of dread. As a state's stocks of nuclear weapons dwindle, its vulnerability to an enemy's disabling first strike rises -- along with its fear that such a strike might actually occur. It is easier to destroy ten missiles than one thousand. Small arsenals, in Schelling's words, put a "premium on haste," which undermines crisis stability. The structural incentive to go first, he notes, "is undoubtedly the greatest piece of mischief that can be introduced into military forces, and the greatest source of danger that peace will explode into all out war." By contrast, large and diverse forces reduce the rewards of haste. Hence, there is safety -- mutual safety -- in numbers.
What about incremental disarmament -- a variant of gradualism that the Global Zero co-coordinator
Making military mobilizations cumbersome, however, is hardly a guarantee of crisis stability. The intersection of great-power rivalries with complex and staged mobilization schedules helped trigger World War I rather than prevent it. High-readiness forces would have kept the "guns of August" from going off. And
Measures that buy time for a crisis to play out slowly can sharpen the dilemma between lashing out and hanging back. Nervousness can blanket calm; when tensions are high, states will be tempted to raise the alert status of their nuclear forces by reassembling launchers and warheads and retargeting their missiles. Such moves by country A might sober up country B, signaling how high the stakes are for A. But these moves might also increase B's sense of vulnerability, prompting an even higher level of readiness on its end. If the upward spiral continues, either state or both of them might conclude that war has already begun, leaving no choice but preemption or humiliating concession.
Blair and his colleagues argue that such a vicious cycle need not arise. "A lower level of launch readiness" flanked by "much deeper cuts," they write, would make for "uncertainty and incomplete knowledge" and so render policymakers risk averse in a crisis. Uncertainty might well instill caution. But it could just as well breed the opposite. Which nation has ever started a war on the basis of certainty about its own and its enemy's capabilities, actual and potential? Would
Preemption, the worst enemy of stability, might actually be easier in a world filled with confidence-building measures, as Schelling has pointed out. Today's retaliatory forces are hardened or hidden under the sea. Now think of a world replete with circuit breakers -- with missiles in one place, warheads in another. Instead of having to take out hardened silos or elusive submarines, a state could resort to simpler means of preemption, attacking or sabotaging the logistical chain between its enemy's launchers and its warheads or the storage sites where its weapons are kept.
One of the oldest paradoxes of the nuclear age is that loaded and ready weapons induce caution while also carrying risks. Forty years of arms control have managed to preserve the caution while reducing the risks through innumerable fail-safe devices. Trading the residual risks for a return to vicious cycles of suspicion, fear, and possible preemption does not seem like a good bargain.
GENIE OUT OF A BOTTLE
But assume, for the sake of argument, that all the practical obstacles to the implementation of Global Zero were whisked away -- that one could bring all the relevant states on board, construct a disarmament regime with teeth, identify all nuclear facilities, monitor them carefully, and police all violations effectively. Would Global Zero serve its intended purpose? Would a world free of nuclear weapons actually be happier and safer?
No -- for a reason so simple that one hesitates to belabor it. Even if states were willing to destroy their nuclear weapons, they could not destroy the knowledge, technology, and materials that lie behind them. It was in a global-zero world, after all, that nuclear weapons were invented by
So is there nothing that can be done to improve the current situation, no way for the size of existing arsenals to be reduced? Of course there is. The key, however, is to focus not on the weapons themselves but on crisis stability. Traditional arms control -- not at all the same thing as disarmament of the Global Zero variety -- has emphasized just such concerns, and helped usher in a world where the nuclear weapons of the great powers, once a terrifying presence at center stage of international politics, have safely receded into the wings.
Such advances are real and valuable in and of themselves. Unfortunately, they have not and will not resolve all problems of the nuclear age. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to states such as
Despite his occasional flights of rhetoric, Obama appears to have accepted the strategic logic of maintaining a credible deterrent. In
So the goal should be to craft a different global zero: a regime that would allow zero fissionable material and weapons technology to pass into the wrong hands, especially into those of
Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011
OSEF JOFFE is Editor of Die Zeit, a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Abramowitz Fellow in International Relations at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. JAMES W. DAVIS is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Security Economics and Technology at the University of St. Gallen
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