A World Without Nuclear Weapons?
Realists are Calling for the Unrealistic
Four realists and hardliners – Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz – have called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They believe that the nuclear-armed powers must promote the vision of a world without nuclear armament to prevent the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction. From the author’s viewpoint, this would strip the national security of the West of its legitimacy, with unpredictable consequences.
Many years ago, a German student told a renowned US defense strategist that he had just written a 20-page essay on US nuclear strategy. Instead of the expected praise, the student met with bewilderment: “Twenty pages? What do you know that we don’t know?” The sarcastic sense of humor of this seasoned analyst was not just an affectation. After all, nuclear issues are a matter of faith that transcends empirical science. For more than sixty years, no nuclear weapon has been used. Their principal rationale is the prevention of war through deterring the adversary. However, since one can never tell for sure why a conflict did not occur, the war-preventing effect of nuclear weapons remains a mere conjecture.
There is nothing certain about nuclear weapons except for the enormous destruction they cause in case they are used. It is thus no surprise that since the beginning of the nuclear age there has been a debate about these weapons where ethical, political and strategic arguments occasionally clash in irreconcilable ways. In this debate, the consistent, radical view in favor of complete abolition of nuclear weapons has never been successful. Calls for world-wide nuclear disarmament always had a naive, pacifist air. They failed to provide convincing answers to the three decisive questions: How to get to zero? How to stay at zero? How to guarantee effective deterrence without nuclear weapons? In addition, during the Cold War calls for world-wide disarmament also formed part of the standard repertoire of communist propaganda, which made them even more suspicious. In sum, until recently the “abolitionist” position was regarded as either too naive or too hypocritical to be taken seriously.
This is now supposed to change. Above all, the demand that all nuclear weapons should be abolished in the long term has resurfaced in the course of the US presidential election campaign. After eight years of the Bush Administration’s open skepticism against arms-control agreements and its preference for relying on informal arrangements instead, many observers are now hoping for a fully-fledged renaissance of the idea of global disarmament.
Unlike in the Cold War, today’s calls for ridding the world of nuclear weapons are not driven by moral, religious or ideological motivations. The origins of the new “abolitionism” are rooted in classical realism – a school of thought that Cold War abolitionists used to consider the enemy camp. This school of thought held nuclear weapons to be indispensable instruments of national security. However, now that Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz, four hard-nosed realists, have taken prominence in demanding the abolition of nuclear weapons, the world is turning upside down. According to these four well-known US foreign and security policy leaders, our world has reached a crossroads. If we want to avert the impending spread of weapons of mass destruction, argue Kissinger and his co-authors, the nuclear-weapons states would need to embrace, without reservations, the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Otherwise it would be impossible for them to counter the accusation that they are pursuing a policy of “double standards” and regain the moral authority that would be necessary for dynamic, comprehensive arms control policies.
Needless to say, this new “Gang of Four” does not really seek complete nuclear disarmament. They continue to consider this goal to be unattainable. For them, formulating a utopian objective is merely a tool for pragmatic purposes: Concluding far-reaching US-Russian arms control agreements, strengthening the verification mechanisms of the International Atomic Energy Agency, enhancing the physical security of Russian nuclear weapons, internationalizing uranium enrichment, and many more. To these four seasoned political professionals, the call for the unattainable simply serves as a catalyst for what they believe to be attainable. So far, so good, one might say and let things run their course. After all, a bit of showmanship and drama is good for business.
However, the matter isn’t quite so simple. For Kissinger and his realists, abolitionist proposals may be merely a tactical calculus, yet for others it means much more. Through Kissinger and his allies, calls for nuclear abolition have been stripped off their aura of sectarianism. The fact that practically all disarmament initiatives today approvingly quote these four senior citizens and their alleged enlightened views on nuclear matters gives a flavor of the kind of momentum that has been generated. In Europe, meanwhile, some political parties that are trying desperately to arrest their marginalization are invoking Kissinger & Co in order to call for virtually any random disarmament measure.
What is much more important, however, is the specific line of argument being used by Kissinger and his co-authors. In particular, their criticism of Western policy suggests that the future of nuclear nonproliferation depends directly on the behavior of the nuclear-weapons states, and above all the Western ones. In fact, the accusation that the nuclear-weapons states have failed to live up to their disarmament obligation under the Nonproliferation Treaty and are thus themselves in violation of the Treaty has long been a tenet of the international nonproliferation debate. However, the correlation between disarmament and nonproliferation is far less clear than is often suggested. The deep nuclear cuts by the US and Russia after the end of the Cold War have clearly not had any discernible effect on the spread of weapons of mass destruction in other parts of the world.
This does not in itself detract from the desirability of further disarmament, yet such disarmament is likely to remain of minor relevance for the future course of international proliferation. Besides: How much disarmament would it take until the credibility of nuclear-weapons states is restored in the eyes of their critics? The answer is obvious: Those who adopt the notion of complete disarmament as their guiding principle will never be satisfied by any intermediate step. This means that the pressure on the nuclear arsenals in the West will continue, in contrast to other parts of the world, where public discussions on nuclear matters are next to impossible.
Globalization is another factor which will ensure that the utopian vision of a nuclear weapons-free world will remain nothing but a vision. Globalization does not only transform world-wide flows of information and goods but also lends completely new dynamics to the spread of weapons of mass destruction and missile systems. In this regard, developments since the 1980s have invalidated almost all traditional tenets about nonproliferation. The assumption that states with nuclear ambitions will necessarily be dependent on assistance from established nuclear powers has been shattered by the emergence of private, transnational supply networks.
The US Nuclear Umbrella
Any state that wants to acquire whole centrifuges or even blueprints for nuclear warheads can purchase them on the black market or source them from other nuclear newcomers, for example in exchange for the delivery of ballistic missiles. Iran, Libya and Pakistan have long been demonstrating this. States with nuclear ambitions can also divert fissionable material from “research reactors”, as did Iraq, or operate covert uranium enrichment programs, as did North Korea and Iran. The revival of civil nuclear energy will render many of these issues even more pertinent. These developments will not necessarily result in a sudden increase in the number of declared nuclear powers, but rather in a rise of “virtual” nuclear powers that can exploit their civil nuclear programs for military purposes in no time. Some observers thus speak of a “second nuclear age” in which the rules of the former East-West rivalry no longer apply.
For all these reasons, another factor is likely to determine the nonproliferation debate in the coming years: The almost forgotten US “nuclear umbrella”. Even though the dream of a morally established ban on proliferation beyond all national interests continues to be dreamt in many places, current developments in South and East Asia and the Middle East illustrate once again that nuclear nonproliferation is to a large extent a result of US protection. The nuclear abstinence displayed by numerous states in these pivotal geopolitical regions is not a law of nature. It was and remains contingent on a predictable international order, i.e. an international order that is provided by the United States.
Japan, for example, the only country that ever suffered a nuclear attack, makes no secret of its position that the choice is either to rely US nuclear protection or to have a bomb of its own. Some commentators in Turkey and Taiwan have made similar points. Even more: In responding to Iran’s nuclear ambitions no fewer than twelve nations in the Middle East and the Gulf region have announced their intention to launch civil nuclear programs. If there is anything that can prevent the impending nuclearization of a region in Europe’s neighborhood it is not arms control but the extension of the US nuclear umbrella to countries in this region.
The hope for triggering a revival of global nonproliferation through calls for world-wide denuclearization thus remains a pipe dream. Just as much as the end of the Cold War was not brought about by unilateral Western disarmament but by political change within the communist systems of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, any sustained transformation of the global security landscape cannot primarily be achieved through changes in Western defense arsenals. The hope that the injustice of the current nuclear world order could be overcome by transforming it into a non-nuclear and therefore just world suggests an alternative that does not exist. The real alternative is as banal as it is painful: There is either an unjust nuclear order or there is no order at all.
For these reasons, neither the four nuclear realists nor their many idealist fellow travelers are likely to succeed. In a world of inexorable technological progress, with new powers in Asia and elsewhere pursuing risky “balance of power” policies, with many experts fearing that the rivalry for raw materials might even lead to an increase in interstate wars, and with terrorist groups seeking weapons of mass destruction, the call for doing away with all nuclear weapons is intuitively understandable: You want to pull the brakes before everything spins out of control.
More Disarmament Instead of More Democracy?
However, the attempt to take a stance in defiance of globalization by expressing bombastic yet unrealistic demands is ultimately doomed to failure. Yes, America wants to be loved again. And what better way to regain that love than by replacing President Bush’s outrageous demand for more democracy worldwide with the call for more global disarmament, a call that Europeans feel so much more at ease with? In the end, however, the conclusion remains that demands for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons will not achieve much except undermining the legitimacy of Western security policy. The old-age pessimism of Kissinger & Co. does not provide useful guidance for dealing with the second nuclear age.
Michael Ruehle is Deputy Head and Senior Policy Adviser in NATO’s Policy Planning Unit. The article reflects his personal opinion only.
First published in German in "Neue Zuericher Zeitung" (Switzerland), July 5, 2008