The idea of abolishing nuclear weapons comes and goes in cycles, usually when external events either evoke uncommon fear or present great opportunities. So far, there have been three abolitionist waves. The first and most powerful came immediately after the use of atomic weapons to end World War II. This wave was short lived, driven by the profound fears evoked by weapons ideally suited for devastating surprise attacks, as well as by hopes that the newly created United Nations might somehow prevent the Bomb from becoming a fixture in international politics. The second wave rolled in during the first Reagan Administration. It was accompanied by a sharp downturn in superpower relations and fears of a “nuclear winter” in the aftermath of massive nuclear exchanges. The third wave, which quickly rose and fell in the mid-1990s, was driven by hopes that the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War might prompt a wholesale devaluation of nuclear weapons. Each wave has been weaker and more ineffectual than the one before.
A fourth abolitionist wave is now building. This wave is unusual because it is moving from the center outward. Its leading advocates—statesmen like George Shultz, Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Max Kampelman—have long resumes of distinguished public service. Because of their leadership, the fourth wave has more potential than its predecessors. When foreign policy realists who have served in positions of great responsibility in the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan Administrations join with a Democratic presidential candidate like Barack Obama in calling for nuclear abolition, clearly something noteworthy is unfolding.
The fourth abolitionist wave is also different because it is powered by subtle, slow-motion events rather than sharp external shocks. All abolitionist waves are driven by anticipatory dread of one kind or another. The sense of dread this time around derives from the erosion of global structures built to prevent proliferation, and the possibility of a horrific act of nuclear terrorism. This wave is also different because it comes at a time when all major powers face two common enemies: nuclear terrorism and the demise of the global nonproliferation system. The fourth wave seeks to leverage these common concerns, and the best way to do that, in the view of Shultz & Co., is to reaffirm and take seriously nuclear abolition as the declaratory policy of the U.S. government.
They are correct. It makes particularly good sense for the United States to champion the elimination of nuclear weapons. After six decades without being used on the battlefield, the Bomb’s military utility has never been lower. In addition, its political utility for the United States has never been lower, thanks to America’s conventional military superiority. Today, only nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to the United States.
The political stars may also be well aligned for a new look at abolition. Significant discontinuities in foreign and national security policy from one administration to the next are rare in post-nuclear American history. One such discontinuity occurred more than 25 years ago, when Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House, and another occurred when George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton. Yet another shift of similar magnitude is possible in January 2009, when George W. Bush leaves office. Whoever replaces him will have both sufficient motive and leeway to alter the status quo in significant ways. An opportunity beckons.
The Abolitionist Legacy
The first abolitionist wave in 1946–47 was the strongest of all because it was generated by the biggest tremor: the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that time, the A-bomb constituted the most powerful threat known to humankind. An attack could come suddenly, and there was no defense against it. Military historian Bernard Brodie labeled the A-bomb “the absolute weapon”, but in less than five years, far more powerful nuclear weapons, hydrogen bombs, appeared. By then, abolition seemed to be an impossible dream, given the intractability of the U.S.-Soviet divide.
In contrast, the A-bomb appeared at an optimistic time. The Cold War had not fully emerged; Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were defeated; and great hopes were placed in the United Nations. No less a luminary than Albert Einstein warned that unless humanity found a way to put an end to war, war would put an end to humanity. The Acheson-Lilienthal plan, which called for international control of the means of producing bomb-making material, arose during this brief springtime, but an early winter, in the forms of Josef Stalin and the Iron Curtain, put an end to those hopes. The Acheson-Lilienthal plan wasn’t shy about describing the risks involved in its implementation, one of which was “the probable acceleration of the rate at which our present monopoly will disappear.” For those who assumed that the United States could compete effectively against the Soviet Union and that Stalin couldn’t be trusted, this risk seemed unacceptable.
The second wave of nuclear abolition crested on the Reagan Administration, whose plans for a nuclear arms build-up, tough talk about prevailing in a nuclear war and early disinterest in negotiations stoked public anxieties. Scientific studies about nuclear winter underpinned the second abolitionist movement. Its most influential wave-runner and voice was Jonathan Schell, who wrote two powerful and widely read books, The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition, during this period.
The abolitionist wave of the 1980s was less powerful than the first for several reasons. Superpower nuclear arsenals had grown so large and animosities so great that abolition seemed a bridge much too far. Besides, the Kremlin walked out of nuclear talks in 1983 to protest NATO missile deployments in Europe, so there was no negotiating vehicle for deep cuts, let alone abolition. Organized public opposition to the Reagan Administration’s initiatives in the United States and Western Europe focused instead on freezing new nuclear force deployments in general and blocking new NATO missile deployments in particular.
The Reagan Administration trumped the nuclear freeze movement, first, by championing deep cuts in nuclear forces and, then, by actually achieving them. Reagan’s play of trump, however, was no game: No one believed more fervently in abolition than Reagan himself. He consistently disparaged the logic and morality of mutual assured destruction, and he believed sincerely in missile defenses to diminish the relevance of nuclear weapons and eventually make the Bomb “impotent and obsolete.”
Reagan was a shock not only to the Kremlin, but also to the U.S. nuclear establishment. Before Reagan, it was exceedingly hard to find anyone who was both staunchly anti-Communist and anti-nuclear. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were a mesmerizing odd couple: two supremely confident risk-takers with little use for convention. At the unscripted Reykjavik summit in October 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev engaged in what then-Secretary of State Shultz called “the highest-stakes poker game ever played”, entertaining deep cuts before embracing the bare outlines of a plan for nuclear abolition. At the 11th hour, Gorbachev demanded the sacrifice of Reagan’s heartfelt Strategic Defense Initiative, abruptly ending the most astonishing negotiations of the nuclear age.
These talks nonetheless laid the groundwork for path-breaking nuclear arms reduction treaties and the abolition of several categories of ballistic missiles. Reagan and Gorbachev broke the back of the nuclear arms race. The second abolitionist wave, which had begun with deep public anxieties over renewed superpower rivalry, ended with treaties that shifted the competition into reverse gear.
The third and weakest wave of interest in abolition occurred after the Soviet Union dissolved. In the early 1990s, as in 1945, the world seemed reborn, and radical possibilities arose in sober and sensible minds. The paramount nuclear security threats to American primacy now related to Russian weakness, not Soviet strength. All the more reason to reconsider abolition, said supporters. So in January 1994, the Henry L. Stimson Center enlisted General Andrew Goodpaster and a distinguished panel of national security experts including Paul Nitze to take a fresh look at the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War world. General Goodpaster had worked as a key staff aide to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe and later in the White House. He also served as NATO commander and deputy commander of American forces in Vietnam. Nitze was present at all key junctures of the nuclear competition. He was the principal author of NSC-68, the seminal policy blueprint of Cold War deterrence and containment, the most powerful voice of the Committee on the Present Danger, which opposed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks during the Carter Administration, and the key arms control adviser to Secretary of State Shultz during the Reagan Administration. No one could gainsay Goodpaster’s and Nitze’s credentials as defense-minded patriots.
What emerged from the Goodpaster-Nitze reports was an argument for a phased approach to abolition on national security grounds, identifying the security conditions required to move from one stage to the next. The study concluded: “Without a more radical approach to non-proliferation, the challenges posed to the non-proliferation regime can only mount over time, and the United States, eventually, is sure to face new nuclear threats.” Other panels of experts convened by the Australian and Japanese governments around this time also made the case for abolition. The Canberra Commission and the Tokyo Forum reports stressed global security and moral considerations.
These reports had little public effect. The best way to explain their lack of impact is the abolition paradox. The abolition paradox holds that when abolition is most needed, it is also most difficult to achieve, and that when opportunities to champion abolition are most evident, its pursuit appears to be least needed. The most dangerous stages of any arms competition are accompanied by intense political fears and dysfunctions that make abolition appear impractical. Conversely, when political conditions appear favorable, hugely ambitious undertakings seem less warranted, and near-term concerns crowd out visionary pursuits.
The Goodpaster-Nitze, Canberra Commission and Tokyo Forum initiatives occurred after the Soviet Union dissolved and free nations raised their own flags around Russia’s periphery. Deep cuts in nuclear forces were being implemented, the security environment appeared to be much improved, and the Clinton Administration had more pressing matters to attend to. The pursuit of abolition wasn’t a priority.
The New Wave
The fourth abolitionist wave is building at a time when nuclear concerns are rising but opportunities for breakthroughs appear limited. In this sense, the current state of play has most in common with the second abolitionist wave. U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated markedly and await top-down impulses to change course. Missile defenses have again become a source of contention—not because the Bush Administration aspires to an astrodome defense, but because it seeks to deploy modest defenses in Russia’s backyard to defend against future Middle Eastern threats. The Kremlin’s paranoia, which ran so deep during the worst phases of the Cold War nuclear competition, has readily revived during the current period of U.S. military dominance.
The fourth abolitionist wave also comes at a time when the global structures built over many decades to prevent proliferation are deteriorating. The Nonproliferation Treaty, the foundation upon which subsequent construction has been built, was not designed to deal with nuclear terrorism or underground proliferation networks like that of A.Q. Khan. These structures were, in effect, period pieces reflecting the architectural collaboration of Washington and Moscow. Despite all of their competitive pursuits, the United States and the Soviet Union could and did work well together to prevent proliferation.
Constructing a global nonproliferation system atop the divides created by nuclear weapons and the Cold War could only have occurred if states possessing the Bomb pledged abolition and states without pledged continued abstinence. Norms of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation needed to apply to everyone; otherwise construction could never have begun. A selective approach of helping friends and penalizing bad actors was impossible because the two master builders—the United States and the Soviet Union—could never have agreed about who the good guys were. The load-bearing walls of these structures were treaties ending atmospheric nuclear testing and reducing superpower arsenals. These structures became stronger over time, with tougher export controls and intrusive verification procedures.
The “unipolar moment” tilted this construction site, as the world’s sole superpower embraced military dominance as a means of preventing and combating proliferation threats. The Bush Administration’s preventive war against Saddam Hussein, based on false assumptions and faulty intelligence, tilted the playing field further. North Korea and Iran accelerated their nuclear programs, and other countries began to hedge their nuclear bets, especially in the Middle East. Moreover, the Bush Administration held in low regard what previous administrations considered to be the most important parts of the edifice: treaties banning nuclear testing and downsizing nuclear forces. Constraints on U.S. freedom of action were systematically denigrated or thrown overboard, especially protections for monitoring satellites and provisions mandating intrusive monitoring.
The Bush Administration also adopted a “good guy/bad guy” approach to proliferation. Nuclear programs in friendly states, like India, weren’t the problem: The character of the government, not the essence of the Bomb, mattered most. Inspections and treaties have been deemed essential for bad guys, not good guys. The goal of abolition has been treated dismissively as have multilateral treaty negotiations. For two years, as Pakistan edged closer to a meltdown, the Bush Administration made its highest regional priority a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India, in which lax rules would be allowed for a friend, while seeking to tighten rules on Iran, a foe. In effect, the Bush Administration attempted to construct a second story atop the Nonproliferation Treaty using a very different building code. What previous contractors considered to be load-bearing walls, the Bush Administration considered to be a nuisance, or worse.
With global nonproliferation norms becoming shaky, and with the promise of a new administration on the horizon, the timing of Shultz, Nunn, Kissinger, Perry and Kampelman couldn’t have been better. But the first part of the abolition paradox still applies: The need for abolition is great precisely because dangers and obstacles appear to be growing.
Getting to zero will not be easy. It requires, first of all, reaffirming the end state of abolition as desirable, and even that has proved difficult in recent decades. It also means the absence of nuclear nightmares, including: any use of a nuclear weapon in warfare between states; the destabilization of Pakistan; failure to stop and reverse the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapon programs; failure to stop the spread of enrichment and reprocessing plants to new nations that can be a “screwdriver’s turn” away from producing the Bomb; failure to lock down and properly safeguard existing weapons and nuclear materials; acts of nuclear terrorism directed against states; the demise of the international inspections regime and other nuclear monitoring arrangements; a resumption and cascade of nuclear-weapons testing; and continued production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons. Getting to zero requires not just the absence of negatives, however. Many key positives are also required, beginning with significant cooperation among the major powers.
The absence of damaging negatives and the profusion of positives needed to reach zero seems fanciful. And yet a succession of very hard-headed thinkers about the nuclear dilemma have concluded, at the end of many years of public service and reflection, that zero is exactly the right destination. Henry L. Stimson arrived at this conclusion before leaving the War Department in 1945—not out of remorse about authorizing the use of the atomic bomb, but from a hard-headed sense of realism. Stimson’s analysis still holds:
The riven atom, uncontrolled, can be only a growing menace to us all, and there can be no final safety short of full control throughout the world. Nor can we hope to realize the vast potential wealth of atomic energy until it is disarmed and rendered harmless. Upon us, as the people who first harnessed and made use of this force, there rests a grave and continuing responsibility for leadership in turning it toward life, not death.
Paul Nitze ultimately came to the same conclusion. Like Stimson, Nitze held no romantic notions about abolition. Instead, the starting point for his recommendation was the revolutionary advance of U.S. conventional warfare:
The technology of our conventional weapons is such that we can achieve accuracies of less than three feet from the expected point of impact. The modern equivalent of a stick of dynamite exploded within three feet of an object on or near the earth’s surface is more than enough to destroy the target. In view of the fact that we can achieve our objectives with conventional weapons, there is no purpose to be gained through the use of our nuclear arsenal. To use it would merely guarantee the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of people, none of whom would have been responsible for the decision invoked in bringing about the weapons’ use, not to mention incalculable damage to our natural environment.2
In addition to pragmatic reasons for setting the goal of zero nuclear weapons, the fourth abolitionist wave is values-based. Many serious thinkers, religious leaders and former practitioners of the art of the possible have reached a similar conclusion. The Reverend Billy Graham came to this same conviction as a “teaching of the Bible.” Nunn, Shultz, Kissinger and Perry wrote, “Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.” These authors can by no means be considered naive waifs.
The leaders of the fourth abolitionist wave are not arguing for the elimination of U.S. nuclear weapons without reciprocal, verifiable and permanent elimination by all other states. No one is arguing that the rogue state Bomb-in-the-basement problem isn’t real. It clearly must be solved before reaching this end state. No one denies the dilemma posed by the fact that U.S. conventional military superiority, which we rightly wish to preserve, can be a goad to proliferation. Nor can the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States to friends and allies in troubled regions be withdrawn without substituting suitable assurances by non-nuclear means.
Even with these obstacles acknowledged, the goal of nuclear disarmament tends to invite reactions of depression or derision. This end-state seems as implausible as, say, hoping in 1948–49 that the United States and the Soviet Union could somehow manage to avoid incinerating each other for the duration of the Cold War. This implausible goal was achieved; others can be, as well. Paul Nitze’s advice in this regard, given during a particularly virulent period of U.S.-Soviet competition, is worth recalling: “Try to reduce the dangers of nuclear war within the relevant future time period as best you can; you just get depressed if you worry about the long-term future.”3 Working the problem of nuclear disarmament requires the same focus: day by day, month by month, and year by year.
What other end state makes more sense than abolition? “Managed” proliferation and arms control do not provide compelling answers; nuclear anarchy is the worst of all possible outcomes; and attempts to assert U.S. nuclear dominance would accelerate the demise of global nonproliferation and disarmament norms. Abolition as an agreed aim provides the best framework for national leaders to progressively reduce new nuclear dangers. Nuclear disarmament is a process, not an on/off switch—a journey as well as a destination. The destination will not be reached unless public safety and national security are enhanced every step along the way. If security and political conditions cannot support this journey, it will grind to a halt.
How, then, shall we proceed? Pragmatic steps can lead to ideal objectives, and ideal objectives can open the aperture for pragmatic steps. Washington may not be able to reach the safe harbor of nuclear abolition, but it has more steering capacity than any other capital. As the panel led by General Goodpaster wisely noted, “By contemplating the unthinkable, the boundaries of the feasible might well be stretched.”4 That was right a dozen years ago, and it is still right today. Our safe harbor remains a long way off, but an impressive list of people is determined to undertake the journey.
Stimson, “The Challenge to Americans”, Foreign Affairs (October 1947).
Nitze, “A Threat Mostly to Ourselves”, New York Times, October 28, 1999; and Nitze, “Is It Time To Junk Our Nukes? The New World Disorder Makes Them Obsolete”, Washington Post, January 16, 1994.
Quoted in Strobe Talbott, The Master of the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988).
“An Evolving U.S. Nuclear Posture”, The Henry L. Stimson Center, Second Report of the Steering Committee, Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report no. 19 (December 1995).