Matthew Kroenig’s recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal made the argument that a world free of nuclear weapons would be less safe than a world brimming with an infinite number of nuclear arms. For the sake of argument, I too could propose an alternative number as a possible size for the global nuclear arsenal.
However, rather than focusing on how many nuclear weapons we need, let’s focus on how many we don’t need. Or as the Brookings Institution’s P.W. Singer recently wrote, “Policymakers have to be willing to ask what additional security does the 5,226th nuclear warhead buy us that couldn’t be better spent on actual, usable military capabilities elsewhere?”
Zero, one hundred: the number doesn’t really matter. What really matters is the goal. Though goals like these are admittedly difficult, they are valuable both as a means and as an ends. Former Senator Sam Nunn has compared the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons to climbing a tall mountain the summit of which we cannot see. We will never know if we can reach the top until we reach a higher “base camp”. In other words, we will not know if abolition is possible unless we pursue more far-reaching measures to reduce nuclear arsenals, abolish nuclear testing, and other related steps.
Even though the goal may never be reached, the idea of global zero places us on an alternative trajectory, away from the tacit acceptance of nuclear proliferation and towards the achievement of a more secure world.
The unquestioned reliance on deterrence promotes an unstable and dangerous nuclear status-quo, maintained in the name of an antiquated idea of national self-defense.
Disarmament is part of the essential bargain made between nuclear haves and have-nots in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The attempt to achieve global zero is not just an ideal- it is also an obligation.
Nuclear powers promise to pursue general and complete disarmament in exchange for assurances from non-nuclear parties that they will not develop nuclear weapons technologies. Whether or not you believe in the importance of this regime, it is hard not to conclude that the Treaty’s continued existence is more valuable than its demise.
The abandonment of the goal of abolition could cause non-nuclear states to reevaluate their commitment to the Nonproliferation Treaty. International and multilateral arms control efforts rely on the genuine pursuit of this vision of a nuclear free world.
Nuclear weapons may have protected us during the Cold War, but today we live in a different time and face new dangers. Massive nuclear arsenals are useless against contemporary threats such as terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.
Kroenig is right that strategists and policymakers need “to get back to the hard work of deciding what roles and missions nuclear weapons ought to have in U.S. defense policy, and what nuclear force structure is appropriate for achieving them.” But he’s wrong to suggest that the goal of abolition is an obstacle to this exercise.
The language of megatons, kill probability ratios and nuclear force structures desensitize us to the true nature of nuclear war. But make no mistake: while zero nuclear weapons may be too few for Kroenig, one will most certainly be enough in the event of an accident or an attack. Giving up on global zero as a destination ultimately destroys the road towards it.
Emma Lecavalier is a Summer 2011 intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.