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A nuclear-weapons-free world

Champions, detractors, and the urgency of getting to zero

02/06/2009 Most of the world is already finished with the idea of nuclear weapons. Public opinion polls in country after country—even in the nuclear-weapon states—reflect broad and growing support for a nuclear-weapons-free world. Serious mainstream politicians and diplomats, including US President Barack Obama, have embraced the goal of zero nuclear weapons, though they mostly advocate near-term— though important — incremental steps such as dealerting and making deeper cuts in the US and Russian arsenals, and stop short of calling for negotiations on a comprehensive, universal agreement—a nuclear weapons convention similar to the treaties that already ban chemical and biological weapons.

Rightly or wrongly (and good arguments can be made either way), the international community—by which I primarily mean the diplomats who participate in the Conference on Disarmament, the UN First Committee, and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Reviews—expects leadership on disarmament to come from the US and Russia, which possess 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons between them. Without such leadership, arguably, not much will happen. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example, has told IPPNW leaders and other NGOs that India will fully participate in a global nuclear disarmament agreement, but that negotiations will have to be initiated by the US and Russia. Many make the further argument that the primary moral responsibility for leadership on disarmament lies with the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons against defenseless populations. Again, rightly or wrongly, all eyes are on the US.

For those who have been championing nuclear abolition for decades, the inauguration of President Obama at a time when the international community is expressing a strong desire to eliminate nuclear weapons represents the best—and perhaps the last—chance the world has to rid itself once and for all the only instruments of mass destruction capable of taking the future away from all humanity. What stands in the way of decisive US action is a lingering, false, but seemingly intractable belief that nuclear weapons, in some hands, provide an irreplaceable safety net in a dangerous world. The convoluted argument based on this faulty premise is that the world must be made safe for zero nuclear weapons before we can actually achieve a world without nuclear weapons; that such a precondition is unlikely if not impossible; and that, therefore, some number of nuclear weapons in some places will always be necessary.

Who’s making that argument? Chris Ford, for one. Christopher Ford was the US Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation in the Bush administration, and complained repeatedly at the 2007 and 2008 NPT PrepComs that the US wasn’t being given enough credit for its nuclear weapons reductions. He simultaneously—and with a straight face—suggested that modernization of the US nuclear arsenal was actually a disarmament initiative.

Ford is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a right-wing Washington think tank, where he has spun out the notion that disarmament proponents should abandon “unrealistic” proposals and embrace “unconventional thinking.”

Here’s an example of Ford’s “unconventional thinking,” from a speech he gave to the Nonproliferation Forum in November 2008 [1]:

In my view, disarmament’s advocates still need to show that no world with nuclear weapons would be preferable – in terms of global stability and international peace and security – to any world without them. My own suspicion is that this cannot be demonstrated, and therefore that while some hypothetical future worlds without nuclear weapons would be greatly preferable to our own, some would not be (italics in the original).”

Ford did not describe any particular world with the capacity to exterminate all of humanity that he would prefer to a world that had renounced omnicide and had done everything possible to remove that capacity, but that’s not his real purpose. He concedes that “a world free of nuclear weapons would indeed be in the United States’ interest” and declares that nuclear disarmament is “a genuine US policy goal.” What he doesn’t support are any of the actual steps toward a nuclear-weapons-free world that were endorsed by the NPT member states in 2000 in the form of a practical action plan to fulfill the treaty’s Article VI disarmament obligations.

If all of this hadn’t been settled in 2000, only to be repudiated by Ford’s employers in the Bush administration for the next eight years, one could almost see the point of arguing the whole thing out again. But it was settled (italics mine), and it’s time to move on.

Ford sniped that he had “recently scolded the disarmament community for not caring enough about such practical details,” in particular the difficulties that will be encountered along the path to zero nuclear weapons—difficulties that, to be fair, are real enough. Nonetheless, some truly unconventional thinking about paths to the elimination of nuclear weapons, along with careful consideration of the obstacles, is on offer from disarmament NGOs to anyone with a serious interest in getting there.  (They can be found in the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, the text of which is part of Securing Our Survival, downloadable from the ICAN website.)

That makes Ford’s adulatory quote of Hudson Institute founder Herman Kahn all the harder to take. Kahn, Ford reminds us, wrote nearly 50 years ago that it was “the hallmark of the amateur and the dilettante that he has almost no interest in how to get to his particular utopia.” (Kahn, for those unfamiliar with the author of the 1962 classic, On Thermonuclear War, tops most lists of certifiably insane nuclear strategists. His book, which was required reading for my high school debate team, gave me nightmares for an entire school year.) One might counter that it’s the hallmark of the obstructionist and the troublemaker that he characterizes as a “utopia” any goal that he doesn’t really want to reach in the first place.

Because he starts with the false premise that nuclear weapons are necessary and, in some worlds (i.e., the one in which we live) worth keeping (at least in small numbers, in some hands), Ford comes down on the side of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, missile defenses, and something he calls “countervailing reconstitution.” The latter is a proposal that the US, in particular, should retain a capacity to quickly rebuild a nuclear force in the face of an emerging threat, regardless of how far it goes with the “disarmament project.” Perhaps that’s a confidence-building measure.

Heritage Foundation fellow Baker Spring has made a career out of trashing arms control treaties both as a congressional staffer and as a freelancer. He recently posted a web article called  “Toward an Alternative Strategic Security Posture” on the Heritage website.

Under the guise of commenting on an interim report from the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, Spring produces what could be a two-page primer on logical fallacies. He starts with the obvious, that “there is no consensus in Congress on an appropriate strategic posture”; acknowledges that “individuals both within the commission and outside it fervently desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons”; and accurately quotes from the interim report that the goal is “extremely difficult to attain and would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order.”

Those are the last things he says that aren’t completely made up. From a predictable lack of consensus on nuclear policy among the members of a bipartisan commission comprising both nuclear weapons advocates and skeptics, Spring crafts a brazen non-sequitur. “This means,” he says, “those favoring nuclear disarmament have recognized that their preferred outcome is not appropriate under present circumstances and that there is no direct path to nuclear disarmament.” Nothing could be more absurd.

Well, except the things he writes next. Since abolitionists have now been forced to concede the error of their ways, he continues, they [we] will now “abandon unilateral steps aimed at atrophying the US nuclear weapons infrastructure. They [we] will, for example, have to abandon immediate steps to de-alert US nuclear forces, cease efforts to curtail all programs for modernizing the nuclear force, put off ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and cease efforts to impose changes on the declared policy governing the use of US nuclear weapons.” What a relief! I’d been hoping for some extra time to go skiing this winter.

Spring has more recommendations for an intellectually defeated movement (isn’t sarcasm wonderful?): “…those who strongly favor nuclear disarmament should recognize that robust strategic defensive measures—including ballistic missile defenses— and conventional superiority can create a circumstance where nuclear disarmament is appropriate.” Like Ford, Spring does not seem to find an “appropriate” reason for the global elimination of nuclear weapons in the undisputed fact that they stand ready to exterminate everyone on Earth (see Part 3, coming soon).

The views of a couple of Reagan and Bush-era policy wonks in exile would matter less if they were not the basis of the case being made by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for rebuilding the US nuclear weapons infrastructure and cranking out thousands of “reliable replacement warheads” for the rest of this century. Gates may well be out of synch on this issue with President Obama, who has said he opposes production of new nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Obama’s decision to keep Gates on for other reasons can only complicate what was already going to be a struggle to reverse 60 years of entrenched nuclear madness in Congress, the Pentagon, and the weapons labs.

When it comes to deterrence, Gates is a true believer. (Deterrence of what is a little harder to say, but that’s been a problem ever since the end of the Cold War.) Last October, in what appeared to some of us to be a shot across Obama’s bow (by then the signals had been sent that the new president would ask Gates to stay on, at least temporarily), the former CIA director told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment that “our [nuclear] arsenal plays an irreplaceable role in reducing proliferation….While we have a long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all, given the world in which we live, we have to be realistic about that proposition.” [2] (There’s that “real world” again, the one in which the ability to blow the whole place up ensures one’s security — or was that supremacy?)

Unfortunately—and not surprisingly, since they share some core assumptions—being “realistic” about nuclear policy means the same thing to Gates that it means to Ford and Spring. “To be blunt,” he said during his Carnegie speech, “there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program….We must take steps to transform from an aging Cold War nuclear weapons complex that is too large and too expensive to a smaller, less costly, but modern enterprise that can meet our nation’s nuclear security needs for the future.”

Last year, Gates and former Energy Secretary Samuel Bodmann  laid out a detailed plan for how to revitalize the US nuclear infrastructure and ensure a steady flow of new nuclear warheads between now and 2114. Chris Ford’s proposal for “countervailing reconstitution” is a comfortable fit with Gates’s “realistic” approach to nuclear policy. How President Obama frames his quest for a nuclear-weapons-free world in relation to this contrary set of recommendations from his own Defense Secretary will speak volumes about how much progress we can expect during the next four-to-eight years.

John Loretz

Next: How and why the medical message still decides the issue

1) Christopher A. Ford. Deterrence to – and through – “zero”:  challenges of disarmament and proliferation. Nonproliferation Forum, Woodrow Wilson Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Washington, DC, November 14, 2008.

2) Robert Gates. Nuclear weapons and deterrence in the 21st century. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Washington, DC. October 28, 2008.


Learn about Nuclear Weapons

Learn About Nuclear Weapons is a web-based educational material from the Swedish Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons for those who want to learn more about nuclear weapons: