The spring of 2010 will long be remembered as one of the most productive periods in American arms control history. On April 6, the Obama Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, a plan to revamp the American nuclear strategy, providing more stringent restrictions about how the U.S. will arm and conduct itself with nuclear weapons. Two days later, Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the Prague Treaty, to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expired last December. The following Monday, the President hosted 47 world leaders at a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. And in just over a week, the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference will begin at the United Nations.
What exactly does this flurry of activity add up to? In short, this spring is a down payment on President Obama’s goal of a world free from nuclear weapons.
Many wonder, quite reasonably, if nuclear disarmament is desirable. After all, traditional thinking on international security argues that the nuclear deterrent kept America and the Soviet Union from actual war. But the Cold War paradigm has shifted. As those who have taken Professor Schell’s “Dilemmas of the Nuclear Age” know, the universality of physics implies that with enough time and enough effort, any nation can become a nuclear weapons state. Furthermore, with each nation that develops an illegal nuclear weapons capability, confidence in the global nonproliferation regime is undermined, potentially leading to what some have termed a “cascade of proliferation.”
While American and Soviet leaders managed to effectively navigate the “balance of terror” for 40 years (albeit not without terrifyingly close calls), how confident can we be in the peace-making powers of mutually assured destruction when we are not dealing with a handful of nuclear powers, but rather with 20 or 30? A nuclear arms race in the Middle East would likely complicate disarmament beyond the point of feasibility. The Sword of Damocles would be here to stay.
Moreover, as President Obama remarked in Prague last year, “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” Terrorist organizations such as al Qaida are actively seeking material for a nuclear bomb. Terrorists need only to acquire a lump of enriched uranium the size of a grapefruit, and much of the world’s fissile material is poorly secured. A single nuclear explosion in a U.S. city would not only result in a devastating loss of life, but would also fundamentally change the character of American democracy. Can you imagine what would happen to our civil liberties in the wake of a nuclear terrorist attack?
Which brings us back to spring 2010. The only long-term solution to the fatal problem of nuclear weapons is verifiable disarmament for all. Groups including Global Zero, which is chaired by the chief negotiator of President Bush’s 1991 START treaty, have put together timelines sketching out the political steps necessary to abolish nuclear weapons. The Prague Treaty represents step one: a reduction in the strategic arsenals of the United States and Russia. Our two countries possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and are legally bound by the NPT to work towards disarmament, so it makes sense that the first cuts to stockpiles should be ours.
And over time, they will not be ours alone. Perhaps the greatest myth surrounding nuclear abolition is that it involves the unilateral disarmament of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex with the hope that others will follow our example. At every step along the way, from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle, it is in each nation’s interest to verify the compliance of every other nation. Today, countries like Russia and China avoid sanctions on Iran because of economic interests. In a world in which these two countries agree to forego their own nuclear testing and to stop mining uranium, it is difficult to imagine that they would accept Iran’s intransigence. A global community that has taken concrete steps towards nuclear abolition would not allow Iran to threaten these gains in international peace and security.
The Obama Administration’s recent activity represents the first step on the path to global zero, a path that is politically difficult but strategically and morally imperative. As the Prague Treaty comes before the Senate this summer, we hope you will join us in calling for swift ratification.
Andrew Kurzrok is a junior in Trumbull College and David Manners-Weber is a senior in Calhoun College. They are both members of the Yale chapter of Global Zero.