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Nuclear Infinity. Really?

Despite what critics say, the goal of a nuclear-free world is still worth striving for. But it must be done smartly.

By David Santoro for

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Georgetown University Assistant Prof. Matthew Kroenig, until last month a special advisor at the US Defence Department, dismissed the argument that ‘nuclear zero’ will make the world a safer place. Instead, he argues that the United States would be better off having ‘infinite’ nuclear weapons.

This perspective is problematic. Today more than ever, the United States and other nuclear-armed states need to endorse the goal of ‘nuclear zero,’ but they need to do so smartly. A middle ground needs to be found between what the late Sir Michael Quinlan called the ‘righteous abolitionists’ (or the idealists) and the ‘dismissive realists.’

The righteous abolitionists need to become more familiar with the political and technical complexity of nuclear disarmament. A world free of nuclear weapons simply can’t – and should not – happen overnight. The presence of nuclear weapons is evidence of deep, entrenched conflicts that need to be solved before arsenals can be reduced deeply and then eventually eliminated. Moreover, the process of nuclear disarmament is an intricate technical process that requires much time and extremely intrusive verification tools.

Similarly, the dismissive realists would do well to acknowledge that it isn’t tenable, at least in the long term, for the United States and a few others to have the right to possess nuclear weapons while others are simply denied this right. A careful analysis of the review process of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty shows that nuclear disarmament is – and always has been – strongly called for by most nations of the world, even by US allies.

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Most importantly, the reality is that nuclear weapons do remain relevant in the post-Cold War world, although their usefulness has decreased considerably. And although the proposition has yet to be proved correct, making more progress toward nuclear disarmament could well make it easier to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, which is an utmost priority in an age of nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The question, therefore, isn’t whether or not we should move toward nuclear disarmament, but how to go about it in a realistic manner.

The Barack Obama administration has tried to do just that. Obama has insisted on the need to move not toward a world free of nuclear weapons, but toward the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons. These words are too often omitted. Indeed, despite what many critics have argued, the current administration has not opted blindly for the goal of nuclear zero. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report makes it a goal, but it’s a goal far on the horizon: the document points out very clearly that the conditions for its achievement aren’t currently in place and, in fact, that we don’t even know what they are.

It’s in this context that the United States needs to think about the roles and missions of its nuclear arsenal, as well as about the structure that its forces should have to achieve them. To be sure, Kroenig mentions that it’s time to have a serious, dispassionate assessment of the roles, missions, and force structure of the US arsenal. But his assumption seems to be that nuclear weapons could – and perhaps even should – be with us for an indefinite future. Although he claims that he’s neither recommending ‘nuclear infinity’ nor ‘nuclear zero,’ he explains that ‘if forced to choose,’ the United States should opt to have an infinite number of nuclear weapons.

But the way forward is to recognize that the future of the world should be nuclear weapon free, however distant that future may be. In addition to encouraging other nuclear-armed states to endorse this goal, US officials should concentrate on redefining the roles, missions, and force structure of their arsenal with this in mind. They also need to reflect on how the United States can reassure its allies and deter its enemies with nuclear weapons when it must, and without them when it can.

Thankfully, this reflection has already begun (and, despite popular belief, it predates the Obama administration).

David Santoro is a Research Associate at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, under the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow Programme. He is the co-editor, with Tanya Ogilvie-White, of ‘Slaying the Nuclear Dragon’ (University of Georgia Press, forthcoming).