Less Than Zero: Bursting the New Disarmament Bubble

Josef Joffe & James Davis. Foreign Affairs. Volume 90, Issue 1. January/February 2011.

Once again, a global movement is afoot to free the world of nuclear weapons. Unlike the Easter marches of the 1950s and 1960s or the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, however, this time around, the policy elites themselves are leading the charge. The list of supporters of Global Zero, the new campaign’s flagship organization, reads like a Who’s Who of international strategy: from Zbigniew Brzezinski and Lawrence Eagleburger to Strobe Talbott and Philip Zelikow, from Carl Bildt and Hans-Dietrich Genscher to Igor Ivanov and David Owen.

In April 2009, moreover, U.S. President Barack Obama aligned himself with the cause, declaring global disarmament a top priority. Two months later, Vice President Joe Biden stymied a Pentagon plan for a new generation of warheads as a threat to the administration’s credibility. And the consensus runs from the White House to City Hall: last June, cheering “U.S. participation in [the] global elimination of nuclear weapons,” the U.S. Conference of Mayors called on Congress to “terminate funding for modernization of the nuclear weapons complex.”

Global Zero calls for “the phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide” on the grounds that this is “the only way to eliminate the nuclear threat- including proliferation and nuclear terrorism.” All previous such attempts at nuclear disarmament have failed, grabbing headlines for a while but then waning as strategic logic and state interest prevail. And a similar fate is almost certain for Global Zero, for similar reasons. So why not just sit back and let the pantomime play out once more, as the nobly expressed intentions of the good and the great founder on the hard realities of world politics? Because words have consequences. The calls for disarmament have started to spread from op-ed pages to cabinet rooms and are being invoked to legitimate shortsighted and ultimately dangerous positions on nuclear policy and strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. The intellectual coalition behind Global Zero is unprecedented and needs to be engaged head-on, even if the movement’s practical prospects are dim.

The proponents of Global Zero are rightly worried by the renewed spread of nuclear weapons, which had appeared to be halted for a quarter century after India’s nuclear test in 1974. Proliferation was even reversed during these years, as Sweden, Brazil, and Argentina shelved their ambitions and South Africa gave up its small cache of primitive bombs. But just because Global Zero emerged as a response to a real problem does not mean its own program is unproblematic. The world has changed radically since the Cold War, when the combined arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union peaked at an estimated 75,000 warheads, but strategic logic has not. This means that the Global Zero program rests on three fallacies-those of premise, process, and purpose.

It’s Not Us, It’s Them

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 enshrined a deal in which the five original nuclear powers promised to reduce their nuclear arsenals in exchange for a pledge by the nonnuclear states to refrain from acquiring them. But the premise that the have-nots will arm because the haves have not disarmed does not hold. It reflects neither history nor present-day realities. The truth is that the decision-making of aspiring nuclear powers is only remotely related, if it is related at all, to the strategic choices of the existing nuclear powers and that the two top nuclear powers have indeed cut back, with little effect on proliferation.

Competitive proliferation does explain the choices of the original five proliferators. The United States went nuclear because it thought Nazi Germany was working on the bomb, and the Soviet Union went nuclear because the United States had done so. France and the United Kingdom wanted their own deterrents against the Soviet Union, as well as the shiny badge of great-power status that nuclear weapons were thought to confer. China then explicitly invoked the superpowers’ monopoly on nuclear weapons to justify its own decision to go nuclear.

After China’s decision, however, the “bad example” theory of proliferation explains only part of the story at best. India, the next official nuclear power, was surely eyeing Beijing. But the Indian nuclear effort was not mere competitive emulation of China’s nuclear status; it was also designed to offset China’s conventional military superiority. Second, it was driven by concerns over India’s rivalry with Pakistan, with which India had fought three wars since 1947. A similar regional military calculus lay behind Pakistan’s decision to go nuclear in 1998. Israel may have been practicing “proportional deterrence” against the Soviet Union during the Yom Kippur War-hence then Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s purported quip that “it is just as far from Tel Aviv to Moscow as from Moscow to Tel Aviv”-but the principal purpose of Israel’s bomb was to neutralize the Arabs’ superior strength on the conventional battlefield.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was staring firmly at Iran when it embarked on its nuclear weapons program. The shah laid the groundwork for an Iranian program by ordering four German nuclear power reactors in 1975-with an eye on his neighbors, especially Iraq. Nuclear weapons offered Iran a nice shortcut to regional primacy, which is the most important reason the shah’s successors in the Islamic Republic have continued his efforts-to dominate the Arab states, deter (or destroy) Israel, and devalue the conventional superiority of the United States.

Did Pyongyang reach for the bomb because Moscow and Washington had thousands of them? More likely, dreams of intimidating local rivals such as South Korea and Japan came first and foremost. Then, North Korea learned an interesting lesson: the mere process of proliferation was laden with wondrous profits. A reactor here and a fizzled nuclear explosion there paid huge dividends, and North Korea, as a nuclear “rogue state,” garnered the solicitous attention of many other powers. Washington’s bribes of oil and food deliveries were flanked by its offers of civilian nuclear assistance; never has nuisance value been parlayed so profitably into political and economic gain.

The main focus of all proliferators since China, in short, has been regional. As the Duelfer report, based on the debriefing of captured Iraqi officials following the Iraq war by the Iraq Survey Group, revealed, Saddam had not armed against Israel, let alone against any of the official nuclear powers: “Saddam’s rationale for the possession of [weapons of mass destruction] derived from a need for survival and domination … particularly regarding Iran.”

The idea that nonnuclear powers arm because the existing nuclear powers do not disarm is contradicted by the actual history of the superpower arms competition. If there is any correlation between the behavior of the haves and that of the have-nots, it is in the reverse direction. By a rough count, including both deployed and undeployed warheads, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has dropped from a peak of well over 30,000 warheads in the mid-1960s to about 10,000 today. Russia’s arsenal has climbed down even faster, from about 45,000 in 1990 to about 14,000 today.

If the “good example” theory were correct, such massive cuts-about 70 percent of the total number of warheads- should have started turning Iran and North Korea into nuclear pacifists, which they have not. Libya did have a change of heart at the end of 2003. It was not because of great-power disarmament but rather the reverse: fear of a United States emboldened by easy victory against Saddam. The same apprehension led Iran to suspend weaponization in 2003, according to the United States’ fabled 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. Iran’s nuclear weapons program then appears to have resumed as the Bush administration began to slide the military option off the table, while also constraining Israel’s options by denying it the United States’ biggest bunker busters, and then accelerated as the Obama administration practically cleared the table while failing to corral Russia and China into serious sanctions.

The lesson is a familiar one: hard power-or, more accurately, hard power combined with a reputation for the will to use it-is a more efficient deproliferator than disarmament. Great-power virtue makes for good words, but truly effective proselytizing, as missionaries know, requires the fear of God.

Because nuclear weapons serve many purposes, they are often simply too useful to forego. They are good for blackmail (North Korea), they intimidate the enemy next door (India and Pakistan), they deliver the ultimate life insurance (Israel), they devalue conventional superiority (every case), and they support hegemonic ambitions, whether regional or global. Regardless of whether the haves disarm, therefore, such weapons will still be in demand. Unless the United States manages to extend deterrence as credibly to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as it did to Japan and West Germany, those countries may well counter an Iranian bomb with ones of their own. And why not? After all, which nuclear power was ever invaded by a mighty outsider?

Given nuclear logic and history, it is hard to be sanguine about a plan to convert the wayward by way of example. But what about a regime with teeth, such as that proposed by Global Zero- with obligatory monitoring, including unannounced on-site inspections? Let us assume an agency that could identify nuclear facilities, although neither India nor Pakistan had problems concealing theirs. Who would enforce the regime, and how, once the great powers had let go of their mightiest weapons?

Getting There Is Half the Horror

Proponents of Global Zero believe that peril comes from numbers. Cut stockpiles, they reason, and make the world a safer place. Alas, sheer numbers are not the most critical item in the nuclear age. Stability now plays the starring role- and stability is a function of incentives, not simply numbers. As Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Kenneth Waltz, Henry Kissinger, and other theorists of nuclear strategy have noted, stability is produced by the knowledge that no nuclear power can use its weapons against another without provoking its own demise. The key to this situation is secure second-strike capabilities. Nothing instills caution more reliably than the certainty of devastation on the rebound; fear of a disarming first strike by one’s enemy, in contrast, fuels the temptation to preempt in a crisis. This is why classical arms control was designed to reduce not the size of arsenals but the risks of crisis instability.

Stability did not require the obsessive accumulation of nuclear weapons to the insane levels of the height of the Cold War. But neither does it allow for zero. So what is enough? Global Zero proposes a phased approach. In the first stage (2010-13), the United States and Russia are to come down to 1,000 warheads each. In the second phase (2014-18), they are to cut that number in half, provided lesser players freeze their stockpiles. In the third phase (2019-23), all nuclear weapons will be negotiated down to zero. And in the final stage (2024-30), nuclear warheads will be phased out completely.

These calculations include Israel, which would be left contending with several hundred million Arabs and Iranians absent a nuclear shield. A denuclearized Pakistan would confront more than a billion Indians. Japan and Taiwan-if it still exists as a separate polity-would face China without the nuclear umbrella the United States once extended. In other words, what started out as an almost scholastic question of nuclear numbers would quickly turn into a very practical question of geopolitics. Within a couple of decades, the power map of the world would be completely redrawn, as oldfashioned metrics such as population size, territorial extent, and conventional military strength once again dominated strategic calculations, with dire consequences for the United States and the West as a whole.

Of course, such factors would not matter if nuclear disarmament ushered in perpetual peace. But such a heaven did not exist before nuclear weapons were deployed, so why should it exist once they are removed? The peace that disarmament advocates take for granted has been the product of the very arsenals they want to eliminate. The correlation between nuclear weapons and great-power peace is perfect- 65 years, the longest such period in world history. Conversely, with the nuclear threat lifted, conventional war among the great powers might no longer look so terrifying. If the last rung on the escalation ladder is gone, stepping onto the first one might not lead straight to Armageddon.

But surely, it must be possible to safely bring down the number of weapons, given how even today’s arsenals still constitute massive global overkill? At first glance, gradualism does seem sensible. But behind the process of disarmament lurks the ugly face of dread. As a state’s stocks of nuclear weapons dwindle, its vulnerability to an enemy’s disabling first strike rises- along with its fear that such a strike might actually occur. It is easier to destroy ten missiles than one thousand. Small arsenals, in Schelling’s words, put a “premium on haste,” which undermines crisis stability. The structural incentive to go first, he notes, “is undoubtedly the greatest piece of mischief that can be introduced into military forces, and the greatest source of danger that peace will explode into all out war.” By contrast, large and diverse forces reduce the rewards of haste. Hence, there is safety-mutual safety-in numbers.

What about incremental disarmament- a variant of gradualism that the Global Zero co-coordinator Bruce Blair and his colleagues recently described in these pages (“Smaller and Safer,” September/October 2010)-which includes confidence-building measures such as lowering the alert status of nuclear forces, removing target coordinates from guidance systems, and separating warheads from launchers? Inserting such circuit breakers, the argument runs, would introduce a salutary delay between crisis and launch, giving negotiations a chance to resolve the crisis short of war.

Making military mobilizations cumbersome, however, is hardly a guarantee of crisis stability. The intersection of great power rivalries with complex and staged mobilization schedules helped trigger World War I rather than prevent it. Highreadiness forces would have kept the “guns of August” from going off. And Israel’s lack of military readiness prior to the Yom Kippur War created an opening for an Egyptian attack rather than incentives for a mutual stand-down.

Measures that buy time for a crisis to play out slowly can sharpen the dilemma between lashing out and hanging back. Nervousness can blanket calm; when tensions are high, states will be tempted to raise the alert status of their nuclear forces by reassembling launchers and warheads and retargeting their missiles. Such moves by country A might sober up country B, signaling how high the stakes are for A. But these moves might also increase B’s sense of vulnerability, prompting an even higher level of readiness on its end. If the upward spiral continues, either state or both of them might conclude that war has already begun, leaving no choice but preemption or humiliating concession.

Blair and his colleagues argue that such a vicious cycle need not arise. “A lower level of launch readiness” flanked by “much deeper cuts,” they write, would make for “uncertainty and incomplete knowledge” and so render policymakers risk averse in a crisis. Uncertainty might well instill caution. But it could just as well breed the opposite. Which nation has ever started a war on the basis of certainty about its own and its enemy’s capabilities, actual and potential? Would Germany and Japan have taken on the Soviet Union and the United States if they had known in 1941 what these unready giants would throw back at them from 1942 to 1945? What stops the would-be aggressor is the certainty of unacceptable damage, even if it follows a sudden first strike.

Preemption, the worst enemy of stability, might actually be easier in a world filled with confidence-building measures, as Schelling has pointed out. Today’s retaliatory forces are hardened or hidden under the sea. Now think of a world replete with circuit breakers-with missiles in one place, warheads in another. Instead of having to take out hardened silos or elusive submarines, a state could resort to simpler means of preemption, attacking or sabotaging the logistical chain between its enemy’s launchers and its warheads or the storage sites where its weapons are kept.

One of the oldest paradoxes of the nuclear age is that loaded and ready weapons induce caution while also carrying risks. Forty years of arms control have managed to preserve the caution while reducing the risks through innumerable fail-safe devices. Trading the residual risks for a return to vicious cycles of suspicion, fear, and possible preemption does not seem like a good bargain.

Genie Out Of a Bottle

But assume, for the sake of argument, that all the practical obstacles to the implementation of Global Zero were whisked away-that one could bring all the relevant states on board, construct a disarmament regime with teeth, identify all nuclear facilities, monitor them carefully, and police all violations effectively. Would Global Zero serve its intended purpose? Would a world free of nuclear weapons actually be happier and safer?

No-for a reason so simple that one hesitates to belabor it. Even if states were willing to destroy their nuclear weapons, they could not destroy the knowledge, technology, and materials that lie behind them. It was in a global-zero world, after all, that nuclear weapons were invented by the United States, starting in 1939, when it was still a nonbelligerent. The implications are not heartening. Were Global Zero to achieve its goals, former nuclear powers would inevitably keep mobilization bases at a high state of readiness to guard against a nuclear breakout by others, since the acquisition of only a few bombs would offer a deadly advantage to whichever state rearmed first. The result would be a world, as Schelling has observed,

in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’ nuclear facilities. … Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.

Make that a dangerous world, if one thinks in terms of stability rather than numbers.

So is there nothing that can be done to improve the current situation, no way for the size of existing arsenals to be reduced? Of course there is. The key, however, is to focus not on the weapons themselves but on crisis stability. Traditional arms control-not at all the same thing as disarmament of the Global Zero variety- has emphasized just such concerns, and helped usher in a world where the nuclear weapons of the great powers, once a terrifying presence at center stage of international politics, have safely receded into the wings.

Such advances are real and valuable in and of themselves. Unfortunately, they have not and will not resolve all problems of the nuclear age. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to states such as North Korea and Iran or to nonstate actors such as al Qaeda follow a logic that has little to do with great-power arms control. If such states cannot be disarmed, they must be deterred. But how can nuclear weapons be deterred unless with nuclear weapons? Here is where the idealism of Global Zero becomes not merely irrelevant but possibly tragic, obstructing the sensible policies required to maintain a credible modern deterrent.

Despite his occasional flights of rhetoric, Obama appears to have accepted the strategic logic of maintaining a credible deterrent. In May 2010, his administration outlined plans to spend $80 billion over ten years to modernize the U.S. deterrent and to sustain appropriate research and production facilities. Whether a bow to nuclear realism or a bone thrown to hawkish senators skeptical of ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New start, this was a sensible step. It should be complemented by other measures designed to address real threats such as al Qaeda, which cannot be countered by nuclear deterrence because it offers neither counterforce nor countervalue targets for retaliation.

So the goal should be to craft a different global zero: a regime that would allow zero fissionable material and weapons technology to pass into the wrong hands, especially into those of Terror International. This is the most pressing threat in a world where the risk of great-power violence has faded. It also comes with the promise of real achievement, as Global Zero does not.