The Case Against Global Zero

Nuclear Proliferation

“So to day, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

-President Barack Obama, April 2009

During an address in Prague on April 2009, President Obama reiterated Ronald Reagan’s vision of a nuclear free world by committing to do everything in his power to shore up the nonproliferation regime and rid the world of nuclear weapons. A few months later, in June 2009, Senator John McCain also expressed his belief in President Regan’s vision.

“The time has come to take further measures to reduce dramatically the number of nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals”  -Senator John McCain, June 2009

Unfortunately such rhetoric isn’t particularly useful unless it is translated into policy action by the United States. The prior question however, is whether such policy should even be created. Our nations’ leaders seem to think there is a potent and universal United States demonstration effect that will mitigate any risks associated with a nuclear free United States, but they fail to see the attendant dangers of United States denuclearization.

The world is coming to a nuclear cross-road, as the 1995 START agreement expired in December and a new Nonproliferation Regime could be advanced at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. These next few months are a defining period in the history of nuclear weapons and will shape the world’s nuclear trajectory for years to come. At the same time the security dilemma in East Asia has become even more intense due to an increasingly likely nuclear North Korea, while U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan remain nuclear virgins because of their NPT obligations, as well as domestic political factors. Furthermore, the Middle East is festering with conventional warfare and faces an emerging Iranian nuclear threat which, if realized, promises to severely destabilize an already volatile region.

These intensified security risks and the simultaneous deterioration of the nonproliferation regime may at first glance demand a solution that promises to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this hasty and rather shallow approach guarantees more problems than it can ever hope to solve. Why? Because this approach disregards the changing face of the international order, one which now entertains non-state actors and rogue states as key influences on world politics. Can liberal institutions like the NPT or Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) compel nations like North Korea and Iran to relinquish their pursuit of nuclear weapons? Analysis of these nations’ motivations would suggest not, which means denuclearization poses even more danger.

To be fair, President Obama has said that the U.S. will maintain its nuclear deterrent as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world.  When understood in context to rogue states, this statement has two implications: 1) The U.S. will never relinquish its nuclear weapons because nations like Iran and North Korea will continue to pursue them and 2) Iran and North Korea effectively determine the fate of global nuclear non-proliferation.  Furthermore, the second statement illuminates a persistent problem for liberal non-proliferation–namely hold out. Indeed, if Iran and North Korea have such enormous influence on global non-proliferation, they have significant incentives to hold out as long as possible.  If taken to its extreme, other nations would then also have incentives to do the same, which by backwards induction means the world will remain nuclear in perpetuity.

Moreover, the way in which regimes like the NPT incentivize denuclearization is through provision of (regulated) nuclear technology for “peaceful purposes,” which means nations like North Korea could have access to enrichment plants and uranium supplies simply by ratifying the treaty. Such incentives may actually increase the risk of proliferation because it is difficult to assess the credibility of each nation’s commitment to non-proliferation. Giving a nation like Iran access to uranium enrichment plants, nuclear power plants, reactors, and most importantly the indigenous knowledge to develop fissile material provides the necessary ingredients to develop a nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the biggest obstacle for a nation pursuing nuclear weapons is the ability to create weapons grade fuel; it would no longer remain an obstacle post-NPT ratification. Moreover, as Fuhrmann notes, the IAEA currently does not have the financial resources to guarantee that recipients of NPT support are not exploiting it for military purposes.

In addition to the risks of a non-nuclear world facing nuclear rogues, the United States must think about its nuclear umbrella and the impact of nuclear withdrawal on the sanctity of the nations that depend on it. Under the model of extended deterrence, the United States guarantees the security of nations like South Korea and Japan in exchange for non-proliferation commitments from those nations. Although the U.S. umbrella has never been tested, it has sufficed to prevent proliferation among U.S. allies.

However, imagine a world in which the United States withdraws from the nuclear order and consequently loses the ability to provide a nuclear umbrella. For a nation like Japan, who is now facing a credible North Korean nuclear threat and a rapidly modernizing-already nuclear Chinese military, there may be no choice but to pursue nuclear weapons. The historical record shows that Japanese policy makers have always been skeptical of the model of extended deterrence but popular support for the United States in conjunction with the post-Hiroshima stigma surrounding nuclear weapons have prevented Japanese proliferation. Today, a new generation of Japanese elites, one that did not experience the turmoil of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, exhibits an increasing desire for Japanese nuclear weapons; it is only faith in the U.S. nuclear umbrella and desire to maintain good US-Japan relations that is preventing Japanese proliferation. If the United States withdraws from the nuclear club, relations will no longer be an issue, and Japanese politicians will have the firepower they need to catalyze Japanese nuclear development. This situation is not unique to Japan or even East Asia, other U.S. allies with the latent capacity to develop nuclear weapons could nuclearize in the face of U.S. nuclear reductions.

President Obama agrees that we cannot expect the world to become nuclear free within his presidency or even during his lifetime. Yet he still believes we should strive for a world without nuclear weapons, which is something I disagree with. Even if in the long term Obama’s assumptions are true that gradual change will conduce most nations to implement reciprocal nuclear reductions, we can never be sure that our short term reductions regardless of their size would not lead to more proliferation. Moreover, in light of new existential security threats such as Iran and North Korea our allies are walking on tightropes and will not withstand even the smallest of vibrations. Finally, there will always be uncertainty when we operate under anarchy, and thus there will always be a need and more importantly, a desire, for nuclear weapons. Obviously a nuclear United States is necessary not only for American security, but for the security of the rest of the world. Hopefully, President Obama and Senator McCain realize this sooner rather than later.