Despite President Obama’s (2009) call, no doubt influenced by the Four Horsemen’s famous op-ed (Schultz, et al., 2009), the world is not heading toward zero nuclear weapons. Rather, according to Bracken (2012) it is devolving into a set of interconnected regional security competitions with one or more nuclear powers involved in each region. This emerging nuclear multi-polarity is less stable than the Cold War bi-polarity that existed between the US and the USSR, simply because there are more actors.
In the teeth of this situation, the US is the only nuclear weapons state that is drawing down its active nuclear forces without revitalizing the scientific, technological and industrial base (the nuclear weapons complex) that maintains, dismantles, and if necessary, rebuilds these forces. Some consider nuclear weapons complex revitalization unnecessary because the US currently maintains a “hedge” force of inactive weapons, which can be returned to active status, or used for spare parts to repair or remodel active weapons. However, the maintenance of hedge forces by the major nuclear powers carries a risk of theft and/or unauthorized detonation by non-state actors (i.e., terrorists). Since the threat of nuclear terrorism is the main reason the Four Horsemen first called for a nuclear weapons free world, it would seem that a revitalized complex is preferable to a large nuclear hedge force. That is to say, the US should build down to low levels of nuclear weapons, while always being prepared to build up the numbers should any other nuclear weapons state try to “break out” of nuclear arms reduction and make a sprint for nuclear superiority.
While it is true that the US is reducing its own reliance on nuclear weapons by developing long-range non-nuclear precision strike weapons, it is not yet true that other countries can follow suit. The current asymmetry in precision strike capabilities may cause some other countries to view the US push for deep nuclear reductions with ambivalence, slowing progress toward nuclear zero.
In most discussions, however, “nuclear zero,” is an undefined term. It took the US about two years to develop its first nuclear weapons, which brought an end to WW II, at a time when there was no nuclear energy infrastructure and no real knowledge of nuclear engineering. In today’s world, a nation with a developed technological/industrial base could surely develop a nuclear weapon in a shorter time frame, should it choose to do so. In other words, a world free of nuclear weapons is a world in which nuclear weapons can still be made in quantity in short order by nation-states. And unless and until a lawful world order is established in which nations no longer coerce one another, woe to the US if it incapacitates itself prematurely.
Total nuclear disarmament will not bring about that lawful world order. Rather, a lawful world order will bring about the elimination of nuclear weapons. They are expensive to build, to transport, to maintain, to store, and to guard. If it were not for a world in which might is respected more than right, nobody would bother with them.
In the meantime, those who try to establish a lawful world order by first eliminating nuclear weapons are like kids in the back of a car asking, “Are we there yet?” No, we’re not there yet. And we have a long, hard drive ahead of us.
Bracken, Paul. 2012. The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics. New York: Holt.
Obama, Barack. 2009. Remarks at Hradcany Square, Czech Republic, 5 April, available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered/, accessed 6/9/2012.
Shultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. 2007. A World Free of Nuclear Weapons. The Wall Street Journal. January 4, p. A15. Available at http://fcnl.org/issues/nuclear/world_free_of_nuclear_weapons/ accessed 4/27/2013.