Eliminate or Marginalize? Nuclear Weapons in U.S. Foreign Policy

By MccGwire, Michael | Brookings Review, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Eliminate or Marginalize? Nuclear Weapons in U.S. Foreign Policy


MccGwire, Michael, Brookings Review


The decades-old role of nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of Western defense policy is coming into question. As a 1993 Council on Foreign Relations book put it, "From the beginning of the Cold War in 1946 to its end in 1990, the U.S. government would have rejected any offer from the gods to take all nuclear weapons off the table of international affairs." Today, by contrast, such an offer "would deserve instant acceptance."

Lamenting that "no one knows how to abolish nuclear weapons," the book's authors - McGeorge Bundy (special assistant to the president for national security affairs, 1961-66), Admiral William Crowe (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1985-89, now U.S. ambassador to London), and Sidney Drell (physicist and long-time adviser to the U.S. government on security issues) - nonetheless put on record their belief that nuclear weapons diminish rather than enhance U.S. security.

Nor are they alone. In November 1992, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who has long argued that nuclear weapons have no military value, advocated "returning to a non-nuclear world" - though with the caveat, "insofar as possible." Similar statements are now being made in forums throughout the United States.

Many of these so-called "marginalizers" - as this wing of the current nuclear weapons debate is coming to be known - believe that deemphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy will lead to their atrophy and ultimate extinction. But only a few marginalizers are ready to accept the logic of that belief: adopt today the policy goal of achieving a nuclear-free world within the next 20-30 years. Most consider that goal politically unfeasible or are daunted by the problem of nuclear breakout.

Their assumption - or hope - is that policymakers can preserve today's rather reassuringly low-salience nuclear world indefinitely into the future by changing America's stated nuclear doctrine and reducing existing arsenals. But that assumption ignores current international trends and the history of this century and is not a workable option. The real choice is between actively pursuing a nuclear-free world over the next quarter century or returning inevitably to the high-salience nuclear world from which we have just been set free. What are the risks and benefits of these alternative courses, with particular reference to the ultimate danger of a nuclear exchange?

International Prospects

The present lull in great power confrontation is a historical anomaly, brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Failing a radical change in Western policies now, the conjunction of two historical trends suggests that world affairs in the future will be at least as turbulent as in the past.

One trend is the end of European global domination, an era that left behind deep resentments in many areas, some of which have been reinforced by the experience of the past 30-40 years. The other trend is differing rates of growth in world populations. Today, for example, Asians outnumber Westerners more than 2 to 1, a disparity for which the West's economic and military power more than compensates. But by 2025, the disparity may grow to 4 or 5 to 1, with no compensating advantages, and may well lead to a shift in hegemonic power.

One needn't subscribe to Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" to conclude that a quarter century from now global relations are likely to be at least as conflict-ridden as they were during the Cold War years, albeit in ways that have yet to be foreseen. And despite the lesson of the two World Wars that war is no longer a rational instrument of policy in great-power relations, arms racing will remain a feature of the international scene, with nuclear weapons having a totemic value unrelated to military utility.

Experience also suggests that the nuclear arms race will continue to have a logic and dynamic of its own. Even as the superpowers were actively negotiating the successive treaties on strategic arms "limitations" and "reductions," the number of warheads on each side rose from less than 2,000 to more than 11,000.

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