US Nuclear Policy: The Open Window for Transformation

By Cirincione, Joseph | Harvard International Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

US Nuclear Policy: The Open Window for Transformation


Cirincione, Joseph, Harvard International Review


It is often said that the world is at a nuclear tipping point. By this, analysts mean that the policy choices we make over the next few years may determine if we tip over into nuclear catastrophe or pull back from the various brinks on which we now teeter. Those who thought talk of nuclear disasters was a thing of the past, that the end of the Cold War ended nuclear threats, might want to pay attention to this debate.

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Today, there is deep, growing concern about four categories of nuclear threats. The first is the possibility of a terrorist group getting a nuclear weapon and detonating it in a major city. The second is the danger of an accidental, unauthorized or international use of one of the existing 25,000 nuclear weapons held by nine nations today. Third is the emergence of new nuclear-armed nations: North Korea today, perhaps Iran tomorrow, and others to follow. Last is the possible collapse of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, the interlocking network of treaties and controls that has effectively slowed, if not altogether prevented, the spread of nuclear weapons.

US President Barack Obama has the most detailed, comprehensive, and transformative nuclear policy agenda any candidate has ever carried into the White House. As elaborated during his campaign and described on the president's web site, it is a plan to "set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons and pursue it." Obama has promised to thwart nuclear terrorism by securing all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years; to reduce nuclear threats by cutting US, Russian and other states' nuclear and missile arsenals; and to prevent any new nuclear weapons, new nuclear explosive tests and new production of fissile material for weapons. Can he do it?

Well, yes, he can. The failure of the Bush Doctrine, the intensification of nuclear threats, and the developing bipartisan, transnational consensus for deep reductions in nuclear arsenals create a unique convergent moment in which Obama could realize his desired transformation of global nuclear policy. Obama's plan to "secure, reduce, and prevent" demonstrates his commitment to seize this opportunity, but those wedded to the nuclear status quo threaten to delay or deny real progress towards nuclear threat reduction and disarmament.

Nuclear Dangers

The Obama plan recognizes that today's threats are interrelated. Developments in one area affect other areas. For example, a weakening of export controls and treaty restraints increases the probability of additional states developing nuclear weapons, which increases the number of sites from which terrorists might acquire those weapons. The reverse is also true. Dramatic decreases in global nuclear arsenals could help generate the international cooperation needed to secure and eliminate stocks of nuclear weapons materials, making it less likely terrorists could steal or build a bomb.

Currently, each of these threats is growing. If unchecked, one or more nuclear nightmares are likely to be realized: Pakistan, a nation with enough material for perhaps 100 nuclear weapons and strong Islamic fundamentalist influences in its military and intelligence services, could destabilize. If it does, al Qaeda, now securely based in Pakistan, could gain control of nuclear materials for a bomb or the weapons themselves. Pakistan could go from a major non-NATO ally to our worst nuclear nightmare overnight.

One or more of the approximately 3,000 nuclear warheads Russia and the United States maintain on high-alert status, ready to launch within 15 minutes, could be fired through accident, miscalculation, or unauthorized use. Last year, the US Air Force lost track of 6 nuclear weapons--each ten times the size of the Hiroshima bomb--for 36 hours as they flew across country on a bomber no one realized had live weapons aboard. This year, a British and a French submarine collided in the middle of the second largest ocean on earth; together they carried 100 warheads. …

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