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Beyond Questionable Deterrence: At Stanford, Policymakers Agree on Urgency of Nuclear Disarmament

By Weiser, John | National Catholic Reporter, July 8, 2011 | Go to article overview

Beyond Questionable Deterrence: At Stanford, Policymakers Agree on Urgency of Nuclear Disarmament


Weiser, John, National Catholic Reporter


Former Secretary of State George Shultz, at a gathering at Stanford University in California, called on religious leaders to envision a world free of nuclear weapons. Shultz, a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, joined a dozen religious leaders and policymakers at the May event.

Nuclear weapon issues, as presented at the gathering, can be divided roughly into four categories: changes in the international climate as they affect nuclear weapons; disarmament successes to date; new and growing nuclear weapons threats; and, finally, possible initiatives to be taken.

Participants presented a rough history of the arms race, saying that from World War II until the end of the Cold War in 1989, the world lived under the threat of mutual assured destruction (with its acronym, MAD). This was the period during which the United States and Soviet Union aimed large numbers of nuclear-equipped missiles at each other, and these missiles were kept on hair-trigger alert, posing risks of catastrophic proportions. These risks were mitigated only by the fact that each of the protagonists operated in a developed nation supported by sophisticated technical equipment, and each nation was constantly evaluating the other to avoid a false calculation or accidental attack.

By contrast, participants at the Stanford gathering painted a very different global situation today. With the Cold War over and the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia is seen as more ally than enemy. Further, the end of the Cold War, participants concurred, has undermined the moral argument plausibly supporting a deterrent system based on the threat of mutual assured destruction. Today, with nuclear threats coming from rogue groups and not nation states, Cold War deterrence has questionable value.

The picture painted during the meeting was one of progress made on the disarmament front in recent decades. One hundred eighty-four nations have signed the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including more than 40 that were nuclear-weapons capable. The United States and Russia have worked to reduce nuclear arsenals. The number of deployed weapons has fallen from 70,000 to 20,000. In recent months Russia and the United States have signed the New START treaty. Thirty-five nations have signed a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; unfortunately, the United States is not one of them. Also on the gains front, 47 nations recently attended a Washington conference on control of fissile materials from nuclear weapons. President Obama has called nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism "a threat that rises above all others in urgency."

What conference participants heard in discussions was that while the Cold War's nuclear-related threats have subsided, new threats have arisen, chief among these the threat of these weapons getting into the hands of terrorists.

Terrorists, as one conference paper put it, have "no return address," and thus cannot be deterred by a threat of nuclear retaliation.

Meanwhile, the nuclear weapons club has expanded, with nations such North Korea within it that seem to have less to lose in a nuclear attack, and whose behavior often seems unpredictable.

The conference participants heard people speak of the growing risks of proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. Both North Korea and Pakistan, for example, have passed on technology to other nations, including Iran.

Adding to pessimism, as one person noted, is the fact that the nine nuclear-possessing nations have been slow to rid themselves of these weapons, thus losing grip on the moral argument that "have-not" nations should refrain from entering the nuclear club.

Noted during the gathering was a growing interest (prior to the disaster at the Fukushima Daichii plant in Japan in March) in nuclear electric power among some nations. Such production plants would bring with them the potential for more nuclear enrichment facilities and the need to store fissile materials.

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