AS THE NATIONS of the world review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May at the United Nations, they gather at a time of unprecedented hope for genuine progress toward disarmament. The new receptivity to nuclear abolition is reflected in the "New START" treaty between the United States and Russia, and was sparked by private initiatives led by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and other senior security experts and officials in many countries.
Yet behind the spirit of hope for a world without nuclear weapons lie deepening doubts about the sincerity of the nuclear-armed states. They vow in speeches and international conferences to get rid of these weapons, yet in their national security policies they cling to the bomb and show no sign of abandoning nuclear deterrence. A broad consensus exists on the urgency of stemming proliferation, yet little progress is visible in attempts to persuade North Korea and Iran to abandon nuclear capability. A critical juncture may be approaching. If the soaring rhetoric of disarmament cannot produce policy results soon, efforts to build support for nuclear abolition could collapse in cynicism, and an opportunity may be missed to advance international security.
Those who cling to nuclear weapons believe that nuclear deterrence has kept the peace and must be preserved to prevent world war. Security concerns are the fundamental justification for maintaining nuclear weapons. Those of us who wish to eliminate these weapons must address these concerns, and show how a strategy of progressive denuclearization is a better and more effective strategy for enhancing security. We must take on the deterrence argument, pointing to its weaknesses but also its potential transformation in a post-nuclear world. In short, we need a theory of disarmament that matches moral passion with political realism.
THE DEFENDERS OF continued nuclear deterrence dismiss disarmament as a practical impossibility. You cannot "uninvent" the bomb, we are told, and to think otherwise is folly. The point is correct of course, but this does not mean that the elimination of nuclear weapons is impossible or impractical. The realization that nuclear capability will never disappear is not an obstacle to achieving disarmament, but a foundation upon which to build a realistic and secure strategy for eliminating these weapons. The knowledge of nuclear capability can serve as a kind of weaponless deterrent, along with shared missile defenses and cooperative conventional defenses, to protect against nuclear cheating. These realities will serve to remind potential aggressors that an attempt to command a nuclear monopoly is bound to fail.
Jonathan Schell focused on this phenomenon in his 1984 book The Abolition. As nuclear reductions proceed, Schell wrote, "the capacity for retaliation would consist less and less of the possession of weapons and more and more of the capacity for rebuilding them, until, at the level of zero, that capacity would be all." Nuclear zero in this understanding is less an absolute endpoint than a set of conditions, stages of zero, "in which the key issue is no longer the number of weapons in existence but the extent of the capacity and the level of readiness" for rebuilding. In a 2009 speech at Yale, Schell emphasized the centrality of what he called "The Knowledge" as the basis for deterrence in a world without nuclear weapons. This approach "capitalizes on the danger that radiates from nuclear know-how even in the absence of the hardware. Yes, that know-how is the basis for cheating on the agreement, but it is also the basis for a response, keeping deterrence intact."
A dose of realism is needed about the claims that are made on behalf of nuclear deterrence. Undoubtedly the presence of nuclear weapons makes the leaders of nuclear-armed nations more cautious about directly confronting each other militarily. This does not mean, however, that nuclear deterrence has prevented war in the past or will do so in the future. …