Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has adopted, hook, line and
sinkers—the vision of a world free of nukes. It is a vision that has
been promoted previously by four very senior statesmen, all of whom
made their names during the Cold War. George P. Shultz, William J.
Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. They have popularized the idea
that the best way to protect the world from nuclear weapons is for the
United States and Russia to lead—by first reducing their nuclear
stockpiles, and eventually moving to zero. This move in turn is
expected to inspire other nations to reduce their stockpiles or give up
on their ambitions to acquire nuclear arms—and to pressure those so
inclined, to desist.
One Obama official suggested that by going for zero we will occupy the moral high ground, take away “one of Iran’s talking points” and “stop the Indians from whining.” (Indians are among those who have frequently complained that they are asked to join the NPT and live with its restrictions while the US and Russia, France and Britain are not living up to their treaty obligations to eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.)
If one refuses to shut down one’s critical mind, one soon notes that this approach is based on shiploads of wishful thinking and may well distract attention from urgent priorities. The precept that because the United States and Russia talk up a world without nukes (a world which is indeed very far over the horizon, given the grave dangers for a nation that disarms if the other successfully hides a few nuclear bombs) this will inspire other nations to give up their bombs or nuclear ambitions, has no legs. This is even more true for the notion that if the United States and Russia reduce their stockpiles to 1,500 warheads (below the current ceiling of 2,200)—or some other such number— this too would somehow inspire other nations to pack in their nuclear ambitions.
Above all, one must fear that pursuing such pie in the sky schemes will distract attention from the most serious threat to our security, that of our allies, and to world peace, which is very widely agreed to be that terrorists will get their hands on a ready-made nuclear weapon. (Making new ones is much more of a challenge), The most likely place for terrorists to steal, bribe their way to, or otherwise commandeer nuclear weapons is Pakistan.
No one serious thinks that if the United States and Russia live up to their commitments under the NPT, this will lead Pakistan to give up its bombs, given that the main reason Pakistan has them is that they serve as a deterrent against the much larger Indian conventional forces, which Pakistan cannot match. Hence, even if not only the United States and Russia but also India gave up their nuclear bombs (an extremely unlikely event), Pakistan is most unlikely to follow. The same holds for Israel’s stockpile and Iran’s plans to build bombs. These and other such nations have strong reasons of their own to hold such arms.. These reasons will not be modified by whatever the United States and Russia do or do not do regarding their own stockpiles. New evidence in support of this point: the morning President Obama announced his plans to move to zero, hoping to inspire others to relent, North Korea tested a long-range missile which could carry a nuclear warhead. A few days later, Iran announced that it is making good progress in its nuclear development efforts. Other nations barely yawned.
Moreover, in dealing with Russia, the greatest priority for the United States is to encourage Russia to further improve its controls over the fissile material from which nukes can be made and over the thousands of tactical nuclear arms it possesses. Reducing the Cold War instruments, the long-range missiles and strategic nuclear weapons—on which Henry A. Kissinger and his colleagues focus—are much less of an issue. They are already relatively well-controlled and, moreover, are not well-suited for terrorists equipped with speed boats, shipping containers, and trunks. It follows that dismantling these Cold War arms is much less urgent. Similarly, the United States is keen to gain Russia’s cooperation in stopping Iran’s nuclear militarization. Neither mission is affected by the number of nukes the two powers hold.
The fate of the curbs on the spread of nuclear arms in the near future is going to be decided in Iran. If it is allowed to gain a bomb, there will be no stopping Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations from going down the same road, and Japan and South Korea are likely soon to follow, to countervail North Korea. Nuclear terrorists are looking for bombs in Pakistan (and for fissile materials and small bombs in Russia). These burning matters are enough to occupy a president who has shown that he can work on half a dozen issues at the same time. Zero can wait.