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Toward a Nuclear-Free World?

Dec 2, 2017
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There’s a rather substantive op-ed in today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, signed by two former Secretaries of State (George Shultz and Henry Kissinger); a former Secretary of Defense (William J. Perry) and a retired Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn. So, it’s hardly your typical opinion piece.

Moreover, the ideas expressed in the piece have been endorsed–to varying degrees–by a veritable Who’s-Who of the U.S. national security establishment over the past 30 years. That list includes (by our count) five past secretaries of state; four former SecDefs and five retired national security advisers. Apparently, the only people who haven’t signed off on the piece are either dead, or currently serving in the defense or diplomatic communities.

With the support of that many big thinkers and heavy hitters, you’d expect that the op-ed is devoted to a weighty topic, and it doesn’t disappoint (at least, in that regard). Entitled “Toward a Nuclear-Free World,” it’s actually a follow-up to an earlier commentary, also published in the WSJ. The original piece called for called for a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world. But, the authors argue that more must be done, to pull back from the nuclear precipice:

The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point. We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands.

The steps we are taking now to address these threats are not adequate to the danger. With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.
And, some of the recommendations offered in the op-ed actually make sense. They include:

-Extend key provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991

-Take steps to increase the warning and decision times for the launch of all nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, thereby reducing risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks.

-Undertake negotiations toward developing cooperative multilateral ballistic-missile defense and early warning systems

-Dramatically accelerate work to provide the highest possible standards of security for nuclear weapons, as well as for nuclear materials everywhere in the world, to prevent terrorists from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

-Strengthen the means of monitoring compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a counter to the global spread of advanced technologies.

Still, the op-ed is disappointing in many respects–some would even say naive. First, the national security heavyweights seem to be locked in a 1970s time warp, when there were only five declared nuclear powers: the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France. In that era, negotiations and treaties between “rational” state actors made a great deal of sense, although many of those agreements gave the Soviet Union an edge in many strategic categories.

Obviously, the nature of the nuclear threat has shifted dramatically over the past three decades–a fact the authors readily acknowledge. In addition to a possible nuclear attack by terrorists, there is the growing danger posed by new members to the nuclear club. How do you persuade nations like India, Pakistan and even Israel to give up their nuclear option–weapons viewed in those countries as a critical deterrent, even necessary for national survival. Building “an international consensus” on nuclear priorities is fine, but getting countries to sign on and comply is going to be difficult.

China offers a case in point. Over the past decade, Beijing has expanded its strategic forces and assembled powerful, theater-level nuclear assets opposite Taiwan. Today, more than 700 short and medium-range missiles (virtually all nuclear-capable) are available for operations in the Strait of Taiwan or the Sea of Japan. Beijing’s goals are simple: build a force that is capable of pounding Taiwan into submission, and defeat U.S. forces that would come to the rescue of that nation.

Additionally, China is quite serious about fielding advanced sea and land-based systems that hold the U.S. homeland at risk. A decade ago, a PLA general famously asked his American counterpart if we were “willing to trade Los Angeles for Taipei.” He wasn’t kidding, and his comment drives home an essential point: How do you dissuade Beijing from becoming a nuclear peer competitor of the United States? On that critical issue, the op-ed authors are a little vague, beyond the usual talk of global consensus, increased monitoring and stronger anti-proliferation regimes.

There’s also the grim realization that the Shultz/Kissinger/Perry/Nunn et.al approach doesn’t work particularly well with rogue states. Almost a year after the Six Party nuclear agreement with North Korea, Kim Jong-il has yet to provide a full disclosure of his nation’s nuclear stockpile. More disturbing, there is evidence that nuclear “material” from Pyongyang made its way to a covert facility in Syria, which was struck by Israeli jets last September. Anti-proliferation measures based on diplomacy and accords are only as good as the word of the signatories. Why should anyone believe that North Korea will be more forthcoming and transparent in the future, given its long history of cheating?

Then, there’s the little matter of Iran. Not only is the issue of Tehran’s nuclear program far from resolved, their efforts are being aided by Russia–one of the nation’s that is supposed to lead a revitalized non-proliferation effort. Mikhail Gorbachev may support the ideas outlined in the WSJ op-ed, but the current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, apparently isn’t a subscriber.

Not only is Mr. Putin providing equipment, fuel and expertise that could aid in Iran’s effort to obtain nuclear weapons, he is also upgrading his own strategic arsenal, with deployment of a new generation of ICBMs. Putin has also expressed strong support for weapons like the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), designed specifically to defeat defensive systems like long-range detection radars and ballistic missile defenses. As long as Russia works at conflicting goals in the nuclear arena, efforts at non-proliferation will be hollow, at best.

The ideas outlined in today’s op-ed also make little mention of what happens when diplomacy and treaties fail. In reality, the threat from Saddam’s nuclear program didn’t officially end until coalition troops rolled into Iraq in the spring of 2003. As long as the Baathist regime remained in power, Saddam retained the option of reviving his nuclear program, despite years of IAEA inspections.

It’s also worth remembering that the same military might that toppled Saddam Hussein also convinced Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to abandon his nuclear ambitions. We subsequently learned that the Libyan effort was much more advanced than previously thought. Touring Libya’s facilities, U.S. and British intelligence specialists found a very “robust” program, complete with assembled centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and thousands of centrifuge parts.

Had the U.S. and its partners not invaded Iraq, we can only wonder how quickly Gadhafi would have obtained nuclear weapons. Our discoveries in Libya was hardly an endorsement of “traditional” non-proliferation efforts and it raises the salient question: at what point is the world community prepared to intervene militarily, in order to deny nuclear weapons to a rogue state. On that count, the authors of the WSJ op-ed fail to provide a satisfactory answer.

Finally, the former national security leaders ignore other indisputable facts about nuclear weapons: they provide a real deterrent value, and they’re cheaper than conventional forces. Nukes helped keep the peace during the Cold War and they still have a limiting effect on potential adversaries. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be crazy, but there are those in Tehran who understand that a nuclear attack on Israel (or U.S. forces in the Middle East) would result in swift retaliation and the destruction of Iran.

Will that realization ultimately check Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons? Only time will tell. Perhaps the question ought to be re-phrased and re-directed at our own side, toward those former officials striving for the ultimate elimination of nukes. At what point, we should ask, are they willing to give up the deterrent value offered by such weapons? And, are they willing to make the corresponding increase in conventional weapons that will be required by getting rid of our nuclear inventory?

Lest we forget, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are currently embarked on a program that will provide a modest increase in our ground forces. Reaching that goal will take at least five years and billions of dollars. The cost of fielding additional air, ground and naval units that would only partially replace our nuclear arsenal would be even more expensive. Any savings derived from eliminating nuclear weapons would be more than offset by staggering increases in expenditures in conventional weapons.

There is no doubt that nuclear non-proliferation is an important challenge. And the men and women who wrote today’s op-ed (or endorsed it) are sober and serious in their views. Based on their experience as senior national security officials, they understand that the goal of a “nuclear-free world” is like viewing a distant mountain. They write:

From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can’t even see the top of the mountain, and it is tempting and easy to say we can’t get there from here. But the risks from continuing to go down the mountain or standing pat are too real to ignore. We must chart a course to higher ground where the mountaintop becomes more visible.”

But, in pursuit of a safer world, we must ensure that their far-off mountain is indeed a realistic goal–and not merely a mirage.

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