Toward true security

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Some eight years into the 21st century, the threats to international security posed by the numbers, deployments and spread of nuclear weapons remain all too ominous. Disconcertingly, the possibility of a surprise attack - perhaps a tragic miscalculation or a criminal action - is an ongoing reality some six decades into the nuclear age.

The present US administration has stressed its determination to act alone, in spite of the views of other states or the United Nations, when it judges American security warrants. Thus, the intervention in Iraq, which was essentially unilateral and preemptive. Leaving aside a judgment on the wisdom of the Iraqi war, there are many unilateral or preemptive steps an administration can take, now, to strengthen American security.

Another way to describe wise unilateral steps is leadership. It is hard to object to unilateral actions by any administration if they result in strengthened American and global security.

On February 13, three preeminent organizations working for national and international security, the Federation of American Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, released a report, Toward True Security, specifying 10 'unilateral' steps the United States can take for a more secure America, indeed for a more secure world (updated from a report prepared in 2001, the text is at). The report's 16 authors are well known policy analysts in the field of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, and at a briefing on February 13, three of the authors - Lisbeth Gronlund, Richard Garwin and Frank von Hippel - framed the 10 steps in terms of action for the administration to be elected in November. Given the political process in the United States, this is realistic, although there is ample reason and urgency for the present administration, even in its last year, to pursue them. Iran does not wait for American elections in pursuing enrichment. The fall of a satellite from an unstable orbit does not wait for an election: it led to a 'unilateral' decision to take action.

The 10 'leadership' steps in the new report are largely complementary to the recommendations of the Hoover Group - former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Shultz, former Secretary of Defense Perry, and former Senator Nunn - as outlined in the January 15, 2008 Wall Street Journal. Both sets of recommendations envision a sustained effort to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. While most of the Hoover Group recommendations involve other states, the 10 'leadership' recommendations are important because they would not require the agreement of another state or international body and would make steps toward a nuclear-free world involving other states easier to achieve. These 10 steps are also compatible with a set of milestones" that BASIC as a transatlantic organization has recommended in the concept paper framing its Getting to Zero Project.

The recommended steps are based on an assessment of the military role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era as, thankfully, diminished from the role played in the confrontations of the 1950s-80s. But the enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons, and their ongoing roles in security strategies, continue to pose grave threats to the United States and other states, now principally from accidental, mistaken or unauthorized Russian use of nuclear weapons, and from their further spread, especially to unstable regimes or criminal elements.

To address these threats, the report seeks further to deemphasize nuclear weapons by urging adoption of a policy not to use nuclear weapons except in response to their use by another state, and to rely on nuclear weapons solely for deterrence. Regardless of what purposes are ascribed to the US nuclear arsenal, the report argues persuasively for the stabilizing impact of its recommendations to move away from rapid-launch options and preset targeting, as it does for the recommendation to reduce the total numbers of nuclear warheads, both active and in reserve, to 1000.

The de-alerting recommendation is consistent with the United Kingdom's policy that assumes several days to notify its nuclear submarines to launch a missile. The non-use recommendation is consistent with the policies of China and India.

The authors hedge their bets by caveating the reduction recommendation, making the endpoint contingent on a Russian response. In any case, it is difficult to envision that in the coming several years the United States could, or would, take only unilateral leadership decisions: the prospect of the 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty warrants multilateral action by all the nuclear-weapon states party to the Treaty; indeed by all parties, who are all subject to the obligations of its Article VI. The recommendations of the Hoover Group are aligned with this approach.

If a world without nuclear weapons is to be realized, three factors must be dealt with, in particular when the process becomes global: quantity of weapons, quantity of weapons materials, and qualitative weapons improvements. The report's recommended reductions in warhead numbers and related disposition of highly enriched uranium and plutonium address the first two factors, although the report is silent on the subsequent multilateral step, a treaty banning the further production of fissile materials for weapons. The report's recommendations for halting development and deployment of new American nuclear weapons, for a commitment not to resume nuclear testing, and for working with the US Senate to gain its advice and consent to ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, directly deal with the issue of qualitative improvements.

The report's recommendation to halt further deployment of the Ground-Based Missile Defense system and any planning for space-based missile defense embraces the judgment that a continued reliance on deterrence, at decreasing levels of weapons, provides sounder security than dealing with Russian and Chinese decisions to maintain or increase their nuclear arsenals to overcome a defense system. Here the Hoover Group takes a different approach: making missile defense a cooperative project.

The report recommends eliminating nonstrategic US nuclear weapons, and working with Russia to induce it to eliminate its nonstrategic weapons. This step is highlighted as both stabilizing - recognizing that there is no threat against which such weapons are needed - and as a way to address the loose nukes issue - the Nunn-Lugar program has already made progress on reducing this threat. The Hoover Group addresses the same objective through a multilateral process.

Finally, the report dovetails with the Hoover Group in the last two of the 10 'leadership' steps: announce American commitment to reductions below 1000 warheads as a result of negotiated agreement, bilateral or multilateral; and reaffirm American commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament, presenting a specific plan for moving toward that end-point.

In sum, the largely complementary recommendations of 'Toward True Security' and of the Hoover Group warrant prompt action by the United States to strengthen national and international security. Most, realistically, await a new administration. Some will take time to implement, in particular negotiated measures.

But the sooner action is taken, the more secure Americans, and citizens globally, will be. Nuclear weapons have existed for sixty-three years. With determination to act, there is no reason their elimination should take 63 years. American leadership should embody that determination.

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