August 20, 2009 | Commentary on Missile Defense, National Security and Defense

The Road to Zero: Keeping Swords, Building Ploughshares

An Alternative to Arms Control

Every Washington wonk dreams that a new president will pick up his or her agenda. When it comes to advocates for nuclear arms control, that dream seems to be coming true. On the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal in January 2007, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn voiced a clarion call for the "road to zero," urging other former high-level officials from countries around the world to join them in pushing for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. The following year, only months before the presidential election, George Perkovich and James Acton authored an Adelphi Paper for the International Institute for Strategic Studies hoping to prompt a serious debate on how the road to zero could actually be achieved.

Less than seven months later, on April 6, 2009, as Perkovich wrote in a piece for the Guardian, "President Barack Obama gave a landmark speech in Prague on Sunday committing the United States to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, and laying out realistic steps to that end."

There is little question that the president has heeded the call. Speaking to the press on May 19 about the impact of Kissinger and company, Obama declared, "What they have come together to help galvanize is a recognition that we do not want a world of continued nuclear proliferation, and that in order for us to meet the security challenges of the future, America has to take leadership in this area."

And indeed, the president has shown leadership. He promised to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. He pledged to push for a multilateral Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to end the production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The president also committed to seeking U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate had previously rejected in 1999. The White House also did not dismiss the prospect of putting anti-missile arms negotiations back on the table, and it is prepared to accept a treaty proposed by the Chinese and Russians to "prevent an arms race in outer space."

There is, however, a problem with the president's plan to run down the road to zero -- namely, that we've been down that road before, and it did not get us very far. The White House is resurrecting the traditional instruments of nuclear nonproliferation and arms control that Moscow and Washington trotted out during the Cold War -- measures that, by and large, proved a failure at ever eliminating one nuclear weapon or a single missile. At best, it could be argued that at times they let each side take a breather, occasionally slowing down the arms race.

Ronald Reagan -- who, coincidentally, shared the vision of a world without nuclear weapons -- did the most to turn back the doomsday clock by breaking all the arms control rules. Among other things, he insisted, in the long term, on building and deploying missile defenses -- which eventually led to the U.S. pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in December 2001; and, in the short term, on modernizing and strengthening U.S. nuclear forces. Reagan's vision of a world without nuclear weapons was not dependent on ending the arms race altogether, but rather on driving the arms race in a new and more benign direction. He called on scientists to design new weapons to render nuclear weapons useless, believing that building a new generation of weapons based on new technologies would prove more effective in doing so than a utopian vision of a world without war. He understood, first and foremost, that competition is a permanent element of international relations, particularly in the enterprise of arms control. The story of how he sought to use arms control to defeat the Soviet Union, and how he succeeded, is brilliantly told in two books: "Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons," by Paul Lettow (2006), and the even more revealing "Reagan's Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World From Nuclear Disaster," by Martin and Annelise Anderson (2009).

After Reagan, we pretty much went back to business as usual. And the traditional arms control business didn't work very well. At the height of the Cold War there were six declared nuclear powers. Now there are nine. During the Cold War, at least four countries gave up the quest for nuclear arms voluntarily -- Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, and Taiwan. Since then, only one has packed it in -- Libya.

Nonproliferation has not worked so well either. Both Iran and North Korea were signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Today, North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program, and many believe that Iran's uranium enrichment program masks similar intentions.

Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well. That did not turn out too well either. The first Gulf War targeted, among other things, Saddam Hussein's nuclear program, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq grew out of uncertainty over whether that program had been stopped. Indeed, after the first Gulf War, IAEA inspectors were stunned to discover the extent of Iraq's uranium-enrichment program. Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix acknowledged in his book, "Disarming Iraq" (2004), that "we suspected Iraq aimed at a nuclear weapon . . . [T]here could be no confidence that the three enrichment programs Iraq had by [1991] admitted had peaceful purposes." It was, in fact, the success of Saddam's cat-and-mouse games in outwitting the IAEA that made the U.S. so fearful a decade later that Saddam had covertly rebuilt his program. In part, war came because the U.S. had no confidence in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime to stop a nation intent on getting nuclear arms.

With a track record like this, it is a wonder that anyone would seriously consider building a strategy to roll back the world's nuclear arsenal based on a treaty-based regime. In traveling the road to zero, nonproliferation and arms control should complement a sound strategy, but they should not be the centerpiece. There has to be a better way -- and indeed there is.

It is much easier to negotiate when you know that you are safe. Arguably, Reagan would never have signed on to massive nuclear weapons cuts if he did not have faith that missile defenses would ultimately work. Additionally, he certainly believed that Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) forced the Soviets to the negotiating table -- demonstrating that strong defenses can actually kill, rather than start, an arms race. In short, Reagan proved that Mutually Assured Destruction -- or MAD, the strategic concept that emerged during the 1950s and 60s by which, in order to prevent war, you have to leave yourself intentionally vulnerable to nuclear attack by another nuclear power -- really was mad. Further, he understood that, left with no other option by the Soviet Union, the U.S. had to compete in the near term, and pursue long term arms control from a position of strength. Ultimately, Reagan knew that the assured path to successful arms control was to end the Cold War on terms favorable to the U.S.

In the post-Cold War world, strategic competition requires the U.S. to adjust its strategic policy and posture to protect its security in the context of multiple nuclear powers. Therefore, nuclear disarmament should start with a solid plan to protect and defend the United States against nuclear threats -- a policy of deterrence by denial. That starts with eliminating potential nuclear non-state threats. Groups as diverse as Aum Shinrikyo (the religious cult that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway) and al-Qaida have tried to obtain nuclear weapon materials. Terrorists that endanger the U.S. and its allies must be stopped by taking out their leadership, disrupting their operations, breaking up their organizations, cutting off their sources of recruiting and funding, and discrediting their ideas.

Next, the U.S. must lead the effort to destroy the marketplace of death, thwarting the transfer of weapons, materials, and technologies. We will never live in a world free of nuclear weapons if people like A.Q. Khan can set up their own "nuclear weapons Wal-Marts." As Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, Khan participated in a network that shopped nuclear materials to Libya, Iran, and North Korea, among others. Stopping the A.Q. Khans of the world is vital.

Proactive efforts, like the proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) are the right answer. PSI prevents trafficking by relying on coordinated voluntary, cooperative actions by nation-states. The initiative relies on existing laws and authorities. Begun in 2003, according to a 2008 Congressional Research Service report (.pdf), "[t]he State Department credits PSI with halting 11 WMD-related transfers from 2004 to 2005, and more than two dozen from 2005 to 2006." Recently, South Korea joined PSI, raising to 96 the number of nations participating. Although this program was a Bush-era initiative, it continues to be active.

Hunting down bad stuff and bad people, however, is not enough. At the same time, the U.S. must also demonstrate that it is prepared to defend itself. A balanced posture would consist of missile defenses and a credible, modernized nuclear deterrent that is capable of destroying the means of strategic attack on the U.S. and its allies, combined with strong conventional forces that can do everything from root out an insurgency to strike an enemy missile silo deep inside its own territory.

In that light, recent defense decisions, such as terminating the production of the F-22, are troubling. The F-22 is meant to be paired with the F-35 (another modern fighter almost ready to go into production) to ensure the U.S. has the capability to carry out serious long-range conventional strikes -- including taking out nuclear production, storage, and launch facilities -- against just about anybody. Unfortunately, the Pentagon cut off production at roughly 60 aircraft less than what the Air Force needs to sustain the fleet over the long term. The Pentagon also cancelled a new long-range bomber program. Without long-range conventional strike options, the ability to deter enemies -- or even better, to dissuade them from developing weapons to strike the U.S. to begin with -- decreases dramatically. Conversely, the lack of conventional options forces the U.S. to rely more, not less, on its nuclear deterrent.

Likewise, letting the U.S. nuclear arsenal atrophy is not a good idea. A U.S. arsenal that is dominated by massive megaton, "city killer" weapons is not very useful unless you are looking for a doomsday weapon. At the same time, these arms are getting older and less reliable. As they age, we will have less confidence in the surety of our deterrent.

Sadly, Washington is letting our nuclear sword rust, based on the argument that if we refurbish, downsize, and modernize these weapons, we will encourage others to build nuclear weapons to counter them. This argument, however, is not borne out by recent evidence. The U.S. stopped building and modernizing nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War, but that example of "responsible behavior" did not inspire Libya, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions. In contrast, countries like South Korea and Taiwan gave up their nuclear weapons programs because they were confident that the U.S. would not abandon their defense.

Rushing down the road to zero...

Indeed, rushing down the road to zero without first implementing a solid "protect and defend" strategy could actually have the perverse effect of speeding the proliferation of nuclear weapons. First, if enemies perceive that the U.S. has no defense -- or, at best, very limited capabilities -- they may actually accelerate their programs so that they can quickly achieve a real capability to threaten America.

This could well turn out to be the case with the administration's current plans for missile defense. Judging current capabilities adequate to deal with a future long-range Iranian or North Korean threat, the Pentagon announced plans to scale down U.S. anti-missile programs. This has the perverse effect of encouraging both Iran and North Korea to speed up development of their weapons-delivery systems so that they can represent a credible challenge to the United States. In fact, the last six months have seen a flurry of nuclear-capable missile test activities by both countries.

Second, as the North Korean and Iranian programs demonstrate real progress, there will be greater demands for illicit trade in their weapons technologies. North Korea, for example, has done some pretty effective advertising of late. Their first nuclear test barely registered. Their latest test looks to be in the several-kiloton range -- perhaps as big as the weapons that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2006, North Korea's long-range missile test lasted less than a minute before breaking apart and falling into the sea. In April 2009, the same missile flew for 15 minutes and traveled about 2,500 miles. In addition, it looks like the North Korea missile achieved separation of all three stages, and at least two stages burned effectively without incident.

Third, as weapons technologies proliferate, so does the likelihood that neighbors will feel they need an independent nuclear deterrent. Thus, if Iran obtains nuclear missiles, other nations in the Middle East may feel compelled to field a force as well, particularly if they don't have comprehensive missile defenses.

Fourth, if the U.S. drastically cuts its nuclear inventory and fails to modernize its weapons, it may be faced with the bizarre reality that it invites a new arms race. Other nations will look at the small size of the U.S. arsenal and the decaying industrial infrastructure to produce weapons and rightly conclude that, without much effort, they could well become a nuclear power in the same league as the U.S.

Concomitantly, the U.S. should focus its efforts on countries that want to cooperate with us in making the world more "nuclear safe," rather than butting heads with intransigents like North Korea. Odds are there is going to be a lot nuclear energy in the world's "energy hungry, carbon-free-seeking" future. Managing fuel cycles, and ensuring that Technology is safeguarded and nuclear facilities secure and safe, are critical components of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, there is a great model on how to do this. It comes from the "123 Agreement" that enabled civil nuclear cooperation between the United States and India after a 30-year break.

Ironically, in 1954, India proposed ending nuclear testing, and in 1965, New Delhi laid out the principles for a nonproliferation treaty. The country, however, never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in 1974, it tested a nuclear device. India also developed a robust civil nuclear program, but because it was a declared nuclear power that was not signatory to the treaty, it could not receive assistance from other countries in either developing its civil programs or enhancing safeguards on its weapons program.

In 2005, the U.S. and India agreed to establish a framework that would lawfully allow for bilateral cooperation, and two years later, they produced an agreement. Under the agreement, India stated it would separate its civil and military nuclear facilities. All civil nuclear facilities would be placed under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which acts as the watchdog for compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. For its part, Washington agreed to work toward engaging in full civil nuclear cooperation with New Delhi.

Among the provisions of the agreement, India established guarantees that would ensure that "U.S.-origin" nuclear materials would not be diverted to Indian weapons programs. Additionally, the deal established that the U.S. maintained the "right of recapture" -- in other words, Washington could demand back any U.S.-origin nuclear fuel or Technology -- in the event of a future Indian nuclear test.

In addition, India agreed to harmonize its export control lists -- sensitive materials such as highly enriched uranium, plutonium or nuclear weapons -- with those of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, both of which help to monitor and prevent the transfer of technologies critical to nuclear weapons. Closing that gap is key to stopping "would-be A.Q. Khans" from establishing a "nuclear Craigslist" inside India's civil nuclear industry.

The importance of the agreement was that it proscribed how the U.S. could help India safeguard nuclear materials while remaining in line with Washington's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations, as well as the Hyde Act of 2006, which specified requirements for U.S. nuclear policy towards India. Thus, rather than circumventing and undermining the prohibitions in the treaty, the U.S. and India worked to help New Delhi become compliant with the central prohibitions in the treaty intended to help stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

In August 2008, the IAEA approved the safeguards proposed by the United States and India, and the following October, Congress passed legislation implementing the 123 Agreement. That same month, President Bush signed it into law, and the U.S. and India formally accepted the plan.

The U.S.-India agreement -- in conjunction with other U.S. initiatives to help secure, safeguard or remove highly-enriched uranium, plutonium or other sensitive materials or technologies in countries like Libya and the former Soviet Republics -- are concrete and vital steps in any serious effort to battle proliferation and make a world without nuclear weapons even imaginable.

With a strategy focused on protecting and defending the nation, America can make a difference in the world. In the past, for example, several nations -- including Brazil, Libya, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan -- have abandoned nuclear weapons programs. Russia has slashed its weapons inventory, not because of treaties and negotiations alone, but because the U.S. helped set conditions that convinced nations not to go nuclear. The U.S. has also worked with countries to voluntarily safeguard materials, like highly enriched uranium, or destroy other arms, such as chemical weapons.

With these sensible measures in place, there is certainly room at the table to add more sensible nonproliferation and arms control measures to supplement them. Those initiatives, however, need to be sensible as well. The U.S. should not adopt a policy of "never meeting a treaty it didn't like."

Some of the treaties the White House is considering border on the nonsensical. For example, restricting missile defense is a patently depraved idea. The notion that a state which has the capability to defend its citizens against horrific destruction would bar itself from doing so is immoral. Likewise, a policy of massive retaliation that would wipe millions of people off the face of the earth when the government in question has the alternative option of simply defending itself is wantonly evil.

Another idea whose time clearly has not come is a treaty banning weapons in space. First of all, space is already weaponized and has been since the first V-2 rocket hit London during WWII. Second, space is, in fact, the ultimate high ground and the best option for defending against missile attacks. Voluntarily relinquishing the high ground is just bad strategy. Third, it is impossible to envision what an acceptable definition of "space weapons" to be banned would be. One could argue, for example, that Google Earth (which relies on commercial satellite imagery) is a space weapon. After all, the terrorists who attacked Mumbai used Google Earth to help plan their assault. Finally, determined enemies won't respect the treaty, and there will be no way to verify that they are not cheating until after they attack. The only thing a treaty banning space weapons will do is to make them a more desirable option for America's enemies.

Also on the list of what should go to the scrap heap is the current version of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The U.S. has not ratified it, and in its present form, it should not. "Once the CTBT is in force," writes scholar (and a Heritage Foundation colleague) Baker Spring, "The United States will be unable to maintain a safe, reliable, and effective nuclear arsenal without testing, particularly as it faces new military requirements in the new, post-Cold War world. Furthermore, as a treaty of unlimited duration, the CTBT will over time undermine the global stability guaranteed by the U.S. nuclear deterrent." In turn, our allies will not be able to depend on the deterrent of an American nuclear umbrella, which could make conflicts more, not less, likely. "Lastly," Spring adds, "the CTBT fails the most important arms control test of all: It is neither effectively verifiable nor enforceable." There will come a time when the U.S. can and should join a realistic CTBT regime, but right now that day is far off.

Signing treaties for the sake of signing treaties might make for good photo opportunities, but it is bad for protecting human security. Bad treaties, like the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI, can help cause wars, rather than prevent them. The administration would be far better off looking at how to strengthen the enforcement of treaties and agreements to which it is already a party -- such as its initiative to bring India closer to compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives with Russia -- before it runs around signing new instruments.

The U.S. can and should lead the march on the road to zero. It is in our own interests to do so. It is unthinkable that the world's greatest democracy would shirk that responsibility. Democracy, however, is not a suicide pact. To achieve success we have to start with the right foundation. Cooperative and non-cooperative efforts at threat reduction must build on a strategy that shoulders the responsibility to protect and defend America, and works with nations that are really interested in making the world safer and not just aggrandizing their own power. That's the right prescription for achieving a world without nuclear weapons.

James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the World Politics Review