Nuclear Zero Is Dead

It didn’t capture the public’s imagination like “An Inconvenient Truth.” But the 2010 documentary “Countdown to Zero” was just as passionate in its cause as Al Gore’s global warming opus had been.

“Countdown’s” mission was clear: rally the people to banish nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. And it was all to start with a voluntary reduction in the arsenals of the major nuclear powers.

Doubtless, there were some personal goals as well. The producers of the film acknowledged they were inspired by the buzz for Gore’s project, which ultimately propelled him all the way to the Nobel Prize. Alas, it was not to be.

Peaceniks predictably applauded “Countdown to Zero,” but the mainstream audience stayed away in droves. Still, the campaign for Global Zero did have one very important fan: the president of the United States.

Well before the release of “Countdown,” Mr. Obama had declared his intent to help rid the world of nuclear weapons. In 2009, he announced Global Zero as the centerpiece of his atomic strategy.

“In endorsing zero, Obama wasn't just paying lip service to some pie-in-the-sky dream of his liberal base,” Zachary Roth wrote in The Atlantic. Mr. Obama had a plan. It started with negotiating reductions in the U.S. stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons. Hence, we got the New START deal with Moscow, which came into force in February 2011. That was to be followed by another treaty with Russia that would reduce tactical nukes—an area where Moscow enjoys a huge advantage.

Hopes were high, and Obama was serious. He picked former Senator Chuck Hagel, co-author of an influential report arguing that the road to zero made sense, as his new Secretary of Defense.

But even before Hagel headed to the Pentagon, Roth was pointing out that “nuclear-weapons policy has become yet another area where the heady optimism of the administration's early days has largely evaporated.”

Now it appears the road to zero may be at dead end.

The first bump in the road came when Moscow showed zero interest in nonstrategic nuclear arms reductions—no matter how much the administration agreed to pull back on the U.S. missile defense program in Europe.

Next, the president angered Republicans who had agreed to support his New START pact on the strength of his promise to modernize the American atomic arsenal. “[A]s long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies,” he had vowed.

But the president failed to fulfill his commitments. Critical modernization programs were delayed. Meanwhile, our nuclear weapons complex continues to atrophy.

Hope for the global zero campaign has been further diminished by the administration’s never-ending nuclear negotiations with Iran. Many on the Hill predict the “dialog” can end only in additional nuclear proliferation—the opposite direction from zero. When the negotiations started, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared: “If you see the reaction in Iran right now, they’re spiking the football in the end zone….”

Over the last month, we’ve seen a spate of reports concerning Russian violations of previous nuclear agreements, giving rise to charges that the Obama administration has failed to hold Moscow accountable. At a conference on the subject, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, concluded: “The Russians have basically violated every major treaty they’ve ever entered into, certainly every major weapons treaty….”

Then, as soon the last bobsled skidded down the course at Sochi, Putin ordered troops into the Ukraine, plunging U.S.-Russian relations to the lowest point since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

Today,”zero” describes perfectly the likelihood of further bilateral reductions in nuclear arms.

Obama has burned all his goodwill with Congress. He won’t get any support for further unilateral cuts.

Worse, the danger of proliferation now seems greater than when Obama first looked down the No Nukes Highway. Reducing the U.S. and Russian arsenals has made the arsenals of other countries more valuable and the impact of going nuclear more desirable—a completely predictable turn of events.

Slow-rolling the deployment of global missile defenses hasn’t helped either. The need for these defensive weapons—which bolster stability and decrease the likelihood of nuclear confrontation—has never been greater.

Hoping that the world will learn to live without nuclear weapons is well and good. But the notion that the way to make that happen is for the U.S. to rush ahead while no one else follows was always fantastic. And now, it looks dead.

A more realistic road to zero starts with robust missile defenses, a modernized and adequate nuclear deterrent and appropriate conventional forces. Then we can look for cooperative partners committed to reducing the need to maintain a nuclear deterrent.

 - James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign policy studies 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

Originally appeared in The National Interest