The vision of the total elimination of nuclear weapons is a postmodern version of an old idea, popular early in the twentieth century, when Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion (reprinted in 1933) was required reading in intellectual and policy circles in the United States and Europe. Seventy-six years before Barack Obama was honored in Oslo, Norman Angell also won the Nobel Prize, having come to prominence with the argument that global economic interdependence rendered war futile and unprofitable and therefore obsolete.
Angell’s theory expressed the war-weary and wishful temper of the time. Enthusiasm for achieving peace through international institutions and legal constructs ran high in the period after the disastrous First World War, its most fulsome expression being the Kellogg-Briand Pact, named for its authors, an American secretary of state and a French foreign minister. Ratified by parliaments around the world (and by the US Senate on an 85–1 vote, with only Wisconsin Republican John J. Blaine voting against), the pact sought to deal with the problem of international aggression by simply outlawing war. Less than two years after the pact entered into force in 1929, one of the signatories, Japan, invaded Manchuria. The world “community”—that is, the rest of the treaty parties—did nothing. Other signatories followed suit: Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935 and Germany launched World War II with the invasion of Poland in 1939.
The great powers that signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact understood its utopian character, but they affirmed it anyway. As with any public endorsement that embraces virtue and rejects vice, the pact appeared to offer little to lose. What did it matter if there was no reasonable assumption that all parties would act in good faith, and no mechanism for enforcement? What harm could come from a lofty ideal formalized with fanfare and champagne in Paris? Realists among its supporters argued that even if prohibiting war couldn’t actually end aggression, it would at least bolster the principle that disputes should be resolved peacefully. Outlawing war made good people feel better; how could that be bad?
But, looking back, we can see that the illusion created by Kellogg-Briand, that war had been outlawed, together with widespread but unjustified faith in the League of Nations, was part of the negligence that allowed Hitler to build his strength and seize vast territories from his neighbors without serious opposition. The Kellogg-Briand frame of mind contributed to the responsibility-evading defense and foreign policies of Britain, France, and others in the 1930s, countries that might have stopped Adolf Hitler in his tracks if they had not been so wishful and unrealistic. Far from making the world safer, proclaiming the “norm” of nonaggression had lulled the great powers into a lethal vulnerability. The lesson here is that nations, by indulging utopianism, do not necessarily make the world more idealistic. In fact, they may help bring about the very evils they are trying to eliminate.
Asserting that the world should forsake nuclear weapons sounds—and is—a lot like declaring that war should be illegal. And the arguments for adopting the goal of “global zero” are no more convincing now than the arguments in support of the Kellogg-Briand pact eighty-two years ago or those advanced at the General Disarmament Conference in Geneva that followed in 1932. When the discussions in Geneva bogged down after a year of talk, President Roosevelt insisted that “if all nations would agree to eliminate entirely from possession and use the weapons which make possible a successful attack, defenses automatically would become impregnable and the frontiers and independence of every nation would become secure.” Therefore, he said, the ultimate objective of the conference must be “complete elimination of all offensive weapons.”
So what is today’s argument for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons, a goal President Obama embraced to wild applause in Prague in 2009? The statement that launched “global zero” appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2007, under the title “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Signed by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and others, it was the product of a conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in October of the previous year. It is a tribute to the reputation and high standing of the authors that their statement has been endorsed by many statesmen and policy officials who regard themselves as realists, as well as precipitating a worldwide campaign supporting the concept, if not the details, of a nuclear-free world.  The article has been followed by further statements from them and others, as well as movies, media appearances, press conferences, congressional and presidential speeches, international conferences, demonstrations, and the like. “Global zero” organizations have been established on many university campuses in the US and abroad, and tens of millions of dollars have flowed into research institutions and advocacy groups in support of the idea of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. With T-shirts, bumper stickers, and celebrity endorsements, it’s a full-blown happening.
 I believe the high regard in which Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn are held is well deserved. In their long and extraordinary careers, they have each made important contributions to American and international security. We are all in their debt.
In addition to “setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” the 2007 statement argued for a number of practical measures to diminish the likelihood that nuclear weapons would fall into “dangerous hands,” or that they would be launched by accident, or that countries interested in, but not now possessing, such weapons would succeed in acquiring them. A number of these measures are doable and desirable, but some are dubious. Altering the posture of nuclear weapons now deployed so that they need not be launched urgently, thereby increasing warning time and diminishing the danger of an accidental or unauthorized launch, would be a useful thing to do—although there is room for debate about how best to accomplish this. The end of the Cold War should have brought an end to deterrent forces poised for instantaneous launch (which in the extreme case could mean launching missiles on the strength of radar warnings) but, unfortunately and dangerously, old habits die hard.
Reducing or eliminating the number of short-range nuclear weapons that are designed to be forward deployed would also be useful, since these are the small, highly mobile weapons that could fall into the wrong hands far more readily than large, central strategic systems that are carefully controlled. Most of the short-range weapons deployed today are Russian, however, and the Russians have resisted American proposals to adopt limits on their number. (Given Russia’s strong interest in limiting strategic weapons, it is difficult to understand why the Obama administration did not insist on some limits on short-range nuclear weapons as a condition for the New START Treaty. Unused leverage is a squandered opportunity.)
“Providing the highest possible standards of security for all stocks of weapons, weapons-useable plutonium and highly enriched uranium everywhere in the world,” another of the 2007 statement’s recommendations, is an obvious thing to do. But there is an unacknowledged conflict between this goal and another of the authors’ recommendations—ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. That treaty could lock us in to weapons designs that are less safe and secure than others that might one day be developed, but whose development might necessitate testing. (The current administration’s ideological opposition to any innovation in the design of our increasingly obsolete weapons—with the result that we are not, for example, introducing technology to make them unusable, should they fall into unauthorized hands—is overly rigid and shortsighted. It is too bad that the authors of the statement didn’t make this point.)
Shultz, Kissinger, et al. correctly urge that international measures be taken to place control of the nuclear fuel cycle in safe hands. But accomplishing this task is complicated by the legacy of the “Atoms for Peace” concept dating back to the Eisenhower administration and enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Rich in unintended consequences, Atoms for Peace promised that nations pledging (i.e., merely pledging) not to acquire nuclear weapons would be eligible to receive assistance with their civilian nuclear programs from the advanced nuclear powers. The problem is that the infrastructure supporting civilian nuclear power gets you well down the road to nuclear weapons. In fact, from its inception, Atoms for Peace has spread nuclear technology around the world. India’s nuclear program, for example, grew from its cooperation with Canada, which supplied the reactor that enabled India’s bomb.
The NPT has become the poster child for opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons. Yet, ironically, faith in its capacity actually to restrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons is at least misplaced—and possibly much worse. For one thing, the belief that the NPT is robust enough, and its institutions effective enough, can easily become an excuse for individual nations to do no more than the treaty process requires—and that, in turn, depends on a consensus at the UN. For another, the NPT incorporates the utopian vision of global zero and even sails beyond it, calling for “general and complete disarmament that liquidates, in particular, nuclear weapons.” Since almost no governments anywhere in the world actually believe in “general and complete disarmament,” the effect of its inclusion in the NPT simply robs that treaty of any gravity.
It is widely accepted among those who think the Non-Proliferation Treaty is the key to containing the spread of nuclear weapons that control of the international fuel cycle must be achieved by an international consensus and administered and enforced by the UN or comparable body. But suppose a much smaller group of nations—a coalition of the willing, perhaps—sought to control the nuclear fuel cycle, or at least deal with would-be proliferators in a firm, timely and decisive manner: Could such a coalition achieve legitimacy in light of the universalist conceit of the NPT? Would it even contemplate action outside the treaty?
But what made the 2007 Wall Street Journal article so important was not its prescription for obviously necessary measures such as ensuring controls for nuclear fuel. It was that its appearance reinforced a growing utopianism that has flowered into a movement for “a world free of nuclear weapons,” a movement whose momentum is reminiscent of the 1980s movement for a “nuclear freeze”—a Soviet-manipulated protest aimed at halting Ronald Reagan’s modernization of the American nuclear deterrent. Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn should have foreseen that their statement would be seized upon by irresponsible actors. All four, after all, opposed the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s.
The goal of a nuclear-free world was made even more emphatic in a second article, also in the Wall Street Journal, that the authors wrote a year after the first one (January 15, 2008): “Progress must be facilitated,” they said, “by a clear statement of our ultimate goal. Indeed, this is the only way to build the kind of international trust and broad cooperation that will be required to effectively address today’s threats. Without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral.”
The “downward spiral” has little to do with the nuclear strategic relationship between the United States and Russia, although the authors have, in both statements, called for ratification of the New START Treaty. In fact, that relationship has declined in importance to the point where it makes little difference whether the Russians have more nuclear weapons or fewer than they have now. The calculations of the consequences of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia, a proper obsession during the Cold War, are no longer relevant and, despite President Obama’s overblown claims, the New START Treaty is of no substantial benefit.
What the “downward spiral” refers to is the world’s descent into the dangerous disorder of a fast-growing number of nuclear-armed states—North Korea already, with Iran and others to follow. It is the bloody prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of irresponsible regimes, or even terrorists, that has galvanized Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn, and which urges the development of a post–Cold War nuclear weapons strategy.
In other words, the utopian vision of a world without nuclear weapons is driven principally by the fear of nuclear proliferation. The fear of many more nuclear weapon states is the key matter of concern for serious people, not cutting or fine-balancing—Cold War style—the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. The case for global zero hinges on whether embracing that goal contributes to halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
I worry that the commitment to global zero, and the actions of existing nuclear states to advance toward that goal, will do more to spread than contain nuclear weapons—directly, by encouraging some current non-nuclear states to consider developing nuclear weapons, and indirectly, by displacing and undermining other more effective strategies. At the heart of the case for global zero is an argument—that reductions (on the way to zero) in our nuclear force will lead others to reduce theirs or curtail or abandon plans to acquire them altogether—that ignores history, logic, and politics.
One important reason why most friends and allies of the United States (Britain and France being the exceptions) have not sought nuclear weapons of their own has been our readiness to extend the protection of our nuclear deterrent to cover them. Germany, Japan, and South Korea, all quite capable of building nuclear weapons, went through even the precarious periods of the Cold War confident that our nuclear force made it unnecessary for them to have nuclear forces of their own. Where the United States was unwilling or unable to offer protection to countries that believed themselves threatened—India and Pakistan, for example—those countries did build independent nuclear capabilities. If the United States is seen to be heading toward eliminating its nuclear capabilities, countries that have relied on us may decide that they must acquire their own nuclear weapons. This is especially true in a region where another state, like Iran, is pursuing nuclear weapons and is likely to obtain them, thus alarming and frightening its neighbors into an arms race they would rather avoid. The sad history of the nuclearization of the Indian subcontinent, for instance, appears to have begun with India responding to China’s nuclearization, followed by Pakistan responding to India’s. If the United States is seen to be on a path to relinquishing nuclear weapons, is it reasonable to expect the Japanese and the South Koreans, long sheltered by our deterrent, to remain indifferent to the nuclear forces of China and North Korea?
Far more worrying, however, than the effect on friends and allies of the utopian excursion toward global zero is the effect of such thinking on such dangerous adversaries as Iran and North Korea. Is there any reason to believe that our embrace of that goal will discourage them from the vigorous pursuit of nuclear weapons? What could be more encouraging to Iran than the idea that they will be getting into the nuclear business just as we are getting out? Imagine Iran’s supreme council meeting to discuss whether to continue the costly pursuit of nuclear weapons. “But what is the point of building these weapons?” asks a skeptical mullah. “We will have one or two and the Americans have thousands.” Another replies: “Yes, but the Americans have declared their intention to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely. They say they have already started down that road. Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, Nunn, and even Obama himself are committed. Obama said: ‘We have to insist, yes, we can.’ Did you see them cheering in Prague? And when they have started getting rid of theirs, our small arsenal will not seem so puny.”
Of course, proponents of global zero will say that we would never give up our last nuclear weapons if the Iranians (by that point having long ago acquired and stockpiled them) did not do the same. This argument comes close to saying the goal of global zero is a mere mirage, which leaves one wondering what benefits can be claimed for chasing it or pretending to believe it is real. International politics is played out in near real time, and the influence of future events, like future earnings, is deeply discounted by prudent officials. But one important point remains: as our nuclear capabilities dwindle, the value of even a few nuclear weapons rises (toward the end of these parallel processes, exponentially). This puts a burden on trust and verification that they simply cannot bear. I was once told by the prime minister of an important country in Europe that it was all but impossible to imagine the day when their last nuclear weapon would be handed over to some future international body, or destroyed. “I would certainly cheat,” the prime minister said. “And so would all the others.” I was in no way surprised by this admission.
I agree that the problem of nuclear proliferation is real. Dealing with it is an urgent and enormously important duty of the US government. But it is a mistake to define the problem in such a way as to suggest that any spread of nuclear weapons is dangerous or that nuclear weapons in Iranian hands should be regarded as the same as nuclear weapons in the hands of, say, Japan or Australia—or, for that matter, that the weapons themselves are the problem. Yet the proponents of global zero tend to deplore all nuclear weapons equally, no matter who holds them, and to regard any diminution of their number as a positive step because only subtraction leads to zero. But would a reduction in the number of North Korean weapons together with an increase in, say, those held by the French, yielding a net increase in the number of weapons, be a bad thing? The problem is not the weapons but the character of the regimes that possess them.
In many ways such a principle simplifies the proliferation problem and makes it less daunting. Focus on the miscreants, on the few countries seeking nuclear weapons whose possession of them would be dangerous or destabilizing or both. Sanction them. Isolate them. Undermine their regimes. Pressure them mercilessly. Do whatever it takes. But don’t offer to aid their “peaceful” nuclear programs in exchange for promises about weaponization that are so easily broken. And don’t let them get away with the insulting notion that until we ourselves disarm we have no right to demand that they halt their clandestine programs—as if the US nuclear arsenal poses the same danger to international peace and security as do the nuclear arsenals of the regimes of Kim Jong-il or the Iranian clerics.
The goal of zero nuclear weapons, often referred to by its sponsors as a “moral imperative,” inevitably delegitimizes and undermines support for those who have actually helped to keep the peace and have the potential to go on doing so. The opprobrium attached to ignoring or dismissing the goal of global zero has no influence on the Irans and North Koreas, but it does have an influence on us. It makes it easy, for example, for reflexively anti-nuclear voices in the Congress and the Obama administration (some have migrated from the former to the latter) to oppose even modest updating of our nuclear weapons and to make technical improvements taboo. Thoughtful proponents of global zero should admit that this is dangerous nonsense. They should, at a minimum, campaign with equal vigor for the modernization of our existing, shrinking nuclear arsenal.
Unfortunately, fixing on zero as the urgent issue before us obscures the real challenge: keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of countries or organizations that might use them offensively. Seen from this viewpoint, the two most decisive acts against the proliferation of nuclear weapons were the Israeli attacks on Iraq’s weapons program in 1981 and Syria’s in 2008. The 1981 attack was widely, if hypocritically, condemned. The destruction of the Syrian facility was downplayed on all sides; and while the US had opposed it, it had the good sense to keep quiet after the fact.
There is much that we can do to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Tougher sanctions against the Iranian regime, especially if they produced nationwide shortages of fuel for automobiles and made it more difficult to obtain outside technology, money, and expertise, would be a good place to start. How about sanctions to be applied to any individual who assists nuclear proliferators? Or serious sanctions against companies—and their executives—who provide material support? The more effective they became, the louder the message to others who might be tempted to seek weapons of their own. Why did the “international community,” which passes endless motions against nuclear weapons, fail to follow up the destruction of the Syrian-North Korean clandestine weapons program with tough, punitive sanctions against Syria and North Korea? Their having been caught in flagrante delicto should trigger consequences beyond just the destruction of the clandestine facility.
Supporters of global zero sometimes argue that because we support it, other countries will be readier to help us confront Iran and North Korea. The idea seems to be that our support for eliminating all nuclear weapons makes it easier for, say, our European and Pacific allies to align themselves with robust anti-proliferation policies. The argument would be interesting if there were evidence to support it—but there is none. And there has been all too little backing for robust anti-proliferation policies anyway. There has been no observable difference in the readiness of other countries to pressure Iran or North Korea since Obama, who supports global zero, became president, compared to the help we got when George W. Bush, who did not support global zero, was in office.
Tough, effective measures to slow the spread of nuclear weapons are required—not utopian, solipsistic notions about how American disarmament is the key to world peace. It isn’t. And the sooner we reject measures that won’t work, the sooner we may find ones that do.
Richard Perle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy from 1981 to 1987 and afterward as a member of the Defense Policy Board, including three years as chairman.