Should We Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?

Presidential aspirant Illinois Sen. Barack Obama thinks so:

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 — Senator Barack Obama will propose on Tuesday setting a goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world, saying the United States should greatly reduce its stockpiles to lower the threat of nuclear terrorism, aides say.

In a speech at DePaul University in Chicago, Mr. Obama will add his voice to a plan endorsed earlier this year by a bipartisan group of former government officials from the cold war era who say the United States must begin building a global consensus to reverse a reliance on nuclear weapons that have become “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”

Mr. Obama, according to details provided by his campaign Monday, also will call for pursuing vigorous diplomatic efforts aimed at a global ban on the development, production and deployment of intermediate-range missiles.

The “former government officials” being cited are, no doubt as pointed out by James Joyner, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. It’s a mainstream position.

Contra some, I don’t think that Obama’s position is politically foolhardy. It’s hardly visionary but it’s mainstream, will cultivate favor within his own party, and won’t lose him votes he wouldn’t lose anyway. Sounds win-win to me.

I’ve written quite a bit about deterrence here. Unfortunately, I believe that the current crop of politicians have labored mightily to undermine its effectiveness as a tool to prevent the use of nuclear weapons probably through ignorance, possibly though cowardice, certainly with the best of intentions. To be effective a prospective nuclear enemy must know that we will respond to an attack with overwhelming force, not minimal force or politically acceptable force. The conduct of the war in Iraq, for example, IMO has undermined the principle of deterrence.

I’d like to see a world without nuclear weapons but I don’t think that wishing will make it so nor do I think that consensus is sufficient to achieve that goal. As we’ve seen a single veto, particularly China’s, is enough to allow an outlaw state to do pretty much anything it cares to. Deterrence is a lousy tool but, unfortunately, it’s the only game in town.

All of that having been said our present nuclear arsenal far exceeds the needs of deterrence and, prudently, we’re trimming it back. We can trim it farther but, unfortunately, not eliminate it. That must be left for a better future time. I don’t find the thought of the only countries that possess nuclear weapons being those most likely to use them particularly appealing.

There remains an urgent necessity to bolster the psychological component of deterrence. If the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstance is unthinkable, then deterrence is dead and we’re placing ourselves at the mercy of those who aren’t similarly hampered.

15 comments… add one

  • It will be interesting to see what the speech actually says. Hopefully it will clarify the impression left by this:

    …the United States should greatly reduce its stockpiles to lower the threat of nuclear terrorism….

    Are US nuclear weapons the ones that will be used for nuclear terrorism? It’s hard to believe so. (Similarly for British, French, Chinese, Israeli and Indian nuclear weapons.)

    Or does this mean that the simple fact that the US has nukes means that others will try to create nuclear weapons? This doesn’t make sense either. If I were Iran, I would want nuclear weapons to deter US conventional forces more than I would want them to deter US nuclear forces.

  • Total unilateral disarmament would seem to be the logical conclusion from that line of reasoning, wouldn’t it, Icepick?

    As I see it stockpiles represent a cost and a security risk and are worth reducing for those reasons alone. I suspect that Russian stockpiles are the greatest risk and, with Russia drifting away from an internationalist view that seems to be represented in Obama’s line of thinking, the risk is rising. Russia’s record of responding to international consensus is not particularly encouraging.

    Nor is ours or China’s for that matter.

    As should be apparent I’m not overly impressed by the power of international consensus.

  • My opinion is that complete disarmament is nice in theory but it ultimately a pipe dream. First, even if the US states that it wants complete disarmament, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the other nuclear weapons states will as well. The sticking issue, however, is verifiability. Some of our advanced weapons are about the size of a microwave oven – how can anyone be sure that we, the Russians or Chinese don’t have nukes hidden away? And then there is 50+ years of nuclear material in the various stockpiles.

    Perhaps we can get completely denuclearized some day, but I doubt it.

  • As I see it stockpiles represent a cost and a security risk and are worth reducing for those reasons alone.

    Yes, but the costs for maintaining nuclear stockpiles are generally low, compared to maintaining conventional forces.

    As for the security risk, the main thing would be reducing the number of sites that need to be guarded. More “bombs” in fewer places would be cheaper than having half the bombs in the same number of places we use now. In fact, the best way to guard them (short of not having them at all) would be to put them all on the boomers, the ICBM carrying submarine force. 500 ft below the surface of the ocean is a pretty secure location.

    There’s also the security cost of NOT having the weapons, and having to wonder who else may have them, and what they might do with them.

    Finally, I am personally more concerned about the security of Pakistan’s stockpile than I am concerned about how the Russians are handling the old Soviet stockpile. Neither situation is all that happy-making, though.

  • Okay, Politico has put up the text of the DePaul speech. I have to wonder if Obama’s campaign actually has anyone checking his speechs to see if they make sense. Here’s one paragraph:

    Make no mistake: we must always be prepared to use force to protect America. But the best way to keep America safe is not to threaten terrorists with nuclear weapons – it’s to keep nuclear weapons and nuclear materials away from terrorists.

    I would love it if someone would ask him how safe we were on 9/11/2001 when al Qaeda did NOT have any nuclear weapons or materials. Really, does anyone on his campaign even read this stuff before he reads it?

  • Oops, forgot the link. The prepared text starts at the seventh paragraph.

  • Tom Strong

    Icepick,

    I would love it if someone would ask him how safe we were on 9/11/2001 when al Qaeda did NOT have any nuclear weapons or materials.

    Safer than we would have been had they had nuclear weapons.

    I think his opinion on Iraq is incoherent, though I’m an admirer on other counts. But there’s nothing wrong about his statement on nuclear weapons today.

    He is very clear that we will not pursue nuclear disarmament, and very clear that we will not reject deterrence. At the same time, reducing our stockpile and encouraging others to reduce theirs is clearly the right thing to do, both from security and diplomacy perspectives.

    For us, a massive stockpile is of far less value now than it was twenty years ago. There is no arms race anymore. At the same time, something must be done to disincentivize Russia’s lack of security, China’s paranoia, and the relatively feeble startup programs in N. Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. By being clear that our own nukes are off the table in any but the worst circumstances, we would have a chance of changing that.

    I don’t see any other proposal on the table that would accomplish the same end.

  • Tom Strong

    As for the point both Andy and Dave make – Obama is clearly being rhetorical here. Every president in the last twenty years has spoken similarly of eliminating all nukes, including Reagan.

    Obviously that doesn’t mean that we will, any more than we will “end” poverty or “eliminate” tax loopholes. But we can and should move in that direction.

  • Tom, he didn’t say that we would be safer if terrorists didn’t have nuclear weapons, he said we would be safe. The first (we’d be safer if Osama wasn’t nuking our cities) is a “No shit, Sherlock” type of statement, and the second is absolutely ridiculous, as evidenced by recent history.

    As for reducing our stockpiles, that is a reasonable goal. In fact, it is so reasonable that our stockpiles have been more than halved since 1990 (estimated 22,000 US warheads at that time), with plans to approximately halve the size again by 2012. Here’s one estimate that puts the US stockpile in 2012 at around 5500 devices, of which approximately 2600 will be deployed.

    Yet Obama insists in his speech linked above that “We need to change our nuclear policy and our posture, which is still focused on deterring the Soviet Union – a country that doesn’t exist.” Looking at the numbers it’s quite clear that much HAS changed with respect to our nuclear forces and posture since the disintegration of the USSR.

    Obama also states, “We’ll work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, and to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material.” I believe that de-targeting was actually accomplished some time ago. Perhaps Obama will call for the creation of a national highway system, too.

    As an aside: I think Russian lack of security has more to do RIGHT NOW with the emergence of China on the world stage than it does with our stockpiles. And the Chinese more likely fear our deep water naval fleet more than they do our nukes. They know we can’t nuke them: that’s where all our stuff is. (Or where it comes from in any event.) But our fleet can choke off all the sea lanes they need to keep the imports flowing. The Chinese won’t feel secure until we can’t do that anymore.

  • Tom Strong

    Icepick,

    Tom, he didn’t say that we would be safer if terrorists didn’t have nuclear weapons, he said we would be safe. The first (we’d be safer if Osama wasn’t nuking our cities) is a “No shit, Sherlock” type of statement, and the second is absolutely ridiculous, as evidenced by recent history.

    I think you’re reading it pretty uncharitably. The point of the sentence is that a large nuclear arsenal developed to force the Soviet Union bankrupt has little value defending America against terrorist cells, not that nuclear terrorism is the only thing we should watch out for. It is a “No shit, Sherlock” statement, but our government policies are frequently stupid enough to merit that kind of rhetoric.

    I agree with most of the rest of your statement, though I believe hair-trigger alert is largely unrelated to targeting (which can be accomplished very quickly). But as for the rest – it is mostly broad rhetoric aimed at pretty subtle changes. Which, as with Iraq, is how most of this stuff goes.

  • Of course, “hair trigger alert” is a nice sounding catch-phrase, but is never defined by those who use it.

    The fact that nuclear weapons cannot deter terrorists is a no-brainer, but that doesn’t mean they have no utility for the United States.

  • Nukes may not deter terrorists, but they may deter terror-sponsor nation states. North Korea or Pakistan might, under other circumstances, think it good fun to hand a nuclear device to Al Qaeda. Facing the prospect of oblieration no doubt has a sobering effect.

  • Nukes may not deter terrorists, but they may deter terror-sponsor nation states. North Korea or Pakistan might, under other circumstances, think it good fun to hand a nuclear device to Al Qaeda. Facing the prospect of oblieration no doubt has a sobering effect.

    Reynolds, one or both of us should be concerned as I agree with everything you wrote above.

  • I think you’re reading it pretty uncharitably.

    I’m reading it as it was presented. If Obama can’t say what he actually means, then he shouldn’t be running for office.

    We’ve had to endure 6 and a half years of Bush’s mangled rhetoric, before that eight years of Clinton’s crappy grade scholl level trickery (“It depends on what the definition of “is” is.) and before that four years of Bush pere mangling the language so badly that his best phrase (Not GON uh) was actually delivered by a comedian who was mocking him. I think that asking Obama to actually put some thought into his PREPARED and VETTED policy speechs isn’t placing too high a burden on him.

    Especially since Obama keeps insisting that he’s telluing us exactly what he means, and that he would never lie to us. Evoking the memory of Jimmy Carter is perhaps not the best idea to reassure anyone that he knows what he’s doing.

  • Fletcher Christian

    Yes, we should reduce our stocks of nuclear weapons, here in the West – by using them, where they’ll do the most good.

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