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January 30, 2007

A World Free of Nuclear Weapons

Ending the threat of nuclear arms. By George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, Sam Nunn.


Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers but also a historic opportunity. U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage—to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.

Nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War because they were a means of deterrence. The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

North Korea’s recent nuclear test and Iran’s refusal to stop its program to enrich uranium—potentially to weapons grade—highlight the fact that the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era. Most alarming, the likelihood that nonstate terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weaponry is increasing. In today’s war waged on world order by terrorists, nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass devastation. And nonstate terrorist groups with nuclear weapons are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy and present difficult new security challenges.

Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

Apart from the terrorist threat, unless urgent new actions are taken, the United States soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically costly than Cold War deterrence. It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American “mutually assured destruction” with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies worldwide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used. New nuclear states do not have the benefit of years of step-by-step safeguards put in effect during the Cold War to prevent nuclear accidents, misjudgments, or unauthorized launches. The United States and the Soviet Union learned from mistakes that were less than fatal. Both countries were diligent to ensure that no nuclear weapon was used during the Cold War by design or by accident. Will new nuclear nations and the world be as fortunate in the next 50 years as we were during the Cold War?

Leaders addressed this issue in earlier times. In his “Atoms for Peace” address to the United Nations in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged America’s “determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma—to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” John F. Kennedy, seeking to break the logjam on nuclear disarmament, said, “The world was not meant to be a prison in which man awaits his execution.”

Rajiv Gandhi, addressing the U.N. General Assembly on June 9, 1988, appealed: “Nuclear war will not mean the death of a hundred million people. Or even a thousand million. It will mean the extinction of four thousand million: the end of life as we know it on our planet earth. We come to the United Nations to seek your support. We seek your support to put a stop to this madness.”

Ronald Reagan called for the abolishment of “all nuclear weapons,” which he considered to be “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.” Mikhail Gorbachev shared this vision, which had also been expressed by previous American presidents.

Although Reagan and Gorbachev failed at Reykjavik to achieve the goal of an agreement to get rid of all nuclear weapons, they did succeed in turning the arms race on its head. They initiated steps leading to significant reductions in deployed long- and intermediate-range nuclear forces, including the elimination of an entire class of threatening missiles.

Unless urgent new actions are taken, the United States soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious and psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence.

What will it take to rekindle the vision shared by Reagan and Gorbachev? Can a worldwide consensus be forged that defines a series of practical steps leading to major reductions in the nuclear danger? There is an urgent need to address the challenge posed by these two questions.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) envisioned the end of all nuclear weapons. It provides that states that did not possess nuclear weapons as of 1967 agree not to obtain them, and that states that do possess them agree to divest themselves of these weapons over time. Every president of both parties since Richard Nixon has reaffirmed these treaty obligations, but states without nuclear weapons have grown increasingly skeptical of the sincerity of the nuclear powers.

Strong nonproliferation efforts are under way. The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the Proliferation Security Initiative, and the Additional Protocols are innovative approaches that provide powerful new tools for detecting activities that violate the NPT and endanger world security. They deserve full implementation. The negotiations on proliferation of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran, involving all the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and Japan, are crucially important. They must be energetically pursued.

But by themselves, none of these steps are adequate to the danger. Reagan and Gorbachev aspired to accomplish more at their meeting in Reykjavik 20 years ago—the elimination of nuclear weapons altogether. Their vision shocked experts in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence but galvanized the hopes of people around the world. The leaders of the two countries with the largest arsenals of nuclear weapons discussed the abolition of their most powerful weapons.

Will new nuclear nations and the world be as fortunate in the next 50 years as we were during the Cold War?

What should be done? Can the promise of the NPT and the possibilities envisioned at Reykjavik be brought to fruition? We believe that a major effort should be launched by the United States to produce a positive answer through concrete stages. First and foremost should be intensive work with leaders of the countries in possession of nuclear weapons to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise. Such a joint enterprise, by involving changes in the disposition of the states possessing nuclear weapons, would lend additional weight to efforts already under way to avoid the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran.

The program on which agreements should be sought would constitute a series of agreed-on and urgent steps that would lay the groundwork for a world free of the nuclear threat. Such steps would include:

  • Changing the Cold War posture of deployed nuclear weapons to increase warning time and thereby reduce the danger of an accidental or unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon.
  • Continuing to reduce substantially the size of nuclear forces in all states that possess them.
  • Eliminating short-range nuclear weapons designed to be forward-deployed.
  • Initiating a bipartisan process with the Senate, including understandings to increase confidence and provide for periodic review, to achieve ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking advantage of recent technical advances and working to secure ratification by other key states.
  • Providing the highest possible standards of security for all stocks of weapons, weapons-usable plutonium, and highly enriched uranium everywhere in the world.
  • Getting control of the uranium enrichment process, combined with the guarantee that uranium for nuclear power reactors could be obtained at a reasonable price, first from the Nuclear Suppliers Group and then from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or other controlled international reserves. It will also be necessary to deal with proliferation issues presented by spent fuel from reactors producing electricity.
  • Halting the production of fissile material for weapons globally, phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium in civil commerce, and removing weapons-usable uranium from research facilities around the world and rendering the materials safe.
  • Redoubling our efforts to resolve regional confrontations and conflicts that give rise to new nuclear powers. Achieving the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons will also require effective measures to impede or counter any nuclear-related conduct that is potentially threatening to the security of any state or peoples.

Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations. Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.

We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal, beginning with the measures outlined above.


This statement is the product of a conference organized by George P. Shultz and Hoover senior fellow Sidney D. Drell at the Hoover Institution to reconsider the vision that President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev brought to Reykjavik. In addition to Shultz and Drell, the following participants also endorse the view in this statement: Martin Anderson, Steve Andreasen, Michael Armacost, William Crowe, James Goodby, Thomas Graham Jr., Thomas Henriksen, David Holloway, Max Kampelman, Jack Matlock, John McLaughlin, Don Oberdorfer, Rozanne Ridgway, Henry Rowen, Roald Sagdeev, and Abraham Sofaer.


George P. Shultz is the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was sworn in on July 16, 1982, as the sixtieth US secretary of state and served until January 20, 1989. In January 1989, he rejoined Stanford University as the Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Economics at the Graduate School of Business and as a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution.


William Perry is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies. He is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor at Stanford University and serves as codirector of the Nuclear Risk Reduction initiative and the Preventive Defense Project. He is an expert in US foreign policy, national security, and arms control. Perry was the nineteenth secretary of defense for the United States, serving from February 1994 to January 1997.


Henry A. Kissinger is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was sworn in on September 22, 1973, as the fifty-sixth secretary of state, a position he held until January 20, 1977. He also served as assistant to the president for national security affairs from January 20, 1969, until November 3, 1975. At present, Kissinger is chairman of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm. For a detailed list of Kissinger's other activities, please see his biography.


Sam Nunn is an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution (2012–13) and cochairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a charitable organization working to reduce the global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. He served as a United States senator from Georgia for twenty-four years (1972–96) and has retired from the law firm of King & Spalding.


This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2007. © 2007 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

Available from the Hoover Press is The Gravest Danger: Nuclear Weapons, by Sidney D. Drell and James E. Goodby. To order, call 800.935.2882 or visit www.hooverpress.org.