Defusing the Bomb Culture

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how, and nuclear material has brought us to a tipping point. It is now possible that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands.

The steps we are taking to address these threats are not adequate. With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.

One year ago, we called for a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world. The interest, momentum, and growing political space that has been created to address those issues over the past year have been extraordinary, with strong positive responses from people all over the world.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in January 2007 that he, as someone who had signed the first treaties on real reductions in nuclear weapons, thought it his duty to support our call for urgent action: “It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security; in fact, with every passing year they make our security more precarious.”

In June, the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, signaled her government’s support, stating: “What we need is both a vision— a scenario for a world free of nuclear weapons—and action: progressive steps to reduce warhead numbers and to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy. These two strands are separate, but they are mutually reinforcing. Both are necessary but at the moment too weak.”

We have also been encouraged by additional indications of general support for this project from other former U.S. officials with extensive experience as secretaries of state and defense and as national security advisers. These include Madeleine Albright, Richard V. Allen, James A. Baker III, Samuel R. Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Warren Christopher, William Cohen, Lawrence Eagleburger, Melvin Laird, Anthony Lake, Robert McFarlane, Robert McNamara, and Colin Powell.

Inspired by this reaction, in October 2007 we convened veterans of the past six administrations, along with a number of other experts on nuclear issues, for a conference at the Hoover Institution. There was general agreement about the importance of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons as a guide to our thinking, and about the importance of certain steps that would pull us back from the nuclear precipice.

The United States and Russia, which possess close to 95 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, have a special responsibility, an obligation, and the experience to demonstrate leadership, but other nations must join them.

Some steps are already being taken, such as the ongoing reductions in the number of nuclear warheads deployed on long-range (strategic) bombers and missiles. The United States and Russia could take other nearterm steps, beginning now, to dramatically reduce nuclear dangers. They include:

  1. Extending key provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991. Much has been learned about the vital task of verification from the application of these provisions. The treaty is scheduled to expire on December 5, 2009. The key provisions of this treaty, including their essential monitoring and verification requirements, should be extended, and the further reductions agreed upon in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty should be completed as soon as possible.
  2. Taking steps to increase the warning and decision times for the launch of all nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, thereby reducing risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks. Relying on launch procedures that deny command authorities sufficient time to make careful and prudent decisions is unnecessary and dangerous in today’s environment. Furthermore, developments in cyberwarfare pose new threats that could have disastrous consequences if the command-and-control systems of any nuclear-weapons state were compromised by mischievous or hostile hackers. Further steps could be implemented in time, as trust grows in the U.S.-Russian relationship, such as introducing mutually agreed-upon and verified physical barriers in the command-and-control sequence.
  3. Discarding any operational plans for massive attacks that still remain from the Cold War days. Interpreting deterrence as requiring mutual assured destruction (MAD) is an obsolete policy today, with the United States and Russia formally having declared that they are allied against terrorism and no longer perceive each other as enemies.
  4. Undertaking negotiations toward cooperative, multilateral ballistic-missile defense and early-warning systems, as proposed by presidents Bush and Putin at their 2002 Moscow summit. Those negotiations should include an agreement on plans for countering missile threats to Europe, Russia, and the United States from the Middle East, along with completing the necessary work to establish the Joint Data Exchange Center in Moscow. Reducing tensions over missile defense will enhance the possibility of progress on the broader range of nuclear issues so essential to our security. Failing to do so will make broader nuclear cooperation much more difficult.
  5. Dramatically accelerating work to provide the highest possible standards of security for nuclear weapons, as well as for nuclear materials everywhere in the world, to prevent terrorists from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Nuclear weapons materials are held in more than forty countries, and there are recent reports of alleged attempts to smuggle nuclear material in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The United States, Russia, and other nations that have worked with the Nunn-Lugar programs, in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), should play a key role in helping implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which relates to improving nuclear security. They can offer teams to help any nation meet its obligations under this resolution so as to provide appropriate, effective security of nuclear materials.

    As California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in his address at our October conference: “Mistakes are made in every other human endeavor. Why should nuclear weapons be exempt?” A recent example underlines the governor’s point: during August 29–30, 2007, six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were loaded on a U.S. Air Force plane, flown across the country, and unloaded. For thirty-six hours, no one knew where the warheads were or even that they were missing.
  6. Starting a dialogue, including within NATO and with Russia, on consolidating the nuclear weapons designed for forward deployment. These small, portable nuclear weapons are inviting targets for terrorist groups. This dialogue would be a first step toward a careful accounting of them and their eventual elimination.
  7. Strengthening the means of monitoring compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). More progress in this direction is urgent and could be achieved through imposing new monitoring provisions (additional protocols) designed by the IAEA on all signatories of the NPT.
  8. Adopting a process for bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into effect, thus strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty and aiding international monitoring of nuclear activities. (The United States has signed the CTBT but has not ratified it.) This calls for a bipartisan review: first to examine improvements in the international monitoring system’s ability to identify and locate underground nuclear tests held in violation of the test-ban treaty, and then to assess the technical progress of the past decade toward ensuring the reliability, safety, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under a ban. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization is setting up new monitoring stations to detect nuclear tests—an effort the United States should urgently support even before ratification.

In parallel with these steps by the United States and Russia, the dialogue must be broadened to an international scale, to include non-nuclear as well as nuclear nations.

Deterrence should no longer be linked to mutual assured destruction, an obsolete policy now that the United States and Russia no longer perceive each other as enemies.

Key subjects include turning the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a practical enterprise by applying the political will to build an international consensus. In addition, advanced nuclear countries and a strengthened IAEA must find a way to manage the risks of the nuclear fuel cycle; interest in nuclear energy is growing around the world, along with the potential proliferation of nuclear enrichment capabilities. Such a monitoring system would provide for reliable supplies of nuclear fuel, reserves of enriched uranium, infrastructure assistance, financing, and spent-fuel management—all to ensure that the means to make nuclear weapons materials are not spread around the globe.

The United States and Russia also should agree to undertake further substantial reductions in nuclear forces beyond those recorded in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty of 2002. As the reductions proceeded, other nuclear nations would become involved.

President Reagan’s maxim of “trust, but verify” should be reaffirmed. Completing a verifiable treaty to prevent nations from producing nuclear materials for weapons would contribute to a rigorous system of accounting and security.

We also should build an international consensus on ways to deter or, when required, respond to secret attempts by countries to break out of agreements.

Our goal must be clearly stated. Without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the cooperation required to stop our present downward spiral.

In some respects, the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a towering mountain. From the vantage point of today’s troubled world, we can’t see the peak, and it is tempting to say that we can’t get there from here. But there is no safety where we stand. We must chart a course to higher ground, where the mountaintop comes into view.