The global nuclear challenge has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The bipolarity of the US-Soviet nuclear standoff during the Cold War has given way to a multilateral and, in some ways, more chaotic and perhaps more dangerous structure comprising nine states that possess nuclear weapons, several of which are situated in regions where intense regional rivalries exist. A factor almost completely absent in the middle years of the twentieth century is prominent today: the devolution of state authority to institutions and organizations, including terrorist groups, that can wield great power for either good or malign purposes. As a result, the odds of a nuclear weapon being used today are greater than during the Cold War, even if the prospect of a civilization-ending nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia has been dramatically reduced.

This problem led four Cold War statesmen—George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn—to call for the elimination of the nuclear threat. The use of nuclear weapons is a real possibility. Yet the solidarity of nations needed to deal with this threat is not evident. This chapter outlines an approach for creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. It centers on a global coalition of nations taking national initiatives to move the world back from the nuclear precipice by means of a long-term work plan. On the part of all nations engaged in this joint enterprise, there should be tangible, convincing commitments to near-term actions, agreed among the relevant nations, regionally as well as on the global level. These should be carried out at a brisk pace.

The political leadership in some nuclear-armed states won’t initially be prepared to endorse the concept of a world without nuclear weapons. This is especially the case with those locked in fierce regional rivalries. But a gradual process of nuclear reductions combined with confidence-­building measures—and progress in resolving regional security issues—could create, over time, a new consensus. This process would be a key element of a joint enterprise.

A joint enterprise as discussed in this chapter would be an effort by nations, launched at the summit level and conducted over a long period of time, to control the destructive nuclear forces that threaten to overwhelm them. The nuclear dimension is not the only element of the global trends that have been re-shaping the international system, but it remains perhaps the most deadly. It highlights several related international security challenges that also must be addressed more or less concurrently.

Steadiness of purpose over time will be required—not an easy thing to do. But this kind of persistence has been shown by many nations in recent history. It was shown by the United States during the more than four decades of the Cold War. This new struggle would become the defining hallmark of this era, which is still called “post-Cold War” because it has few defining features of its own.

Current international mechanisms necessary to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons are not adequate to do the job. Tinkering with the existing machinery will not magically make things possible that were not before. But some improvements in the way nations seek to build a safer global security environment would help. This will require leadership from the top on the part of several nations.

Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn recognized in their five successive Wall Street Journal articles that in focusing on nuclear weapons they were also bringing other big issues to the fore: the nature of deterrence, mitigation of regional conflicts, conventional force imbalances, safeguards for civilian nuclear power programs, and a variety of issues involving transparency of state behavior and international governance. They understood that nations are motivated and unified by visions of a brighter future, so they stressed the need for an overarching vision—the vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

The advice they offered in their first Wall Street Journal article was “first and foremost . . . 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.” The article identified ambitious steps to “lay the groundwork for a world free of the nuclear threat.” These included reducing substantially the size of nuclear forces in all states that possess them and eliminating short-range nuclear weapons designed to be forward-deployed. The idea was that nations desiring to enter into a joint enterprise should be willing to sign on to the goal and to a series of steps that could be achieved via a sequence of agreements negotiated over time. That would, in turn, create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. This chapter describes a framework for seeking to make that objective a reality.

Conditions for a World without Nuclear Weapons

Creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons would require at least four developments.

1.         The commitment of some nuclear-armed states might begin the process, but moving toward zero eventually will require a readiness on the part of all states with nuclear weapons to reduce and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arms.

2.         New and strengthened verification measures would provide confidence that any nuclear cheating would be detected. A serious analysis of verification mechanisms for a world without nuclear weapons would be needed in order to demonstrate their feasibility.

3.         An enforcement mechanism with teeth would dissuade both states that have nuclear weapons and those that do not from cheating on agreements. The mechanism would have to respond rapidly and effectively if violations occurred.

4.         A changed international security framework would allow states to conclude that they could defend their vital interests through non-nuclear means.

Moreover, the key territorial and other interstate disputes that motivate states to acquire and maintain nuclear weapons in the first place must be resolved or at least mitigated. At the least, it would be important to gain acceptance by the contending states that nuclear arms will not help them resolve their disputes. Global agreements will have to be supplemented by regional agreements that will take into account specific conditions existing in each of those regions. Standards for effective verification of regional agreements would be a matter of international concern.

These are demanding requirements, which lead some people to conclude that a world without nuclear weapons is unattainable. It could turn out that they are right. But a failure to try amounts to acceptance of the current nuclear reality—and of the growing risk of the use of nuclear weapons with unpredictable consequences for mankind.

A joint enterprise process to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons could contribute to a broader effort to design and build the political and economic institutions that would succeed the post-World War II order. There is a question, of course—which would be resolvable only as events unfold and at the highest level of ­governments—as to how much progress on a new global security environment is needed to advance the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. But lack of progress in one area should not prevent progress in others, and progress in one area may create conditions that would promote progress in others.

Editor's note: This essay is part of a series of pieces about nuclear deterrence that Defining Ideas has been publishing. All of the essays are and will be from the new Hoover Press book, The War That Must Never Be Fought. To continue reading this essay, click here.

overlay image