Disarmament Danger
From the April 19, 2010 issue of NR.


The Obama administration has placed nuclear disarmament at the top of its foreign-policy agenda. Other possible goals, such as modernizing U.S. nuclear forces for deterrence purposes, are now considered either transitory or subordinate to taking steps toward “nuclear zero.” In itself, banning nuclear weapons is not a new U.S. goal; Ronald Reagan also supported it. But this prioritization is unprecedented.

In the past, Republican and Democratic administrations have maintained a balance between the parallel goals of modernizing U.S. nuclear programs for deterrence and pursuing nuclear-arms reductions when feasible. This balancing act can be seen in the Clinton administration’s policy of “lead and hedge,” which sought to lead in the reduction of nuclear arms while hedging against threats by sustaining a robust nuclear arsenal. Indeed, in pursuit of this balance, the Clinton administration successfully did what the Obama administration has now declared verboten in the push for nuclear zero: It developed and deployed new nuclear capabilities deemed necessary for deterrence.

The George W. Bush administration sought to maintain a similar balance. It successfully negotiated the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which reduced U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces from approximately 6,000 to approximately 2,000 deployed nuclear weapons each. This two-thirds reduction was the largest in history.

The moral here is that in pursuit of a balanced nuclear policy, the Clinton administration did not ignore the need to advance U.S. nuclear-deterrence capabilities, and — despite the revisionist history now in play — the Bush administration was willing to embrace deep nuclear-force reductions.

Why should we be wary of the Obama administration’s shift away from this traditional, balanced dual track? Because nuclear zero cannot be achieved unilaterally, or even bilaterally. It will require many countries to make the strategic decision that nuclear weapons are unnecessary for their security. And despite the warm rhetoric inspired by the nuclear-zero vision, much of the rest of the world — including U.S. allies, friends, and foes — sees great continuing value in nuclear weapons.

For example, some close allies with centuries of painful experience recall the old non-nuclear world as a destroyer of nations. There were no nuclear weapons to deter those bent on war in 1914 and 1939. The result: approximately 40 million casualties in World War I, and 50 to 70 million casualties in World War II. This contrasts sharply with the decades since 1945, in which another such war did not erupt despite multiple crises and titanic conflicts.

The rapid succession of two world wars during the first part of the 20th century, and the absence of a third world war during the subsequent nuclear era, demonstrates in the most dramatic way possible the great deterrent value of nuclear weapons. Indeed, after centuries of annual slaughter, the percentage of the world’s population lost to war each year dropped dramatically with the onset of nuclear deterrence. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher poignantly observed that the casualties of World Wars I and II are silent testimony to this fact: “There are monuments to the futility of conventional deterrence in every village in Europe.”


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