For a Better Nuclear Future, Move Beyond Global Zero

More than four years after President Barack Obama’s 2009 Prague speech declared the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide, the nuclear landscape has become more complex and precarious and shows little sign of movement toward abolition. The so-called global zero initiative has arguably been overtaken by countervailing nuclear realities. Yet the administration remains mired in a Cold War paradigm, gearing up for more U.S.-Russia arms control.

Instead, the Obama administration should focus on other components of its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review as priorities for advancing nonproliferation objectives. These include securing nuclear materials, institutionalizing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), capping global production of fissile material and, more broadly, devaluing the role of nuclear weapons in global security. As in other realms, the United States-China relationship will be a major factor determining the nuclear future.

The goal of eventually eradicating nuclear weapons is not new. Abolishing nuclear weapons over time is in fact enshrined in Article 6 of the 1967 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The flaw in the global zero concept is not its desirability, but its enforceability, especially as it has become progressively easier to build nuclear weapons. However, a number of factors currently make progress in pursuit of global zero unlikely.  

The first is that nuclear proliferation, and not abolition, seems to be the order of the day. We are approaching inflection points in the nuclear weapons programs of both Iran and North Korea, each of which could trigger chains of proliferation in their regions, particularly in the case of Iran. Meanwhile, both India and Pakistan continue to modernize their missile and nuclear arsenals, and Russia seems to be increasingly dependent on nuclear weapons for its great power status.

Moreover, the prospects for any deep nuclear reductions in the medium term depend in large measure on the evolution of U.S.-China relations, as nothing more than minor reductions will occur so long as arms control talks remain exclusively between Russia and the United States. For a more cooperative nuclear future, the next phase in arms reductions will require deep cuts by both major nuclear powers, but they are likely and desirable only if such cuts represent the initial stage of a multilateral process. The explicit objective must be to link the floor of U.S. and Russian reductions to the ceiling of what China, India and Pakistan commit to as their definition of minimal credible deterrence; the U.K. and France should commit to reductions as well.

As of today, such a scenario is difficult to envision. China has so far been unwilling to consider any nuclear arms control talks, and the military-industrial bureaucracies in both Washington and Beijing appear to be reinforcing their strategic competition in a classic security dilemma. If this dynamic persists, it will be difficult to envision new arms control initiatives seeking deep nuclear cuts. By contrast, if the U.S.-China relationship evolves in a more cooperative direction, new possibilities might arise.

Finally, another important U.S. concern is the credibility of extended deterrence. Even if the credibility of America’s nuclear umbrella ultimately rests on its believability, and not on its size, there is an obvious tension between extended deterrence for U.S. treaty allies in Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea, and the goal of global zero.

As a result, the most promising areas for progress are the other components of the United States nuclear agenda, including securing nuclear material, negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty, strengthening international control over the fuel cycle and ratifying the CTBT.

First, in the area of securing nuclear material, the Nuclear Security Initiative begun by the Obama administration is a successful example of ad hoc multilateralism. It now involves 53 nations and key international organizations, which met in Seoul early last year. This process of voluntary cooperation to enhance the security of fissile material is vital to countering the threat of nuclear terrorism and should be viewed as a long-term process.

Second, the nearly moribund effort to negotiate an international treaty to cap the production of weapons-grade fissile material needs to be rethought. A fissile material cutoff treaty would be an important step toward curbing the nuclear threat. But the talks that have occurred within the U.N. Conference on Disarmament have involved some 120 countries, when only eight countries are really relevant. The United States and Russia should initiate a process within this smaller group to gain consensus on a fissile material production cutoff and a mechanism for tighter international control of fissile material. If the key actors could secure such a consensus, the possibility of a successful treaty would be greatly increased.

Third, the most glaring gap in the nonproliferation regime is the fuel cycle — the reprocessing of plutonium and the enrichment of uranium. As civilian nuclear power expands, proliferation risks expand with it. New initiatives for international control, or even just enhanced supervision and monitoring, over the fuel cycle would ameliorate this problem. Establishing regional fuel banks under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision may be one useful step in this direction.

Finally, the United States was the first nation to sign the CTBT in 1996, and has continued to abide by a self-imposed moratorium on testing, though the United States Senate has not ratified the treaty. Since then we have enjoyed the worst of both worlds. Yet recent studies from the National Academy of Sciences show that the concerns that previously blocked U.S. movement on the treaty — maintaining the reliability of our nuclear stockpile and verification monitoring — have both improved substantially in the interim. To date the CTBT has received 36 of the 44 ratifications required for it to come into force. The CTBT ought to be part of U.S. strategy over the coming decade.

It must be said that however fragile the NPT appears, if the five declared nuclear states renounced nuclear weapons tomorrow, doing so would have precious little impact on North Korea, Iran or other would-be proliferators. The motivations of proliferators are a mix of perceived security threats, vanity and national ambition. Nonetheless, progress in the areas outlined above over the coming two decades would strengthen nuclear security writ large.

Robert A. Manning is senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. This piece first appeared on World Politics Review.

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