Summary of the breakout conversation “The Nuclear Future: Zero nukes or a new proliferation?” at the 2010 Annual Members’ Conference.


Richard R. Burt, Managing Director, McLarty Associates; Former Lead Negotiator for the START Treaty
Jan Lodal, Former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
Frank Miller, Principal, Scowcroft Group; Former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush
Moderated by Damon Wilson, Vice President and Director, Program on International Security, Atlantic Council


In his speech at Prague, Czech Republic in April 2009, President Obama made history by declaring his vision of a world without nuclear weapons and committing the United States to significant reductions to America’s nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration has followed this important speech with a series of initiatives and concrete actions to work towards that vision, including writing a new Nuclear Posture Review, signing the ‘New START’ Treaty with Russia, hosting a nuclear non-proliferation summit in Washington in April 2010, participating actively in the NPT review conference in New York, and declaring the number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal in an important gesture of nuclear transparency.

The idea of ‘global zero’ has long had its supporters, most notably the ‘Gang of Four’ consisting of Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry. But the movement also has its doubters and skeptics, both in the United States as well as abroad. Even the most vigorous supporters of the ‘Global Zero’ movement admit that the realization of the dream of a world without nuclear weapons is still not achievable in the short-term and that significant cuts to the U.S. and Russian arsenals would need to be carefully calibrated to ensure strategic stability in the run-up to zero.

President Obama himself has hedged his statement about envisioning a ‘world without nuclear weapons’ by saying it is unlikely he will see this dream achieved in his lifetime, although other backers of the ‘global zero’ movement believe this dream can be achieved more quickly than the President thinks. While the new START Treaty and other arms control measures are important, an essential step for ‘global zero’ will be the recognition by nuclear states that atomic weapons have no military purpose other than to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by other states.

Skeptics of the global zero movement argue that international politics stand in the way of a realistic path towards a world without nuclear weapons. They argue that of the nuclear armed states, only the United States and the United Kingdom officially support the idea of ‘global zero.’ France, Pakistan, India, Israel, China, and Russia are all skeptics, to speak nothing of North Korea, which will want nuclear weapons whether the United States has them or not. Furthermore, skeptics allege that nuclear weapons are in fact a force of stability and strategic restraint among nations, arguing that we have seen a world without nuclear weapons before 1945, and that this era was marked by bloody wars among the great powers.

Supporters counter that the proliferation paradigm has changed and that nuclear weapons are no longer ‘great power weapons’ but are today ‘weak power weapons.’ They argue that nuclear weapons are useless for helping the great powers achieve their economic national interests and that weak states that seek to acquire nuclear weapons will make their decisions based on how the great powers treat nuclear weapons. Recognizing that there is a risk that countries such as Iran could develop highly sophisticated nuclear programs that are just steps away from militarization, supporters of global zero argue that there is a need for a new, far more robust inspection regime to deal with this new proliferation paradigm.

-Summary by Jeff Lightfoot, Associate Director, International Security Program

This session was held under Atlantic Council Rules, defined by President and CEO Frederick Kempe as “Chatham House Rules with military enforcement.” 

Related Experts: Damon Wilson