Making the world free of nuclear weapons has been the wish of many people of goodwill since the dawn of the nuclear age. It was formally proposed by the U.S. in 1946, when only it had nuclear weapons. But the hope soon was exposed as only that: a hope. The Soviet Union rejected the U.S. proposal and the nuclear arms race was off and running.
But hope springs eternal, and the desire for a nuclear-free world has been elevated by otherwise responsible people—including Henry Kissinger and William Perry—to a serious policy prescription. How nations behave provides a reality test that shows nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated in the world as it exists, and that acting otherwise diverts resources away from nonproliferation actions that can work.
Nuclear weapons are frequently sought and used to intimidate. In 2008, Russia threatened Poland and the Czech Republic with nuclear attack if they participated in a then-planned U.S. missile defense system. In 1996, a Chinese official threatened the obliteration of Los Angeles if the U.S. met certain defense obligations to Taiwan. Unlike the U.S., Russia's military doctrine prescribes occasions for first use of nuclear weapons. Does anyone believe the Iranian nuclear program is not motivated by the intention to threaten?
A country's desire for nuclear weapons also becomes pressing when distrust and enmity are high. The distrust between India and Pakistan is so profound that each has felt the need for a nuclear capability.
Countries depend on nuclear weapons for defense as well. This is the case for the 31 countries under the U.S. nuclear umbrella—where the U.S. commits to maintain a nuclear capability and use it to defend the others. Most of the countries under the umbrella have forsaken developing their own nuclear weapons so long as the U.S. deterrent remains available and credible.
Proponents of "nuclear zero" sometimes argue that if the U.S. and Russia eliminated their nuclear arsenals, other nations would follow their lead. But where's the evidence? Since 1991, the U.S. has unilaterally moved toward nuclear disarmament. It reduced the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads to fewer than 2,200 from 13,000. It ended nuclear testing. It neither produced nor designed new nuclear warheads. It ended production of fissile material for nuclear warheads. But these actions have not persuaded any nuclear countries to follow suit.
So long as countries threaten to use nuclear arms, others will require a nuclear answer. Even suspicion of nuclear blackmail will precipitate demands for a countervailing deterrent. As a senior official of a Middle East country told me in 2006, "If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, someone else in the region will become nuclear capable too."
The nuclear zeroers argue that strict verification can overcome such suspicion. But the facts argue otherwise. Did the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections thwart covert and illegal programs in North Korea? In Iran? In Iraq? And when illegal nuclear weapons development is discovered, as in Iran, what U.N. or "international community" response will protect the immediately threatened states?
Suppose every country seriously considered relinquishing its nuclear weapons and accepting an inspection regime. Wouldn't we anticipate that some would cheat, especially as the world approaches zero and the prospect emerged for a country to become the world's only nuclear power? It would be irresponsible for national leaders not to consider such possibilities.
There are better ways to reduce the prospects for nuclear weapons being used. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 adopted in 2004 requires members to pass and enforce domestic legislation to outlaw the manufacture and trade of nuclear materials—but many countries need help to implement this. The Proliferation Security Initiative, which invites multilateral cooperation to interdict international shipments of nuclear materials, has had successes—but it would be more effective with greater financial and political support. Tough action to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons would be a welcome replacement for current threats and rhetoric. Greater resources could be allocated to developing new technologies to detect fissile materials.
But mustering support for effective measures would be easier if we focused on the problems and steps that might be of practical consequence, not on rhetoric about nuclear zero.