During the 74-year nuclear era, the world has struggled ceaselessly to find a way to keep nuclear weapons under control. This now appears to be within reach — if America has the vision to seize it.
Nukes are not the ultimate evil, as some would have us believe. They’re tools, like others man has created, from dynamite to poisonous medications, which can be used for good or bad.
Consider the history of nuclear weapons. First the good side:
In WWII nukes saved a million U.S. servicemen’s lives, and 10 million Japanese lives, by preventing the invasion of Japan.
The landmark Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 has been immensely effective in controlling proliferation of nukes. It created two tiers of states: Five nuclear weapons states (United States, France, U.K., Russia, and China, the permanent members of the UN Security Council); and (currently) 185 non-nuclear weapons states. The treaty, however, had one potentially fatal defect: It provided no mechanism to enforce nonproliferation.
U.S. nukes prevented WWIII for 46 years during the Cold War. America’s masterful combination of science, strategy, strength, and deterrence secured a sweeping victory against all odds. Not a single nuke was detonated, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and communism became recognized worldwide as a failure. Nuclear weapons had prevented a catastrophe.
The paramount achievement of nuclear weapons, however, has rarely been recognized. They have changed the very nature of warfare, bringing a revolutionary reduction in the world’s wartime death rate. A World Almanac study of wartime deaths shows that world’s combat death rate during the nuclear era has been one-fifth of that of the previous 250 years. The immense destructive power of nukes has simply prevented aggressive world leaders from taking that last fatal step into war. The world needs nukes.
Now what does history tell us about the bad side? It shows — dramatically — that nonproliferation requires enforcement. There must be a cop on the beat. The drafters of the Nonproliferation Treaty recognized this, but they just couldn’t bite the bullet; so they went halfway and approved five nuclear-weapons states in a leadership role.
Secondly, the Cold War’s history shows that the non-nuclear nations of the world were not at all steadfast in their pursuit of nonproliferation. A vast majority of the states and peoples of the world lost interest in nonproliferation and concentrated their global power on attempting to convince the bipolar combatants, particularly the United States (as the most reasonable), to give up nukes.
In doing so, they caused an unwarranted and tragic shift in the focus of the NPT, from nonproliferation to nuclear disarmament.
These two failures made it possible for two belligerent and irresponsible rogue states, North Korea and Iran, to reach the verge of producing nuclear weapons. For a quarter-century the world’s response had been hand-wringing, ineffective diplomacy and unsupported sanctions. The basic reality that nonproliferation requires enforcement was simply not recognized.
Because of this, the world is now at the brink of disaster. Unless stopped, these two rogues will sell their nukes to any buyer or give them to proxies for immediate use. Nuclear detonations will become more and more frequent, with death and destruction widespread. This will launch an unending global cascade of proliferation in self-defense
Each decade will bring a dozen or more new nuclear weapons states. Nukes will be widespread, uncounted and readily available on the black market. The globe will be dotted with deserted, radioactive remains of cities. Nuclear horror and chaos will reign, with no way back.
Now, at the 11th hour, President Trump has had the courage to begin to take unilateral actions against North Korea and Iran. Through negotiation, deterrence, or military force he will succeed. Both rogues will be denuclearized. The threat of loose nukes will disappear. A worldwide sigh of relief will be heard. Nuclear proliferation can be stopped.
The immensely expensive, and now unnecessary, need to go nuclear in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere will also disappear, and the world will begin an intensive reassessment of its nuclear weapons future.
This must be America’s finest hour. We must launch the greatest global diplomatic effort of all time, to guide the world into a comfortable and secure nuclear weapons future. It will take years — a decade or more — but we will be listened to, because we’ve just done the impossible.
So what is our plan for the world?
America must convince the world that the five nuclear weapons states must be made responsible, individually or collegially, for enforcing nonproliferation.
The real questions are two: Will the non-nuclear states accept it? And will the five agree to it? The odds are that both will (after a long fight). We’ve just had a narrow escape. We must start by keeping the number of nuclear-weapons states stable at eight (the five plus India, Pakistan, and Israel). The five have been reasonably responsible stewards of their nuclear status for decades. Past and current animosities among the five have kept them reasonably balanced, and there’s great hope that tomorrow’s leaders of Russia and China may be less aggressive.
What other choice is there? Nuclear history has shown that nonproliferation without enforcement is hopeless. In a sense, these five states have had this responsibility for decades, by virtue of 190 nations having formally approved them, by NPT signature, as the world’s only nuclear-weapons states. But this must be made official by a new U.N. treaty, supplementing the NPT.
One additional international action must be taken. To ensure the five have continuing enforcement capability, they must be ineligible to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In a decade or so, India may be a sixth approved nuclear state, and ironclad nuclear guarantees may have replaced Pakistan’s and Israel’s nukes. The NPT drafters’ dream will be a reality.
All this depends, however, on America’s having the determination to carry through with the denuclearization of North Korea and Iran.
Robert R. Monroe, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, is the former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.