In his speech Wednesday at the National Defense University here, Vice President Joe Biden opened a new offensive in the administration’s war on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. One near-term objective is completion and ratification of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia. But the ultimate goal, he said, remained the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.
In the absence of a roadmap from a Start accord to global zero, one can only assume that Mr. Biden meant the continued pursuit of similar, incremental arms control agreements. But piecemeal control efforts will never work; we have to think more boldly if we are to achieve global nuclear disarmament.
The idea of achieving nuclear zero through arms control agreements is nothing new. It has been pursued for nearly 50 years, and it’s a tough slog, practically and politically. Indeed, such agreements take so long to negotiate and require so much political capital that presidents rarely achieve more than one. I should know: as a midlevel State Department official in 1979, I spent six months trying to persuade Midwestern voters to support that era’s arms-control proposal, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, known as SALT II. Wherever I went, I encountered opponents. Some were against specific provisions; many simply opposed any limit on American power, or wanted to deal a blow to the Carter administration.
Most people recognized that SALT II was just another baby step toward halting the arms race and did little to ease nuclear dangers. The United States and the Soviet Union together possessed more than 50,000 nuclear weapons; the treaty would have barely dented their arsenals. If nuclear war began, we all would have been just as dead, regardless of SALT II.
But the problem isn’t just American politics. Piecemeal agreements between two nuclear powers to reduce, but not eliminate, their atomic inventories are insufficient; as the United States and Russia leisurely reduce their stocks, other states are building up arsenals, and still others are gaining the technical skills to advance their own programs. Since 1993, when the United States and Russia signed the last formal arms control treaty, Start II (which was never fully ratified), India, North Korea and Pakistan have joined the nuclear club, and Iran may follow soon.
Accelerating nuclear proliferation and terrorist attacks have led diplomats worldwide to embrace disarmament as a long-term goal. At the same time, they say it is unrealistic to pursue zero weapons in the near term.
Fortunately, that’s not true. The technical expertise necessary for air-tight verification has already been developed through past agreements and international supervision of the countries that have relinquished nuclear programs. International precedents already exist for virtually every procedure necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons safely, verifiably and without risk to any nation’s security.
Here’s how a global nuclear disarmament treaty could work. First, it would spell out a decades-long schedule for the verified destruction of all weapons, materials and facilities. Those possessing the largest arsenals — the United States and Russia — would make deep cuts first. Those with smaller arsenals would join at specified dates and levels. To ensure that no state gained an advantage, the treaty would incorporate “rest stops”: if a state refused to comply with a scheduled measure, other nations’ reductions would be suspended until the violation was corrected. This dynamic would generate momentum, but also ensure that if the effort collapsed, the signatories would be no less secure than before.
Critics cite cheating as the main reason to dismiss disarmament, ignoring that, even without cooperative verification, American intelligence has detected every past national effort to develop nuclear weapons before those weapons became operational. Furthermore, elimination is simpler to verify than any reduction in the number of warheads. In a disarmament regime, the entirety of the nuclear complex would be monitored, shielding nothing from inspectors’ eyes. Discovery of a single warhead or kilogram of fissile material in an undeclared location would blow the whistle.
Moreover, an international verification organization, akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency, would have the authority to inspect any site in every country at any time. In addition to routine monitoring, inspections would be prompted by tips from national intelligence agencies, a procedure incorporated into three prior treaties.
Just as important as detecting cheating is enforcement. To avoid the Security Council’s endless deadlocks, the treaty could establish its own means of enforcement. For the most serious violations, a supermajority of signatories would authorize the collective use of military force to destroy offending sites and even to dislodge the regime and bring violating officials to trial. The 2007 Israeli destruction of an illicit Syrian reactor demonstrated the effectiveness of conventional military strikes in stymieing secret attempts to acquire a nuclear capacity.
Of course, in the event that a great power chose to opt out of the treaty and rebuild its arsenal, collective military action would be unlikely. But at worst, such a shift would just return us to the status quo ante — the other powers could just as promptly rebuild their own nuclear arsenals, netting the cheat nothing but the world’s enmity. (Experts agree that the United States could restock its nuclear inventory in as little as six months.)
This isn’t to say that completing and ratifying the new Start agreement is not a good idea: the talks and subsequent verification measures are central to relations between the United States and Russia, and a treaty would reduce operational warheads on long-range missiles and bombers by more than one-fourth. The question is what to do next. Another Start is not the answer. A comprehensive agreement for phased, verified reductions to nuclear zero is not only feasible, but far less risky than the ineffective path we have been on for so long.
Barry Blechman, a fellow at the Stimson Center, a national security policy institute and the co-editor of Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty.