Should the United States aim to achieve a world free of all nuclear weapons? In one sense, the question is trivial – nuclear disarmament has been a stated aim of the United States since the dawn of the nuclear age. And the United States also committed to working toward this end when it signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.
But in another sense, the question is fundamental. Although successive administrations (at least until the current one) have mouthed the words affirming this objective, few have actually made this commitment an organizing principle of their nuclear weapons policies. That may be about to change. Earlier this week, Senator Barack Obama pledged that as president he would say: “America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons.” Former senator John Edwards has also pledged to lead an international effort to eliminate nuclear weapons, as has New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
And it isn’t just presidential candidates who are talking about a nuclear-free world. So are former statesmen like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Bill Perry, and Sam Nunn. Writing in The Wall Street Journal last January, they urged that the United States set the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, and proposed specific actions to that end. [complete article]
A problem with this article is that it does even raise the question of what would have to be done to secure acceptance by other major players in the international system of the volte face which its authors are proposing.
As I noted in an earlier comment on this site, following Barack Obama’s speech, the fact that the United States was going to have decisive superiority in conventional military power was clearly evident in 1989. Back then the principal British army Sovietologist, Chris Donnelly, was already anticipating that the Russians would have ‘the biggest collection of military antiques at the turn of the century the world has ever seen.’
To talk of ‘reversibility’, as Western politicians and journalists did obsessively, was always gibberish, because this shift in the conventional balance was the product of developments in information technology with which a command economy, and a political system depended on the control of information, could not hope to keep up.
Accordingly, key arguments traditionally used to justify strategies of first use by NATO were clearly going to appeal to potential adversaries of the United States. And this is what has happened. Among other things the Russians — who had actually abandoned strategies of first-use by the mid-Seventies — have now adopted Western style-strategies of nuclear ‘deterrence’.
If the United States were seriously to try to reverse the dynamic towards proliferation, it would require not simply a change of view on nuclear weapons — but very fundamental changes in foreign policy.
Back in the mid-Eighties, when the failure of communism was widely apparent to substantial sections of the Soviet elite, there was a striking degree of trust about American intentions in Moscow. This was manifested for example in the way in which Gorbachev accepted verbal assurances that Soviet acceptance of the membership of a united Germany in NATO would not lead to further eastward expansion of the alliance, without even asking that these be put in writing.
Today, the American elite appears to be unanimous on the need to include Ukraine in NATO. Proposals to station missile defence systems in Poland and Czechoslovakia are commonly read in Moscow in the light of the Foreign Affairs article on the The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy published last year by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press. What this means is that it assumed that missile defence is actually intended to give the U.S. a viable first-strike option.
If the U.S. now wanted to persuade the Russian leadership to retrace their steps back to the anti-nuclear enthusiasms of the late Eighties, fundamental changes would be necessary. Among them would be an end to the current propensity to demonise Vladimir Putin — and to treat the oligarchs created by ‘shock therapy’ as injured innocents.
In fact, the agenda for global nuclear disarmament has always presupposed a certain kind of international order. In essence, this would be something like the ‘peace of Dives’ of which Kipling talked back in 1903. Its central premise would be that the elites of the major world powers — irrespective of whether they are democracies — now have an overriding common interest in making a global capitalist order work.
Such an order would require robust American conventional military capabilities — not least because military force is an indispensable part of any viable non-proliferation strategy. But in such a conception, military force would in general be seen as a last resort — an ultimate threat in case of non-compliance with the common norms of a genuine ‘international community’ — rather than a first resort.
Such an order would also require an eschewal of the idea of absolute military preponderance set out in the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, and an acceptance that other powers — even ones whose internal political systems one finds unlikeable — have legitimate interests, and will want military force to defend them. More fundamentally, it would require an abandonment of the Manichean mindset currently found among large sections of the American (and British) elites — in which every conflict is seen as between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
Perhaps if more people reflected seriously on the dangers pointed out by Daalder and Holum, such changes would not be inconceivable. But, at the moment, they seem a very remote prospect indeed.