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No room for deterrence in the logic of zero

November 7, 2009

The Swedish Network for Nuclear Disarmament has been holding an important conference in Stockholm this weekend (November 6-8) at which international NGOs have been strategizing about their goals and advocacy strategies for next year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference. A complete record of the conference — Reaching Nuclear Disarmament: The Role of Civil Society in Strengthening the NPT — can be found at IPPNW has been sending live updates from the conference over Twitter (

Following is a talk I gave during a seminar on “Sustaining Security on the Road to Zero,” as part of a panel that included Igor Neverov, the Russian Ambassador to Sweden, and Jan Lodal, President of the Atlantic Council of the US, who co-authored the influential paper “The Logic of Zero,” published in Foreign Affairs last November.


I’d like to thank the Swedish Network for Nuclear Disarmament for bringing us together at this crossroads on the path to abolition. Jan and Ambassador Neverov have clearly framed the necessity for — and the challenges to — US and Russian leadership in the months ahead, and I want to credit Jan and Ivo Daalder in particular for helping to bring the logic of zero into the mainstream debate and into the policies of the Obama administration.

But since I have only eight minutes, I want to get right to my quarrel with Jan and Ivo’s Foreign Affairs paper and with a core element of the Obama policy that — if it is not revisited — all but guarantees we will be threatened by nuclear weapons well beyond my lifetime and the lifetimes of most people in this room.

When Jan and Ivo set out the steps to zero in their paper, they said “The first diplomatic step must be to convince the United States’ allies that no change in nuclear weapons policy (before zero is reached) will alter Washington’s fundamental commitment to respond to a nuclear attack against an allied nation with a devastating nuclear response of its own.” President Obama echoed this idea in Prague when he said that the US would maintain “a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

To put it plainly, the logic of zero and the logic of deterrence are incompatible — just as nuclear weapons themselves are incompatible with human survival. I would go so far as to suggest that an unspoken reason for governmental and diplomatic resistance to commencing work on a Nuclear Weapons Convention — and perhaps a big reason why the Convention has not been embraced by the various gangs of four, by the ICNND, by Global Zero, or by the Washington-based arms control community — is that commitment to a Nuclear Weapons Convention as an endpoint really does require renouncing the logic of deterrence at the outset. This means rejecting the misplaced belief that nuclear weapons have security value in the first place and continue to be required (at least by their current owners and their allies) during the transition to a post-nuclear-weapons world.

During the eight months since Obama’s Prague speech, we’ve seen a resurgence of hope that a nuclear-weapons-free world is achievable, accompanied by a pushback from the right designed to undermine confidence in that goal. The most recent version of the argument that nuclear weapons may actually make us safer has percolated in neo-conservative think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, and has bubbled over into the mainstream press, most visibly in a pair of appalling articles in Newsweek and Time — the former counseling President Obama to relax and learn to love the bomb; the latter obscenely suggesting that the Nobel Committee award the Peace Prize to the bomb for its role in keeping the peace.

Back in the real world, Presidents Obama and Medvedev had no sooner announced the modest goal of reducing their strategic arsenals to 1,500 warheads each when the Japanese government started expressing anxiety about the US commitment to extended deterrence. A new Japanese government has come into office critical of outdated US-Japan nuclear policy arrangements, but whether this will result in meaningful change remains to be seen.

Similarly, when President Obama made his bold decision to cancel the deployment of missile defense radars and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic, his critics immediately changed the subject to extended deterrence in Europe. Some of us have just returned from meetings with NATO officials who told us they remain committed to the basing of US tactical nuclear weapons in nominally non-nuclear member states, and to the continuation of the doctrine of nuclear “sharing” in the new NATO Strategic Concept that is now being drafted. Their reasons? That NATO nuclear weapons contribute to the safety and stability of the alliance and that, conversely, the removal of the nuclear “option” would imperil Europe. They were quite serious about this.

In the UK, where Gordon Brown earnestly echoes President Obama’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, he nevertheless cites deterrence — with decidedly fuzzy logic — as the rationale for Trident replacement. And so he has announced a “grand new bargain,” the British end of which — absurdly — is to deploy only three, rather than four, new Trident submarines by 2020.

President Sarkozy has quietly reversed some of the worst aspects of the nuclear “mission creep” announced by his predecessor, and he makes much of French disarmament initiatives such as closing and dismantling its test site and supporting a fissile materials treaty. Nevertheless, France is holding fast to what it calls a “sufficient minimum deterrent” and won’t even countenance talk of zero.

So what can we do? Between now and the NPT Review in May, we’re going to have our hands full just responding to the forthcoming US Nuclear Posture Review, the new START agreement between the US and Russia, a possible CTBT ratification vote in the US Senate, inevitable flare-ups related to Iran and North Korea, and who knows what else. To make progress on our own agenda, we must also do everything we can to find additional state support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, and work for a pro-Convention recommendation as part of the NPT Review outcome.

To that end, we need to reframe and reassert our best arguments. Not surprisingly, nuclear weapons have always been — and continue to be — the best argument against nuclear weapons. The periods of greatest public demand for nuclear disarmament have coincided with dramatic increases in public awareness about the nature of nuclear weapons and the catastrophic dangers they pose.

Revulsion against nuclear weapons, however, does not get passed down through our genes. Nor does the knowledge that a fraction of the nuclear firepower currently possessed by the nuclear weapon states would precipitate a nuclear winter from which we could not recover. Or that 100 Hiroshima-sized explosions over large cities would send enough smoke and soot into the atmosphere to cause a sudden global cooling that would disrupt food production for as long as a decade and result in the deaths of a billion or more people. Or that one nuclear weapon can kill hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of seconds, and leave additional hundreds of thousands horribly injured and suffering from radiation-related illnesses. These facts have to be brought to the foreground of every discussion about nuclear weapons in ways that reach people’s hearts as well as their minds.

Finally, we can’t stop the nuclear weapons establishment from talking about “deterrence” and “modernization.” But we can banish those euphemisms from our own vocabularies and expose the realities behind them.

Rather than argue about whether deterrence “works” or not, let’s insist that threatening another state with the total destruction of its cities and its economy, not to mention the mass murder of its population and the poisoning of its environment, is neither acceptable nor effective as a policy for “protecting” one’s own people. A country that relies upon a proxy nuclear arsenal for its security makes itself a target for nuclear weapons and increases the ways and places in which a nuclear war might start. Vicarious nuclear threats are no less abhorrent than direct threats.

New nuclear weapons — whether they are replacements for ones that already exist or completely new designs with new capabilities — are instruments of mass murder, call them what you will. There’s nothing “modern” about that.

How we communicate this message today will differ from how we did it in the 1960s and the 1980s, because the times and the available tools are different. But at its core it’s the message that physicians have underscored throughout the decades of our nuclear peril.

I’m thrilled to see that young, internet-savvy people are here as participants in the Palme Project, and that IPPNW medical students were blogging last week from an International Youth Dialogue for Nuclear Disarmament that used web-based teleconferencing to link participants in three cities. Our best strategy for getting to zero in the shortest possible time may well be to amplify the voices of a generation who are demanding that we fulfill this responsibility in our lifetimes and not push it off onto them.

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  1. Getting to 311 (on the way to zero) « IPPNW peace and health blog

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