Reliable Security Information


The Long Road to Zero

Canada has no concerns about US nuclear weapons, even though we have a very large arsenal. Japan, against whom we actually used nuclear weapons, also has no concerns about US nuclear weapons, except for the fact that they help to protect Japan against Russia, China, and North Korea. Germany has no concern on French nuclear weapons, even though they are historical enemies and have fought numerous wars against each other. The reason is simple, the relations between these countries are not only cordial, but friendly and open. They share beliefs in democratic principles and have a rich network of ties and interactions. War between these nations has simply become unthinkable.

But overall, nuclear weapons pose a daunting challenge to mankind as a whole. For this reason, the United Nations drew up the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968. At present, of 193 countries, all but four have signed the treaty, which was presented as a mutual benefit pact: nonnuclear states agreed not to develop nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons states agreed to give them up under Article VI of the treaty. For years, Article VI was basically ignored. But more recently the NPT has become increasingly critical. Nuclear technologies are spreading and proliferation concerns, led by North Korea and Iran, are increasing, and nonnuclear states have been directly pressuring the nuclear weapons states to live up to Article VI. The Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference of the NPT included a set of 13 steps to implement Article VI.

Although broad acceptance of the 13 steps has been problematical, the United States and Russia are committed to further arms talks. They recognize that their strategic nuclear weapons have limited utility and that each side maintains a large arsenal only because the other side does. If negotiations go well, it might be possible after some years that each side would only have a hundred, or perhaps even less, strategic nuclear weapons.

And then we will hit the wall - the transition from few to zero. This difficult transition has been examined in some detail with the development of complex procedures to count, destroy, and verify nuclear warhead stocks. At some point as stocks diminish, a basic amount of trust is necessary that the other side will not be secretly retaining some minimal number of warheads or stocks of special nuclear materials (SNM - plutonium or highly enriched uranium), not to mention production know how (which will inevitably still be present) and an ability to re-direct, perhaps surreptitiously, remaining facilities into new warhead production or quietly construct new facilities to build new warheads from retained SNM stocks. There is also a bothersome question of remaining delivery vehicles - ballistic missiles or bombers with residual conventional missions. As numbers approach zero, it is simply impossible to give total assurance that no low level cheating is taking place.

The complexities and ambiguities inherent in this transition make it clear that zero will not just happen.

Some number of US officials will remain viscerally suspicious of the perfidious Russians, and will find credible indicators that they are acting in bad faith -- just as credible indicators were found of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. They will insist mightily that we cannot base the security of the United States on trust with the Russians. And there will be a mirror image, as Russian officials viscerally suspicious of the perfidious Americans, will find indicators that we are acting in bad faith. They will point, for example, at the US disregard of long-standing prohibitions against torture to address threats far below the level of strategic nuclear weapons. The Americans, they will say, are capable of anything when it comes to perceived threats to the homeland. There will be no zero so long as there are high levels of mutual suspicion and distrust.

And Russians do remain deeply suspicious of the United States. For two centuries before Communism, the Russian intelligentsia was split between Westernizers who promoted ties with the West and nationalistic Slavophiles who held that Russian civilization was unique and superior to Western culture. Seventy years of Communism reinforced this sense of Russian superiority and misgivings on Western culture. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of Western democracy and market economy which rapidly reduced Russia to the status of a third rate power. Many Russians felt the West had deliberately manipulated Russia into this economic debacle. Within the space of a few short years they had gone from a position of prestige within the Soviet Union, one of the two global superpowers, to positions of insecurity marked by huge, closed factories; a disintegrating military; widespread and very visible gangsterism; a new phenomenon of unemployment; and a position of powerlessness on the world stage. There was a palpable malaise at the blows to national pride and feelings of humiliation at the hands of the West.

The Russian leadership under Vladimir Putin, boosted by large energy resources, has taken advantage of this underlying antipathy to the West to build its own legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian populace by stressing a resurgence of Russian power. By confronting the West in general, and the United States in particular, on a wide variety of issues, the Russian leadership gains high popularity with the Russian population, while its legitimacy becomes tied to maintaining tension with the West. For Russians, who have a thousand-year history of autocracy and associate the peak of global prestige with the Communist dictatorship (including Stalin), a "managed" democracy which deals harshly with internal dissent is a small price to pay to get a strong leader who reasserts Russia's rightful position of prominence on the world stage. So the Parliament (duma) has been reduced to a rubber stamp, provincial governors are now appointed by the leadership instead of being elected, and numerous critics have been murdered, both within Russia and abroad. Russia is skillfully working to build dominance over Western Europe and reduce US influence there. Under these conditions, the prospects for zero are minimal.

Fortunately, this entire situation is in flux:

At the same time that the Russian leadership denigrates the West, it supports a broad range of positive ties.

  • Trade with the United States, which totaled only $2.5 billion in 1992 had risen to over $36 billion in 2008. In the same period, the trade balance which was over $1.5 billion to the US advantage deteriorated to over $17 billion in Russia's favor. Maintaining high trade levels is clearly in Russia's interest. In fact the Russian leadership has re-oriented itself to the point that its personal business interests dominate its decision making and they recognize that they thrive primarily on business with the West. So it is no surprise that the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry actively promotes a broad range of commercial ties with the West.
  • Arms cooperation has been ongoing for years. Despite misgivings by some Russian military (and low visibility to the general Russian public), the Cooperative Threat Reduction program has been active since 1992. In that period, the US government has provided some $5 billion to efforts which have resulted in significant upgrades to the security of nuclear weapons and materials, as well as the deactivation of over 7500 nuclear warheads and the destruction of more than 750 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Now a renewed (and very visible) arms control effort is being promoted by both sides.
  • There is a wide variety of exchange programs: scientific, space, cultural, economic, and educational. One congressional report listed well over 100 of them. In addition, over 12 million Russian tourists travelled abroad in 2008, with Turkey being top destination, but West European countries also popular. And the internet provides almost unlimited links to information. So it is a totally different situation than existed under the Soviet Union, when information on the outside world was tightly restricted within Russia.

The current global economic recession is having a significant effect on Russia. In the short term it has severely curtailed income from energy sales, as well as Russian efforts to pressure West Europe by manipulating energy flows. But it has also made the lopsided development of the Russian economy very visible. Broader development faces huge infrastructure, environmental, and technological requirements.

Internal problems and challenges continue to hobble the government:

  • Although the majority of citizens has accepted restrictions on democratic development, a vocal minority has not. And the leadership has publicly accepted democratic principles, as well as associated international standards, particularly in accepting membership in the Group of Eight. In this context, Putin specifically stated that we "cannot strengthen our nation without developing democratic institutions."
  • The government has managed to tightly control almost all media outlets. But in the current internet age, it is no longer able to control the information available to the public.
  • Widespread poverty continues to constrain economic development efforts.
  • Russia is enmeshed in a severe demographic crisis. The last fifteen years have seen a steady drop in population, partly due to major public health issues; a significant drop in the nation's labor pool is inevitable. Even more significantly, as the population of native Russians has been dramatically falling, Russia's Muslim population has grown by 40 percent since 1989. At the current rate, Muslims could outnumber ethnic Russians within 30 years. One obvious implication is that leadership legitimacy based on Russian nationalism is becoming less and less effective. This problem can only be exacerbated by the global rise in Muslim assertiveness.

So the Russian leadership is torn between mutually incompatible stances: it denigrates the West while it promotes economic and other ties with the West; it proclaims democracy even while it suppresses it; it projects rapid economic growth in the face of significant population decline; and it promotes Russian nationalism even as it faces a significant rise in Muslim citizens. Change is necessarily coming, but what change is unclear. If the United States and its allies work constructively to engage Russia on a broad front, it is entirely conceivable within a couple decades that Russia would be tightly integrated into the Western economic and political sphere. Then real movement towards zero will be possible.

But...China sits in the background. It is a potential opponent of both Russia and the United States. Its nuclear forces are relatively modest (generally estimated at several hundred weapons) and China has constantly stressed its no-first-use policy. But with a rising population of well over a billion, an increasingly crowded China sits next to vast areas of underpopulated Siberia; a potential military confrontation cannot be ignored. And to the east, the status of Taiwan has been an unsettling issue for fifty years. During this time, the United States has staunchly defended Taiwan against military pressures from China. More recently, direct relations between China and Taiwan have been slowly but steadily improving. But so have Chinese military capabilities. Naval developments and missile modernizations mean that the US Navy no longer has a predominance in the region. Some kind of military confrontation here is also possible in the coming years.

Integrating China into the global economic and political system is much more challenging than integrating Russia. Ethnic differences and even racial prejudices complicate this challenge. China is very conscious, and proud, of its five-thousand year old civilization, and equally conscious of its domination by Westerners from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. Now emerging as a global power, it is even less democratic than Russia; its autocratic government seeks to tightly control the nation's political life even as it promotes economic liberalization and a market economy. Although Western corporations have made large investments in China and now have a significant presence, grass roots ties with the vast bulk of the Chinese population remain minimal.

Japan and South Korea both provide encouraging examples of how Oriental cultures can integrate constructively into the global economic and political system. But they are both much smaller than China, and the integration was largely achieved during periods of Western dominance. Even allowing for skillful Western (and Russian) diplomacy, it is clear that it will be decades before China can be integrated to the extent that military confrontations become basically unthinkable. Until this situation is at least approached, it is hard to see how a total elimination of nuclear weapons is possible.

Lesser nuclear powers also complicate the issue.

  • Great Britain and France both have considerable nuclear capabilities, remnants of the Cold War. Although not directly involved in the pending US-Russian arms negotiations, there seems little question that major US and Russian reductions would pressure both these nations into some kind of parallel reductions. At any rate, if the United States and Russia could eventally agree on elimination of their nuclear weapons, or even reductions to minimal levels, there would be little incentive for either Great Britain or France to retain their own nuclear weapons. In the long run, there seems little likelihood that global agreements on the elimination of nuclear weapons would founder on British or French intransigence.
  • North Korea is perhaps the smallest problem in the long run. Its beleaguered government remains one of the most repressive in the world. Its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is very troubling, particularly for South Korea and Japan, but also for the United States, China, and Russia. The years immediately ahead promise instability and confrontation. Nevertheless, internal tensions, outside pressures (particularly by China) and external incentives could push the regime to curtail its nuclear weapons development. In the longer run, this ineffectual and stifling government will be replaced, hopefully peacefully, and nuclear issues will be resolved.
  • Pakistan and India remain in a confrontational status. Additionally, India and China have a contentious relationship; India will probably overtake China as the most populous nation sometime in the middle of this century. Pakistan's current problems represent a real danger and a challenge, both to the nation itself to develop a sense of national vision and to the international community to promote internal development and external stability, particularly with India. A viable peace with India, reinforced by economic development in both countries, would remove the major incentives for Pakistan and India to maintain nuclear weapons. There remains an Indian border dispute with China - a dispute which once led to a military confrontation. Ongoing negotiations along with steady progress towards integration of China (and India) into the global economic and political system could remove this last major incentive for India to maintain nuclear weapons.
  • Iran poses a particular challenge with its open development of uranium enrichment capabilities. It steadfastly denies any intention of developing nuclear weapons even as various indicators of such development surface. International pressure and sporadic negotiations have proven inadequate to allow more international monitoring. Russia could play a key role here, but so far has continued to support various aspects of Iranian nuclear developments. Obviously, there can be no global elimination of nuclear weapons until the Iranian issue has been resolved.
  • Israel poses an even more daunting challenge. Surrounded by hostile Arab nations and regularly involved in military confrontations, its undeclared nuclear arsenal remains its ultimate deterrent. It will certainly not be eliminated before some kind of resolution of the Palestinian issue. Prospects for this remain problematical.

Pending US-Russian arms negotiations and an upcoming NPT Review Conference present positive developments towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, North Korean and Iranian programs, instability in Pakistan, and tensions in the Middle East (including uncertainties over Iraq as well as Palestine) all can encourage nuclear weapons developments in current non-nuclear states. This potential is all the more pertinent as global energy demands continue to rise and nuclear power becomes increasingly attractive. The Iranian situation clearly shows how difficult it can be to keep nuclear power development separate from nuclear weapons development.

In this situation, strengthening the NPT is clearly a crucial element in any potential for an eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. So the reluctance of the existing nuclear powers to move directly toward elimination (as required by Article VI) or even to clearly support the 13 steps proposed at the last NPT Review Conference works counter to this objective.

Overall, it is clear that zero will be a long time in coming. But the major milestones on the road are also visible: US-Russian agreements on further significant reductions; integration of Russia into the Western economic and political system; developing a positive global role for China; resolving regional disputes involving North Korea, Taiwan, Iran, and Palestine, as well as between India and Pakistan; and strengthening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Zero will not happen until the major powers are more or less as comfortable with one another as the United States and Canada are now. This requires a focused, sustained, long-term effort to broaden and deepen relations between the major powers and to resolve key, intractable regional disputes.

Comments (1)

Ed Corcoran Author Profile Page:

From Matthew Rojansky:

Getting to zero is an ambitious and in many respects appropriate goal. But you are right that it's not going to happen quickly, so there must be some intermediate steps, many of which each deserve their own full and elaborate treatment. The authors of the now famous WSJ op-ed began to lay out a number of them and I won't belabor the point further here. I will, however, offer a few observations in direct response to your analysis.

First, I agree that greatly enhanced (read: restored) trust between the US and Russia is essential for further productive bilateral relations across the board, but especially when it comes to arms control. Russia's most recent national security strategy reveals that the country's top security focus is on the nuclear threat, principally, in their view, from the United States. This may be a misguided view, but it's one with which the US will have to grapple in any arms control and disarmament process, and an increase in trust between officials will help greatly in easing the negotiations. But I want to be clear that I don't think better diplomatic values alone get us anywhere near where we need to be with Russia. I believe that the Russian government expects to come away from negotiations with the US better off than when it started, and that it will measure that in terms of concrete geopolitical developments: Will we give ground on NATO expansion, especially re Ukraine and Georgia? Will we unambiguously halt missile defense? Will we normalize trade relations and support WTO accession? These are just a few of the concrete incentives we can offer Russia in exchange for Russian cooperation on our global security and other goals. So, ultimately, yes we want a better environment in which to negotiate, but we need to be realistic about what we're going to get and what it's going to cost us.

My second point is more specific to your discussion of bilateral disarmament. I do not think we're anywhere near ready to talk about US and Russian arsenals in the hundreds right now. The Obama administration has suggested reductions to 1,500 on each side might be possible, and some in the US have thrown out numbers like 1,000 or 500. I think the lower end of that scale is absolutely impossible on a bilateral basis. Once US and Russian arsenals get below 1,000 they approach strategic parity with China, and soon after that with the other nuclear powers. In the current security environment, that's simply not going to happen. Even if the US could contemplate a substantially reduced active force, Russia's doctrine relies too heavily on strategic forces and would be crippled by such reductions. The greater danger may be that reducing arsenals to some level close to 1,000 or less may tempt the Chinese to build up to reach that level, or get close to that level themselves. I am not suggesting that this will necessarily happen in response to further bilateral reductions, only that there is a danger of taking one step forward bilaterally, and two steps backward globally. That is why, beyond negotiation of a START successor, further disarmament talks should be multilateral, and under the auspices of the NPT. There is no more important instrument for global nuclear non-proliferation, and it is essential that all US arms control policies are undertaken with a view to reinforcing this critical tool. For a more complete argument, take a look at this statement issued by my organization last week, and endorsed by 30 top officials from both parties, including former Secretaries of State and Defense, Senators, Ambassadors, and arms control negotiators: http://www.psaonline.org/downloads/NPTstatement.pdf

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