Devaluing the Currency of Nuclear Weapons

By John P. Holdren

Early in the second Clinton term, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) issued a 100-page report entitled "The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy." The central conclusion of this study was that the only remaining, defensible function of US nuclear weapons in the post-Cold-War era is "core deterrence"-meaning deterrence of other countries that possess nuclear weapons from using them to attack or coerce the United States or its allies.

If the only function of nuclear weapons is to deter other countries that possess them from using theirs, CISAC argued, there is no reason not to declare - and to intend to observe - a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. And there is no need for nuclear forces with the size, diversity, and high alert status of those built up by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, nor any need to continue to develop and test nuclear weapons of new types for new purposes.

The 1997 CISAC report strongly recommended that the United States embrace this stance: that this country declare that the only purpose of its continued possession of nuclear weapons is core deterrence; that it announce, accordingly, that it will never use nuclear weapons to respond to (or pre-empt) conventional, chemical, or biological attacks; and that it undertake, in consultation with its allies and in concert with Russia, a sweeping transformation of its nuclear forces, practices, and policies consistent with this reduction in nuclear weapons' intended role.

More specifically, CISAC argued that the United States should remove from short-reaction-time alert the roughly 2,000 nuclear warheads it was maintaining in that status; should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; should ratify the START 2 agreement; and should engage Russia in a further process of staged reductions of not only strategic but also nonstrategic nuclear forces (moving first to a START 3 with circa 2000 deployed strategic warheads on each side, then to circa 1,000 total warheads on each side, and then to a few hundred total on each side). CISAC also recommended, most controversially, that the United States should begin trying to create the conditions that would make possible a global prohibition of nuclear weapons along the lines of those already in force against chemical and biological weapons.

CISAC's rationales for these recommendations were that the deterrent need for which the large and highly alerted US nuclear force had been designed had dwindled drastically with the collapse of the Soviet Union; that continuing to maintain such a force - and thereby ensuring that Russia would do the same - entailed dangers of erroneous, accidental, or unauthorized use that could no longer be justified by any plausible need for this many weapons or such a high alert status; that sharply shrinking both US and Russian nuclear forces would reduce the opportunities for weapons, components, or materials from these forces to fall into the hands of proliferant states or terrorists and would set the stage for existing nuclear-weapon states with smaller arsenals eventually to join in a global process of reductions; that the consistency and moral authority of US nonproliferation policy was being increasingly undermined by the failure to take these obvious steps to devalue the nuclear-weapons "currency" in international affairs; and that, in the long run, a "two tier" system in which a few states are allowed nuclear weapons, while all others are denied, cannot persist.

The 1997 study was chaired within CISAC by General William F. Burns (US Army, retired), who had commanded tactical nuclear weapons in the field, had headed the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Reagan administration, and had served as the senior President Bush's ambassador to the "safe and secure dismantlement" talks with Russia at the end of the Cold War. The authors also included, among others, the immediate past head of the U.S. Strategic Command, a distinguished Manhattan Project physicist, the designer of the first deliverable hydrogen bomb, the retired Navy admiral who had presided over the development of the submarine-launched-ballistic-missile component of the U.S. deterrent, and the then president of the Arms Control Association, whose service as a high-level advisor and arms-control negotiator for the U.S. government began under President Truman in 1948.

This was not, in short, a group that could easily be dismissed as uninformed or predisposed toward radical conclusions. But dismissed is what its advice has largely been, both by the Clinton administration (which had no appetite for the internal battles that embracing CISAC's recommendations would have entailed) and by the Bush administration that followed (which appears untroubled by the logical disconnect between its expansive view of the role of U.S. nuclear forces and its expectation of nuclear restraint from everyone else). As a result, almost none of CISAC's 1997 agenda for the devaluation of the nuclear-weapons currency has yet been embodied in U.S. policy. (The 2002 Moscow Treaty represents at best a modest exception: its embrace of the level of circa 2000 deployed strategic warheads on each side is diluted by its lack of verification provisions, or requirements for dismantlement, or commitment to further reductions.)

Notwithstanding the unfortunate fate of CISAC's 1997 recommendations to date, they continue to constitute a wholly sensible blueprint for reducing the role of and dangers from nuclear weapons in the early 21st century. The status quo is not stable. If nuclear-weapon roles and dangers are not deliberately and relentlessly made smaller, they will get bigger. And the largest nuclear-weapon states must lead the way, not drag their feet. The United States and Russia have managed, under the Nunn-Lugar program, to dismantle thousands of nuclear warheads and delivery systems made obsolete by the end of the Cold War. Now it is time to get on with dismantling our equally obsolete nuclear-weapon policies.

John Holdren is director of Harvard's oceanographic research station, Woods Hole Institute, a longtime member of Pugwash, and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2007

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2007, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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