The Nuclear Debate: Why Full Disarmament won’t work

The Brookings Institute hosted a discussion today on the U.S.’s nuclear weapons policy with a focus on the “Nuclear Zero,” (also called Global Zero) or the annihilation of the world’s supply of nuclear weapons over time. Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings, moderated the event with panelists Tom Donnelly of the Center for Defense Studies at AEI, Keith Payne of the National Institute of Public Policy and Steven Pifer, senior fellow and director of arms control initiative at Brookings.


Donnelly began the discussion by talking about America’s basic strategy towards arms control, saying that it must be clarified and well-defined before pursuing arms control treaties. He said America has cared deeply about the balance of power in the world since the Cold War, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Although we’ve always tried to preserve a favorable balance of power, the U.S. is the only country to use nuclear weapons. He said we need to slow the momentum of arms control negotiations until we understand if the goal is to control the balance of power. Our strategy right now, with a heavy focus on Russia, seems to be irrelevant to our future.


Payne discussed the downfalls to the Nuclear Zero initiative, saying it would break down any sort of defense the US or allies would have over other nations who wouldn’t hold up their end of the deal. He said the Obama Administration, while not advocating full annihilation of nuclear weapons, has made Nuclear Zero a priority. The only way it would work is if all countries banded together and said nuclear weapons aren’t necessary, but more and more are finding that they are necessary for national security. It’s a vital tool for deterring people from war and preventing war casualties. We haven’t found an alternative to preventing war or other acts of terrorism like biological weapons. It’s a defining condition, he said, for Russia to preserve its sovereignty.


O’Hanlon continued the debate by saying that getting rid of our nuclear umbrella could be dangerous to U.S. allies, including Israel. But, he said, we’re not in a position to write a treaty on nuclear zero anytime soon. A more sincere and credible vision of global zero can help in negotiations with Iran and North Korea.


Pifer acknowledged that Obama’s vision was positive because it shows a serious commitment to reducing arms, but he said a lot of things need to happen first before it takes place. We need to have an effective deterrent to war and develop a way to enforce worldwide disarmament and security. But overall, they agreed that Obama cant link global zero to a near-term policy.


The NYT reported this weekend that: “The president then stepped before cameras to tell the world that next month the United States and Russia would sign a “new Start” treaty paring back their still formidable nuclear arsenals, cutting the legal limits on deployed strategic warheads by 30 percent and on launchers by half. Just as important, it will establish an inspection regime to replace one that expired in December.”

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