Let’s have a dream…
It is not uncommon to dream of the impossible. But often this kind of dream remains just that, because what motivation is there to work toward an unachievable end? That is the first challenge we face when tackling one of the most intractable of today’s troubles-nuclear weapons. We must first convince ourselves that the realization of the seemingly impossible is actually possible. To reign in the natural skepticism that accompanies the setting of lofty goals, we must focus our attention instead on more immediate goals-smaller goals which, nonetheless, will serve as stepping-stones to the ultimate endgame. Then we can push from our minds the pessimism that has so long discouraged even attempting the impossible. We can ignore that our aspirations seem unattainable because we will be busily working on practical, short-term goals, until we find ourselves closer to our final objective than we ever thought possible. That closeness in itself will demonstrate that the out-of-reach is not.
This optimistic mindset is necessary if we are to seriously address the question of nuclear weapons. We’ve been stuck in the current stalemate for far too long. And the worst part is that, despite this paralysis, there has been movement beneath the surface. While we have sat stewing in the fear that hostile regimes will acquire nuclear capabilities, they have been getting closer to doing so. This deadlock actually puts us at a tremendous disadvantage, which alone should be enough to compel us to pursue a different approach to a slightly different goal.
Our ultimate objective must be a nuclear-free world, not just a nuclear-free (insert your preferred “axis of evil” country). Now, if you feel the inclination to roll your eyes, I will ask that you instead cast your eyes to the first paragraph again. Yes, I acknowledge that this is setting the bar high and asking a lot of humanity. But the status-quo is untenable. More importantly, it’s undesirable. We’ve created a world in which the greatest power is to destroy it. So I recognize the reason it is difficult to have faith in humanity. And yet, in the end I do. While we can’t ignore our tragic failures, we shouldn’t forget that we’ve experienced some notable success as well.
For one, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been remarkably slow even though the knowledge and technology to construct them has spread rapidly. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes the right of only five states (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) to possess nuclear weapons. Besides those states, only four others-India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel-are presumed to have nuclear weapons and one other-Iran-is presumed to be getting close. Ten states total. While that’s still 10 too many, in the view from above, it is remarkably few. Instead of dwelling on the menacing few that have sought nuclear weapons illegally, we must remember that the majority of states have forgone such an option. Therein lives our hope. Their choice tells us that nuclear weapons aren’t necessary for security, at least in their cases.
So, until those countries possessing or pursuing nuclear weapons feel that they can guarantee security without them, the impasse will remain. This principle must guide our way forward. Our first step should be to guarantee the security of those states that have or are attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. We must guarantee the United States will not attack them, but will shield them from whatever power it is they fear. As in the case of Iran, we must guarantee to protect it from an Israeli offensive and vice versa. This initiative cannot be aimed at just one country in particular, it must include every nuclear power. One of our greatest weaknesses is that we claim to have international law on our side. For the most part, we do. However, our support of Israel, which is not a party to the treaty, puts us on shaky ground. To be blunt, it is hypocritical to bite our tongue when our allies do the same things that we bark madly at our enemies for doing. This process must be fair and impartial.
This process must include us as well. To some, we are undoubtedly the greatest threat, whether that is our intention or not. Another step we must take is to reduce our own stockpile, which is bloated anyway. How many times over must we be able to destroy the world, really? Our arsenal was meant to be a deterrent and for a while it was a successful one. But it is incapable of discouraging others’ pursuits of the bomb and may actually have had the opposite effect. If states feel that we will take them seriously only if they have nuclear weapons, then they are going to try to get them. Thus, the denuclearization process must be universally followed. The superpower cannot be an exception. In fact, the United States can’t be the last state to be fully disarmed, not if this is to work.
Some will say that denuclearization will invite war. But even in the cases where nuclear weapons currently serve as a deterrent to conflict, I doubt that if conflict broke out we would actually deploy them. So it becomes a question of worth. I don’t think the potential danger of having nuclear weapons is worth the modest discouragement of invasion it provides. I’m not saying denuclearization will bring perpetual peace. The elimination of war is not the goal here. That must be tomorrow’s impossible goal. The elimination of war with the potential to destroy the world in its entirety is all I’m going for here. And really, the greatest danger is that non-state actors, namely terrorists, would get their hands on a nuclear weapon. I don’t see a state actually dropping a bomb in war, but I don’t doubt that terrorists would. In such a situation, having our own nuclear weapons would mean nothing. They couldn’t be used for retaliation. The only way to eliminate this treat is to eliminate the weapons themselves.
The European Union, now led by French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is moving in the right direction by trying to revive the non-proliferation effort. The proposed ban on nuclear testing and the production of fissile material would prevent the production of more weapons and then efforts to reduce existing stockpiles would start us off in the right direction. Progress, of course, will be incremental.
I don’t expect that things will be easy or will go smoothly. But the important thing is that we keep trying to move forward. The balance that we’ve tried to maintain is slipping away anyway. Too many subvert the existing rules and we are left with no recourse. It is time for a new balance and new rules. As President-elect Barack Obama settles into office in the midst of domestic turmoil, he must not forget that he is also the leader of the free world. His foreign policy needs to set clear short-term goals with an eye to the final goal, a world without nuclear weapons.