Jeffrey LewisThe Trouble With Zero

Image is credited to “Shout” in the NYT.

Philip Taubman, a former New York Times reporter now writing a book at Stanford, has a wonderful survey of the debate about nuclear abolition in the New York Times entitled, The Trouble With Zero:

Yet even as the allure of disarmament grows, the obstacles seem as daunting as ever. Going to zero, as the nuclear cognoscenti put it, is a deceptively simple notion; just about everyone who knows nuclear weapons agrees it would be wickedly difficult to achieve.


  1. Major Lemon (History)

    ‘Wickedly difficult’ is the operative phrase because were it ever to be achieved it would make another largescale conventional war more likely.

  2. Maggie Leber (History)

    The analogy to a gunpowder ban is rather telling.

  3. Muskrat

    “Wickedly difficult”? Good. As another young, popular president once said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

    Trite, yes, but true. It will be hard and it will be worth it and we can do it.

  4. Major Lemon (History)

    Muskrat, going to the moon was always a lot less riskier for mankind than you know what.

  5. FSB

    Makes sense to go to divide arsenals by 100 per NWS. Then worry about going from, say, 30 or 3 nukes to zero.

    Deterrence value of 30 nukes is same as deterrence of 3000.

  6. Steven Dolley (History)

    Most of the arguments against the abolition of nuclear weapons were also once made against the abolition of human slavery: Not enough political support to implement; not all nations will comply and those that don’t will gain strategic/economic advantagea; the institution is too embedded in society to eliminate; etc.

    What is at one time viewed as impossible is sometimes later viewed as imperative and inevitable.

  7. George William Herbert (History)

    The problem with the level of difficulty of true zero is that the difficulty and cost associated with a breakout has been steadily coming down over time.

    Numerous HEU programs have gotten quite far along the R&D curve before being spotted by outsiders – North Korea, Iraq, Iran.

    Even without spending significant effort on simulation testing, HEU can build gun bombs which need no such testing, and can quite obviously be compact enough to fit on missile warheads or cruise missiles (W33, anyone?).

    If you can get away with implosion system testing, and anyone building underground centrifuge arrays almost certainly can, then you get 3-4x as many bombs per unit processing time.

    The level of intrusive monitoring needed to ensure that this really cannot ever happen covertly would make Orwell’s “1984” look like a picnic in the park. At some point, the danger to society writ large of having to put up with the oppression of such a program is worse than the alternatives.

    Keeping the existing nuclear weapons powers nominally so armed, to deter breakout proliferators and thus reduce the value of such a covert program, is probably far easier for the world.

    This is heresy for a large number of arms control people. But the degree of worldwide oversight required to really zero out fissile production is insane, and even the most die-hard zero advocates aren’t that keen on destroying civil liberties, especially their own…

  8. Distiller (History)

    The problem with “zero” is “one”. Even on the planet of the apes they had one left.

    Virtual deterrence (mentioned in the NYT article) is a stupid concept every step of the way.

  9. Yossi

    It’s a common observation that nuclear weapon states are reluctant to give up their nuclear weapons. Talks about “going to zero” are often viewed as a propaganda ploy to persuade the “have not” to give up a sovereign right for a token technical help or for making sure their neighbors aren’t arming themselves with nukes.

    Another common observation is that sometimes nuclear weapons may be useful to prevent wars. Zeev Maoz points that nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the 1973 Ramadan/Kippur war in the Middle East but it seems other confrontations were stopped by nuclear deterrence.

    Combining the two observations above and a little out of the box thinking leads us to a way to go to zero without going to zero.

    Instead of gradually destroying nuclear weapons and their delivery systems why not turn them over gradually to UN supervision then shared control and at last full international control (assuming they stay usable then)?

    The UN would responsibly use the weapons for one aim only: make credible ultimatums against unlawful aggressions in order to stop them. Why insist on recasting swords to plowshares when the sword can be put to a more constructive task than the plow?

  10. Carey Sublette

    Arguing about the feasibility of going to “true zero” is little more than a diverting parlor game.

    There is an immense gap between present circumstances and that ideal, which is territory that can be occupied by many practical schemes that are far short of attempting the complete and permanent elimination of all nuclear explosives on Earth.

    Placing all nuclear warheads in secure reliably monitored storage for example.

    There could be just as many warheads as even the hawkiest of hawks might want “just in case” but the observable act of removing them from storage and mating them to delivery systems, plus the time delay involved, precludes fears of surprise attack, or accidental launch (or accidental transport to Barksdale).

    (Bruce Blair has discussed such ideas at length. I refer others to his works for further analysis.)

    As I said, “going to zero” is a diverting parlor game, which is harmless, as long as it does not divert us from discussing things we could actually be arranging now.

  11. Arnold Evans (History)

    Wait a second. In this “0” scenario, let’s say Iran, no let’s say Venezuela has enrichment technology and decides to make a bomb where nobody else in the world has one.

    So Venezuela builds a secret uranium processing plant underground somewhere that it will not be detected, and gets hundreds of tons of natural uranium there and processes it, all undetected.

    Then Venezuela’s military technologists turn the enriched uranium into a bunch of bombs. Say 10. Now Venezuela is the only country in the world with nuclear bombs and it has 10.

    Now what?

    Let’s say the US has no bombs.

    Horror of horrors! Now the US has to accept Venezuelan troops based in Virginia? Really?

    If Venezuela actually uses its weapon on the US, it will be totally destroyed three months from now instead of 30 minutes from now.

    Can Venezuela make a credible threat against Colombia? No.

    What is Venezuela going to do with these 10 nuclear weapons that it couldn’t do if the US had weapons?

    Nothing. This nightmare at zero scenario does not make sense fleshed out.

    The US wants weapons because the US wants weapons. At zero, cheating nations really would not get any strategic advantage.

    The US arms control community really strikes me as much more “US” than it is “arms control”.

    “Arms control” to people in the US is really just an excuse to maintain as much strategic advantages as possible for the US and its allies.

  12. Yossi

    Carey Sublette, I guess that using a “secure reliably monitored storage” against “fears of surprise attack or accidental launch” could be implemented with UN supervision, facilitating the next step to shared control. The IAEA could do it given enough resources.

    I have a stupid question: must an unofficial nuclear weapons state wishing to join the NPT “go to zero” like South Africa?