Michael KreponNuclear Nightmares & Abolition

Back in the day, Paul Warnke and I would joke that rooting for the Red Sox was excellent training for arms control. (For non-US readers of ACW, the Red Sox are a baseball team that, until the advent of new ownership, routinely dashed the fondest hopes of its fan base.) The hopes of arms controllers have now been raised by the Obama administration and by a new wave of support — the fourth by my count — for abolishing nuclear weapons. In my view, the most distinctive feature of the fourth wave is that its hydraulics are powered from the center outward, thanks to Messrs. Shultz, Nunn, Kissinger and Perry. Abolitionist waves don’t have much staying power when they move from left to right.

Two comprehensive surveys have been produced describing the many positive steps required to proceed, step by step, toward abolition — the Carnegie Endowment’s Universal Compliance (2007), and the WMD Commission’s Weapons of Terror (2006), chaired by Hans Blix. Each of these fine surveys uses the words “should,” “must,” and “need” over 400 times. A new set of studies, fueled by large grants from private foundations, are taking a closer, prescriptive look at daunting problems such as verification, international fuel cycle management, and dealing with noncompliance and breakout. Unless politically-savvy strategies can be devised to secure progress toward abolition, climbing this mountain of “shoulds” will end, once again, in heavy disappointment.

Laying out necessary steps toward abolition is actually the easy part; establishing the political conditions and coalitions necessary to make significant headway is much harder. Implicit in abolition agendas is the avoidance of disasters, which can undue the work of many positive steps and nullify the entire enterprise. In a retrospective look at arms control, Thomas Schelling, a founding father, wrote,“Holding off disaster was what most of us aimed for in 1960.” (“The Thirtieth Year,” Daedalus, 1991)

Holding off disaster is a noble calling, and arms controllers contributed to this result during the Cold War in significant ways. Now Mssrs. Shultz, Nunn, Kissinger, Perry and many others have reached the conclusion that holding off disaster requires a far more ambitious undertaking than arms control.

What disasters most need to be avoided at present and for the foreseeable future? I tried my hand at identifying and prioritizing the nine worst drivers for a negative nuclear future in my new book, Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (2009). Number 1 is obvious: avoiding the disaster of another detonation of a nuclear weapon in warfare between states. The rest of my list, which is not exhaustive, is presented in the order of the event’s prospective damage rather than its likely occurrence. My reasoning fits within one chapter, but not in this post. Here we go:

2. Failure to stop, safeguard or reverse the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
3. The breakdown and radical change of governance in Pakistan. (Note: I do not consider this scenario likely.)
4. The further spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities to states that are hedging their bets.
5. Failure to lock down and properly safeguard dangerous weapons and materials.
6. Acts of nuclear terrorism directed against states.
7. The demise of international inspections and other nuclear monitoring arrangements.
8. A resumption and cascade of nuclear weapon testing.
9. Continued production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapon programs.

Arguments are hereby solicited.

Being explicit about disasters and prioritizing them can be a useful analytical device, but no base can be left uncovered, which accounts for the long list of “shoulds” we now face.

Why, in the face of such daunting challenges, do serious people articulate and pursue abolition as a goal? Because no other central organizing principle offers more leverage against nuclear dangers, or more glue for global nonproliferation efforts. How long a procession do you think would form behind the banner of “managed proliferation”?


  1. bradley laing (History)

    My thought: how powerful must conventional weapons become before they match tactical nuclear weapons?

    If a government wants tactical nukes for defense, and conventional ones can match them in explosive power, do we say that conventional weapons are becoming as bad as nuclear ones?

    Or do we breath a sign of relief that a fuel-air bomb does not have radioactive fall out?

  2. Anon

    Only those following the ‘rules’ would eliminate their nukes leaving only the cheaters & terrorists with them. Well, I mean, we & a few others would keep a couple just for nostalgia.

  3. Paul Stokes (History)

    I am surprised that you rank number five fifth. I would have it nearer the top.

  4. hass (History)

    Conflating the Iranians and North Korean nuclear programs is ridiculous. Like it or not, the fact remains that Iran’s nuclear program is in full compliance with the NPT, and Iran has been more transparent than say Brazil’s or Argentina’s. Lets not forget that N. Korea withdrew from the NPT and built a nuke. In contrast, Iran signed and implemented the Additional Protocol for 2 years, allowed more inspections than legally required, and suspended enrichment, and has made far-reaching offers to limit its nuclear program that go well beyond even the requirements of the Additional Protocol & after 6 years of intensive scrutiny there is still zero evidence of a weapons program in Iran. So, mentioning Iran and North Korea in the same breath is just too silly to be taken seriously. Sorry.

  5. MWG


    You say that number 1 (preventing use of nuclear weapons in inter-state war) is obvious. I agree, but that does not mean that it goes without saying. Focusing on that goal is the key to rebuilding consensus around the nexus of nonproliferation and disarmament.

    I’m a little surprised to see acts of nuclear terrorism listed sixth. Detonation of an improvised nuclear device by terrorists is roughly the same level of disaster as detonation of a nuclear weapon in inter-state war, though perhaps the risk of escalation is lower. I would combine 1 and 6 under the rubric of preventing nuclear attacks. The virtue of this combination is that it expands the nexus of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament to include nuclear security.

    In fact, I wonder if thinking like that – whether consciously or not – is behind the agenda of President Obama’s Prague speech

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I can only think that this is a symptom of the decline of the US. I’m not saying that the US needs a nuclear arsenal for greatness, rather it’s a desperate grasp for relevancy. There’s no way the US has, or the rest of the world for that matter, the diplomatic means of convincing nations to give up their arsenal. What leaves me scratching my head even more is that there is no discussion on addressing the complicating reasons why a nation would need an arsenal in the first place.

    Look at the situation from the point of view of the biggest arsenal and why they have it. The Russians have a constant paranoia about invasion from the West and to a lessor degree from the East. Feeding this paranoia is the fact that NATO is now on their border. Complicate that with American hyper-aggression in the past 8 years it’s going to be hard to convince the Russians they are not under threat. The level of the Russian conventional military does not give them comfort, (Then again neither did 1980’s levels of troops in East Europe, let’s face it no level of conventional force can satisfy Russian paranoia.) the state of their nuclear arsenal does. There has never been an administration that could put to rest Russian paranoia, and I don’t see any diplomatic arguments out there today that can.

    Speaking of nuclear arsenals, arsenal number two is undergoing geo-political decline. How will the United States come to see its nuclear stockpile with reference to its overall military stance as it no longer sets the theme of the global dialogue and loses its sense of control. I don’t hold out much faith in the post WWII generations, we’re not our grandparents generation. 2009 Pax Americana is looking more like 1914 Rule Britannia.

    Can you disarm? Sure sometimes. South Africa lost its threat because it changed its nature, and the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan had nothing really to gain by being nuclear states. However there are states that have an awful lot to gain by having a nuclear arsenal and how you turn that off, or try to, will provide years of entertainment.


  7. MarkoB

    A good list, but perhaps we could twick it a little at the top. Number 1 suggests an intentional strike in the context of inter-state war. But we can be more nuanced and put accidental exchange/detonation as 1 and then inter-state war as number 2.

    This is good because it then puts strategic de-alerting Bruce Blair style as the No 1 item on the arms control agenda.

    I don’t agree with all this nuclear abolition and nuclear terrorism high priority talk. I favour abolition but I feel ending Launch on Warning through the adoption of minimum deterrence (which would include no-first use and no counterforce) should be priority No 1 issues for strategic arms control. Schelling made his statement in 1960 because he felt that arms control should be about strategic stability first. I think this point is still relevant.

    We are still obsessed with numbers, counting rules and so on it seems. Let’s put accidental exchanges at No 1 and strategic de-alerting and minimum deterrence at No 1 for our responses. Let us put first things first and not succumb to all this diversionary talk about abolition and jihadis with nukes.

    Notice Obama doesn’t say much about no-first use, negative security assurances, counterforce, launch on warning etc. But he gives us motherhood statements about going to zero. His ignoring the former shows me he is not really serious about the latter; it’s also pure Obama.

  8. Major Lemon (History)

    In discussing nuclear disarmament one tends to ignore the more important political question of why wars happen with any kind of weapon. Crack that one then maybe nuclear disarmament will happen by itself.

  9. Kirk Spencer (History)

    (sorry for the null, trying again)

    This was a prescient post. I think the discovery (or announcement) of a previously secret nuclear refinement <a href=“http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/26/world/middleeast/26nuke.html?hp”>facility</a&#062; in Iran may indeed have set the process back – see your point 1.

  10. Bob Reed (History)

    Nice list of disasters to be avoided; like MWG suggested I might combine terrorist use of nuclear devices with inter-state exchanges. And, I think that most would wish Mr. Obama success in his efforts at reducing the nuclear arsenals of the world.

    But, I must also say that I believe it dangerous to completely eliminate them, though it may seem to be a desireable goal. Becuase, until missile defense enjoys a very high degree of reliability, how else would effecctive deterence be achieved. Unfortuantely it would most likely lead to situations where nations with the largest populations, and therefore the ability to raise the largest armies, would be able to bully smaller ones with ease. And, a rogue state that developed an arsenal in secret, could effectively dominate a larger one, or simply cripple another nation through a pre-emptive strike. It’s a tough nut to crack, and I hope Obama uses some of his lauded brilliance and judgement to do what is best for the security of the US, and not at our expense…

    As an aside, I have always worried more about the India/Pakistan/China geographical area as the one where the next inter-state nuclear exchange may likely take place; moreso than in the middle east, where much of the world’s attention is focused. A nuclear exchange in that region will lead to terrible suffering for millions of people, directly, and many more indirectly.

  11. MK (History)

    MWG & Paul: There has been no shortage of motivation and plenty of fissile material poorly secured that could have resulted in the use of a mushroom cloud by extremists since the USSR dissolved, almost 20 years ago. To be sure, this could happen tomorrow, and concerted, accelerated efforts (CTR, lockdown, 2nd line of defense, port security, etc.) are needed for prevention. As impressive as our efforts have been to date, they still leave much room for improvement. So why hasn’t this dreaded high consequence event happened yet? Don’t you find this puzzling? I do. Might it be that this is a lower probability event that many fear? I have gone into some of the reasons why this dog has not (yet) barked in my book, and I wrote a piece taking aim at threat-hypers in Foreign Affairs (“The Mushroom Cloud that Wasn’t,”) earlier this year. But leaving this argument aside, I believe there are sound reasons why the higher priority items on my list, whether they are low probability or not, would be of even higher consequence than an attack by extremists that produces a mushroom cloud.

    MarkoB: A number of thoughtful analysts have pinged me about my use of the words “hair trigger” and about the de-alerting issue in general. The more I have thought about this, the more I am inclined (in the US-Russian context) to address reduced alert rates through the prosaic method of reducing overall strategic force levels in general, and ICBM levels in particular. I see the accidental war problem as a crisis avoidance and crisis management problem. This is very apparent to me when I work India/Pakistan issues. Does de-alerting merit the same focus (relative to all the other agenda items we have) as during the Cold War?

  12. Azr@el (History)

    @ Bradley Laing

    I’ve seen the detonation of a fuel air bomb and it’s not quite anything like what I’d imagine a nuclear burst would be…sooner I’d fear napalm or the newer generations of engineered explosives driving shrapnel. In a closed environments thermobarics exhibit devastating overpressure but this effect is highly localized and not perfectly reproducible.

    Chemical weapons require a far greater industrial effort than they’ve been accorded in most of the speculative accounts of their employment by militant non-governmental organizations. And their usefulness to standing governments is like a wedgie; very annoying, likely to result in violent repercussions but definitely not by any means a knockout blow.

    Biological weapons employed by a state would be the national equivalent of a suicide bomber with significant blowback and own goals. A militant NGO might be tempted to attempt a bioweapons release but why?, a hoax bioscare would generate the same amount of propaganda value at a millionth the effort or cost.

    On the other hand our understanding of condensed matter physics and our skill at engineering compact pulsed power sources are converging to the point where we may yet live to see pure fusion devices, in which case the barrier to entry to the nuclear club will make the world a far more interesting place than it stands today.

    Afterall if the history of gunpowder is any indicator, the proliferation of nuclear weapons will be roughly proportional to structure of governance. In the earliest ages of the gunpowder revolution, the monarchs able to harness the means by which to produce or acquire canon, shot and powder effectively created centralizing gunpowder empires much like the two major nuclear powers were able to establish spheres of influence under their nuclear umbrellas led by increasingly autocratic leaders. But as the monopoly on gunpowder began to dissipate so too did the power of monarchs, we may yet witness a similar phenomenon as the fear of ‘terrorist’ pure fusion nukes may increasingly limit the freedom of action of larger states resulting in a self reinforcing contraction of influence and power of said states.

  13. JP (History)

    “Why, in the face of such daunting challenges, do serious people articulate and pursue abolition as a goal? Because no other central organizing principle offers more leverage against nuclear dangers,”

    In my view “deter and defend” offer a far, far better central organizing principle against nuclear dangers.

    How would you answer these questions?


    A Perfect Storm over Nuclear Weapons
    VADM Robert R. Monroe, USN, Retired

    A World without
    Nuclear Weapons

    Sensing the likelihood of a global cascade of proliferation, two and a half years ago, four notable elder statesmen—George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, and Sam Nunn—proposed the international objective of a world without nuclear weapons. They stated that they did not know how to get there, but they proposed a series of major nuclear-­disarmament actions that should be taken (mostly by the United States) to stimulate other nations to follow suit.

    Of course, arms controllers, disarmers, and the entire global nonproliferation regime seized upon this vision with delight, holding conferences, planning initiatives, forming alliances, writing articles, and reshaping other related movements into this one. A parallel inter­national program, Global Zero, came into being. Recently, President Obama has publicly committed his administration to a world without nuclear weapons.

    In the resulting euphoria and enthusiasm, no one is asking searching questions. We must ask—and answer—them before taking any action in such a huge and daunting endeavor:

    • Is a world without nuclear weapons possible? Surely, we must answer this one before we start taking major actions that may have serious downsides or that may be irreversible.

    • Is a world without nuclear weapons desirable? Regulation and enforcement have always proven essential in a civilized society.

    • What dangers would we expose ourselves to? Our nuclear deterrent has kept us safe for half a century.

    • If we achieved a world without nuclear weapons, how would we stay there? Basic nuclear-weapons technology is well understood worldwide.

    • How would we verify compliance? It appears impossible.

    • Since proliferation increased during the exact period when the United States was in a nuclear freeze, refraining from design and production of nuclear weapons and making draconian reductions in our stockpile, why should we believe that our making further reductions will stop proliferation? It seems clear that weakness is not the way to win the nonproliferation game.

    • Is it not unwise for a nation to set an objective it does not know how to reach? Major commitments of time, people, and money may turn out to have been counterproductive.

    • Do we have more effective alternatives for preventing proliferation? Simple enforcement of nonproliferation seems obvious.

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