Obama's Nuclear Arms Control Approach Won't Make Us Safer

The reception of nuclear arms control solutions depends greatly on who suggests them.

A Pakistan-made Ghauri missile, which has a range of 1,500 kilometers (940 miles) and can be fitted with a nuclear warhead, is displayed on the occasion of Pakistan day parade in Islamabad, Pakistan in this March 23, 2000 photo. Washington accused Pakistan's largest nuclear facility of sharing technological know-how to make weapons of mass destruction or missiles capable of delivering them, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said Monday, March 31, 2003. Islamabad said the allegation was "baseless."

Imagine that you're a graduate school international relations professor and one of your grad students has turned in his seminar paper. It outlines a new and imaginative, supposedly fool-proof plan for ridding the world of the specter of nuclear terrorism.

He proposes a new regime to keep track of and control all nuclear materials, the essential ingredients of a nuclear device. To work, his regime must be 'universal, comprehensive, and enforceable.'  And he explains that his project has real timeliness because it's an essential stepping stone to achieving President Barack Obama's declared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons—'Global Zero' in its movement moniker. Because unless all of the world's fissile materials are accounted for, even in a world in which the nuclear powers had scrapped their nuclear weapons, it would remain possible for terrorists or rogue states to acquire some nuclear material. Combining that with widely diffused nuclear weapons know-how, they could produce some kind of nuclear explosive device. Of course no one wants a world of 'Global Zero' to produce a real-life version of The Mouse That Roared. Unlike the movie, that would not be funny!

As you read your enterprising grad student's paper—earnest in its determination to avoid such a tragic side effect of a noble cause—you notice a couple of things. First, it requires the United States to take on new and additional obligations: e.g., to take the lead, naturally, to promote the new regime; to open its military weapons and nuclear weapons facilities to international accountability; to adopt the same accountability regime for its civilian nuclear industry applicable to non-nuclear weapons states adhering to the Non-Proliferation Treaty; and so on.

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Then you notice a couple of other things. Your student's proposal postulates that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council will give up their veto—via a sort of time-limited enabling resolution—over actions to enforce the regime mounted by 'coalitions of the willing'. You know from Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Syria—well, pick your past or current international crisis—how likely to work that is. Then, in explaining his proposal as the only effective way to avert new A.Q. Khan-type nuclear smuggling networks, your grad student lets drop his conclusion that it really wouldn't matter too much if North Korea stayed outside this 'universal, comprehensive' regime. An outlier like that could be 'managed'.

What would you think? If you were kindly, you'd probably just dismiss the paper as well-intentioned nonsense. If you were stern, you'd probably give him an 'F' for predicating his proposal on such obvious nonstarters as Security Council members relinquishing their veto over the use of force in the name of the United Nations. Or the outlandish idea of a non-proliferation regime that excludes the world's most dangerous nuclear proliferator.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

But what if, instead, this proposal were put forward by a couple of highly experienced and credentialed national security officials of previous administrations, Republican and Democrat—men who'd formerly served in senior policy positions at the Departments of State or Defense, had been chief arms control negotiators, or ambassadors, or White House National Security Council officials? 

Well, in that case, obviously, this idea would merit the most serious consideration. It would be launched in an internationally prestigious journal. Its publication would be timed for possible inclusion on the president's agenda at the Nuclear Security Summit, held last March in Seoul. It would be the focus of discussions at prestigious Washington think tanks. Which is precisely what has happened with "The Next Step in Arms Control: A Nuclear Control Regime," published at the beginning of 2012 in the International Institute of Strategic Studies' journal, Survival.

[Photo Gallery: North Korea Prepares for Rocket Launch]

My point is not merely that ideas sell partly on who is behind them. That's inevitable in human affairs—as anyone knows who's been in a meeting at which the boss has a brainstorm or who's attended a rally in which some iconic celebrity urges some particularly inane but virtuous-sounding idea. 

Nor do I mean to suggest that, merely because something super-ambitious hasn't been tried—or hasn't worked—before, that it shouldn't be attempted. Most of the key accomplishments of President Ronald Reagan's arms control policies would have been impossible with that kind of thinking: the 'zero option' that eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons (intermediate-range nuclear forces or INF); the presumed-to-be-impossible on-site inspections eventually enshrined in the START I agreement; the 'anytime, anywhere' challenge inspection provisions, once derided as a 'treaty-killer', adopted in the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Rather, in the service of a seemingly virtuous idea—so apparently appropriate to a post-Cold War world—this new proposal helps lay bare how many contortions will be required—how many improbable assumptions and potentially fatal compromises will have to be made—in the 'Global Zero' effort, embraced by Obama, to "stuff the nuclear toothpaste back in the tube." A 'new nuclear control regime' will be required to make a 'Global Zero' world plausible. Because a Mouse That Roared possibility wouldn't just discredit the whole enterprise; it would endanger the civilized world. 

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So, to be clear, what these folks are saying is that, because North Korea and Iran have violated their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States must assume new, additional obligations and constraints on its nuclear activities as a first step to getting the rest of the world on board. Huh?!

Who would ever have thought that nuclear arms control today would turn out to work a lot like that old joke about the drunk searching on his knees in the gutter under the street lamp?! When a passing cop learns that he's looking for his dropped car keys and asks where he lost them, the drunk replies, "Over there by my car."  "So why are you looking here?" asks the cop, and the drunk tells him, "Because the light's better!"

Arms control aficionados can certainly wield a lot more influence—through advocacy, 'scholarship,' lobbying, congressional action, etc.—on U.S. nuclear policy than they can on North Korea or Iran—but that scarcely means that the real menace will be reduced or that any of us will be any safer.

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