President Obama scored wild applause at the Strasbourg town meeting last week when he declared his intention to “seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.” The idea is not new. In January 2007, the Wall Street Journal published “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” by senior statesmen George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, which discussed the increasing dangers posed by nuclear proliferation and the means to counter it under the framework of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty pledges the nuclear powers to work toward “general and complete disarmament,” and in exchange, other signatory states pledge not to pursue nuclear-weapons capability. The record of success since 1968 is not impressive.
The United States and Russia have radically reduced their nuclear arsenals, from a peak of more than 70,000 warheads during the Cold War to 3,900 today. However, this drawdown was not accomplished through formal arms control; it was the natural consequence of reduced tensions after the collapse of communism. More to the point, since the nonproliferation treaty was concluded, India, Pakistan and North Korea have tested nuclear weapons, and Israel is widely believed to possess them.
The president quixotically says that a further U.S.-Russian nuclear drawdown will give the United States “greater moral authority to say to Iran, ‘Don’t develop a nuclear weapon,’ to say to North Korea, ‘Don’t proliferate nuclear weapons.’ ” This is a charming notion, but it displays shocking ignorance of the strategic rationale driving countries toward creating or expanding their nuclear arsenals.
In general, the smaller and less powerful the country, the more beneficial nuclear weapons are. North Korea, the poster child for rogue countries with nuclear weapons, is a failed totalitarian state that has rendered itself immune from attack for fear of the consequences. Iran is seeking a nuclear capability both as an insurance card against regime change and to enable a more aggressive foreign policy at lower ends of the conflict spectrum, through proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas as well as through its own conventional force. In response to the growing threat from Tehran, the major Arab states have decided to pursue ostensibly peaceful nuclear programs that could lead to weapons development. And Israel cannot afford to let its weapons go because the risk is too great; Tel Aviv is in a rough neighborhood and can’t afford to lose even one war.
The main beneficiary of the nuclear-free world would be the United States. As the supreme conventional military power, America would enjoy extraordinary strategic advantages in the post-nuclear environment. Our cities would be safe from annihilation. Conventional forces would be free to operate globally without the risk of nuclear attack. Command of the air and sea would be unquestioned. The United States would enjoy unchallenged escalation dominance and would be able to intervene in a greater number of regions with more force, without fear that an unforeseen series of events could lead to uncontrolled nuclear conflagration. For these reasons, we would like to see Mr. Obama succeed in his quest for a nuclear-weapons-free world. However, in the contest between his presumed moral authority and the reality of global power politics, we reluctantly are compelled to bet our money on the latter.