The arrival of nuclear weapons on the world’s stage some 70 years ago galvanized national and international efforts to control them. Results to date have been uneven, but largely acceptable: The nations of the world have managed — by short-term decisions — to avoid a nuclear holocaust, but no one has yet come up with a viable idea of how we are to survive in the long run.
Recent world events suggest we are running out of time. Eight nations today have large nuclear arsenals, and most are increasing and improving them. Russia is aggressively crossing borders, making nuclear threats and preparing for world war. China, now a global rather than regional power, is well along in a huge strategic modernization program, cloaking its nuclear armaments in secrecy and taking blatantly aggressive actions over immense ocean areas. India and Pakistan are in a nuclear arms race, while fighting over borders and issuing nuclear threats. Israel is preparing to defend itself with nuclear weapons.
Even more threateningly, two rogue states have been actively developing nuclear weapons for two decades and are on the verge of success. What’s worse, when North Korea starts producing viable nuclear weapons, it will sell them to any willing buyer. Iran will provide nukes to terrorist proxies (Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis) for use.
Other nations have awakened to their need to go nuclear in self-defense. Many are in the early phases of proliferation. This is further stimulated by three misguided American policies: our two-decade, post-Cold-War nuclear weapons freeze; President Obama’s deliberate weakening of U.S. nuclear weapons capability in furtherance of his “world without nuclear weapons” vision; and his incomprehensible Iranian nuclear agreement, which allows Iran to develop and produce nuclear weapons.
Regional nuclear weapons proliferation is underway and it will soon become global. Fissile material will become increasingly available by the global spread of reactors. We’re headed for a world of nuclear horror and chaos, in which nuclear weapons will be used by aggressive states, belligerent and irresponsible states, failed and failing states, terrorists, criminals, extortionists, even disaffected individuals.
Recognizing this threat, individuals, groups and organizations have proposed outlawing nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama’s personal dream leads the way. Global Zero has the same international goal. Countless nongovernmental organizations are active in every type of anti-nuclear activity. United Nations member states have just voted overwhelmingly to negotiate a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. In reality, none of these efforts has any chance whatsoever of success.
Nuclear weapons aren’t going away — ever. The technology is known globally. Fissile material is available. Our goal must be changed to a world without nuclear weapons’ use. And we must recognize that perfection is simply not possible. It’s an untidy world. An occasional nuclear detonation in anger can be tolerated — a world with major cities covered with radioactive debris cannot.
Isn’t there some nuclear weapons policy that can save the world? There most certainly is. But only one. And it’s been right under our noses for decades. The Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 wisely established two tiers of states. It approved five nuclear-weapons-states (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China), and it required all other states (currently 186) to sign as non-nuclear-weapons states. Even more powerfully, these five states are the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
The only way our world can be saved is by recognizing that nonproliferation requires enforcement. There must be a cop on the beat. The five U.N.-approved nuclear states must retain their nukes and collegially enforce nonproliferation — absolute nonproliferation — using military force, if necessary. It’s as simple as that. The tough part is how to make this happen.
The answer is, America must make it happen, by the greatest foreign policy and military policy effort the world has ever seen. It will take decades. We start by announcing it — everywhere, frequently, nationally and internationally — as America’s cornerstone foreign policy.
Next we show the world how it’s done, starting with Iran. We independently set the future nonproliferation pattern by: first, terminating the Iran nuclear agreement; second, informing Iran that if it doesn’t dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities immediately we will do it by military force; and third, acting upon it.
This will create a rebirth of hope, worldwide. Then we start the real work. We convince the American people. We convince our allies and friends, particularly the United Kingdom and France. We rebuild an advanced, strong nuclear weapons arsenal. We encourage the other four approved nuclear weapons states to parallel our actions. We make the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty nonapplicable to these five states. We create a whole new relationship within the U.N. Security Council focused on the primary mission of enforcing nonproliferation. We work strenuously with Russia and China to resolve past animosities. We work worldwide to convince non-nuclear-weapons states that this two-tier relationship offers them not only a guarantee of nuclear protection from aggressive neighbors, but — in reality — the world’s only hope of survival.
There is a path to control the nuclear genie permanently but, unfortunately, once North Korea and Iran start producing nukes, it’s too late. Fortunately, however, we’ve just elected a conservative president who looks for new ideas and moves fast.
• Robert R. Monroe, a retired U.N. Navy vice admiral, is former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.