During the Cold War, nuclear disarmament was a long-term goal of U.S. foreign policy. President Reagan called for “the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”
But Reagan’s great aspiration seems far off today. Both Russia and the United States hold thousands of nuclear weapons despite existing arms control treaties. China, India, Pakistan, Britain and France all possess smaller but sizable arsenals. North Korea has tested its first nuclear weapon. In the Middle East, Israel has the bomb, and Iran may be joining the nuclear club. When one thinks of the horrific scenarios that could emerge from all this proliferation, including nuclear terrorism, disarmament never looked so desirable.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, there have been calls for aggressively moving forward on nuclear disarmament. In 1996 two retired generals, Lee Butler and Andrew Goodpaster, put forth a plan for the nuclear states to begin deep reductions in their arsenals, with an eye toward eventual nuclear disarmament. The United States and Russia would take the lead in these reductions, even down to the level of 100-200 nuclear weapons each. Other nuclear states would cap their arsenals at “very low levels.” Throughout this process, confidence- building and verification measures would be strengthened among the states to guarantee each step.
The United States would be wise to follow the principles of the Goodpaster-Butler plan. Instead, like Russia, the United States has also expressed its desire for new nuclear weaponry. The U.S. refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to eliminate nuclear test explosions is a roadblock in the way of nuclear disarmament. The United States needs to partner with Russia in the elimination of nuclear weapons, not open the door for a new arms race. More nuclear disarmament talks could even ease Russian concerns over the U.S. plan to place a missile defense shield in Europe.
Cooperation between Russia and the United States is essential in getting North Korea to disarm its nuclear capability and prevent Iran from obtaining one. Diplomacy among the United States, Russia, Japan, China, South Korea and North Korea is setting a path toward disarmament and peace on the Korean peninsula, although much work still needs to be done.
The case of Iran is more difficult. Russia recently warned the United States not to launch a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities suspected of harboring weapons development. Russia and the United States aren’t on the same page when it comes to dealing with Iran.
Great danger also exists in South Asia with nuclear weapons owned by rivals India and Pakistan. We must not forget China and its ever-increasing military strength. All this nuclear proliferation makes for an extremely dangerous world.
Back in 1996, the Goodpaster-Butler plan was centered on President Eisenhower’s notion that “nuclear weapons are the only thing that can destroy the United States.” Indeed, Goodpaster and Butler were forward-thinking when they cited nuclear terrorism as among the reasons for disarmament. Nearly five years after their proposal, the world was awakened to the threat posed by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. People can now imagine what catastrophe would result should terrorists get hold of a nuclear weapon.
Goodpaster and Butler cited nuclear accidents as another reason for taking disarmament steps. The recent fiasco of nuclear-armed missiles being accidentally transported over the United States on a B-52 shows the dangers of having these weapons around.
Maintaining nuclear weapons is a major expense for nations to carry. This financial burden takes away from other national priorities including conventional military forces, intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism and homeland security. We should also remember Eisenhower’s philosophy that armaments represent “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
It is imperative for the United States to regain the initiative on nuclear disarmament. Gaining Russia’s full cooperation, beginning with further bilateral nuclear arms reductions, is an essential first step. Failure to do so leaves future generations exposed to the threat of nuclear terrorism and accidents, not to mention massive expenditures for unnecessary weapons. A nuclear-free world must not remain a distant hope but rather a goal vigorously pursued in a spirit of unprecedented international cooperation.