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Global Viewpoint

A reality check on Obama's bid for zero nukes

Since the nuclear genie can’t be put back in the bottle, striving for a system of stability – rather than dreaming of zero nukes – is the best course.

By Nathan Gardels / July 26, 2010

Los Angeles

We have learned from the 4th-century sacking of the Alexandrian Library or the mysterious demise of the Maya that knowledge can be inadvertently lost to all time through chaos and battle. But can knowledge be lost on purpose?

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That, in a nutshell, is the zero-nukes conundrum. Can Albert Einstein’s genie ever be put back in the bottle? Unless it can, there is no guarantee that absolute zero nuclear weapons, as President Obama has proposed, can ever provide absolute security. Indeed, the illusion that knowledge can be disinvented may make the world a more dangerous place.

Recently, I sat down with some of the key American nuclear strategists of the cold war period for a discussion on background about the promises and perils of the first serious attempt since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to walk humanity back as far from the nuclear brink as possible. These wise men were far more sober than giddy about the prospects for peace in a non-nuclear world.

In his famous speech in Prague in August, 2009, President Obama called for a return to the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Yet, as the strategists point out, two devastating world wars preceded the first use of nuclear weapons. Since then – for over 60 years – we have seen no such wars between major powers on a global scale. Though history never reveals its alternatives, it certainly appears as if deterrence has so far worked in preventing a world-scale conflagration.

This is true even though nuclear weapons are not usable for any purpose other than deterrence since the consequence of their use – potential annihilation of civilization as we know it – is incommensurate with any rational objective in fighting a war.

Unfortunately, fear, not trust, is the ultimate mechanism of warding off an enemy. If the knowledge and technology to produce nuclear weapons exists, who can be certain that pledges to totally eliminate them are made in good faith? When it comes to the risk of holocaust, the safest course is to assume the worst, not the best, of a potential enemy.

In short, a world of zero nuclear weapons in which everyone still has the knowledge to make them could be more destabilizing than an arms race in which each tries to overcome the advantage of the other.

Rather than moving toward zero and focusing on numbers, the strategists say, the emphasis should be on reductions of the most destabilizing types of weapons – such as multiple warhead missiles or mobile missiles that are easy to conceal. That will create more stability, not less.