Were it possible to hold a referendum, the citizens of the world probably would vote nuclear weapons off the globe. But to our continuing peril, the forces of history now swing in the other direction, in part because a well-meaning American campaign against nuclear proliferation is dragging nuclear weapons back into mainstream politics.
For most people, nuclear weapons fall into a category of devices so horrendously destructive that they must not be used. By consensus and treaty, the international community has tried to dig a moral moat around nuclear weapons, hoping to make the idea of detonating a device so repugnant that even the most loutish of leaders could not think of ordering a nuclear attack. This no-detonations standard has propelled a nonproliferation strategy. Since the weapons ought not be used, they mustn't be acquired. Pending complete abolition, those already in the club are enjoined to ensure that the capability does not leak out into less steady hands.
But the practice was never as clean as the principle. Nukes took a central role in the cold war. In the peculiar logic of nuclear strategy, the tens of thousands of weapons deployed on each side balanced the terror enough to see the superpower confrontation through to its peaceful end.
Unfortunately, one cold-war lesson - that living with nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert is extremely dangerous - was overshadowed by another: that mere possession confers clout. Nuclear wannabes learned one doesn't actually have to blow anything up to "use" a nuclear weapon. Indeed, today, one may not even need to have a weapon. It may be possible to collect the benefits of nuclear stature with a virtual bomb constructed solely of rhetoric and chutzpah.
In the cold war, both sides spent enormous sums to build and brandish the credible threat of real nuclear systems. Bypassing that old-fashioned hassle and expense, North Korea made some nuclear fuel rods disappear, announced that they had converted them to a handful of bombs - a claim that their warren of underground hide sites makes impossible to check - and now insists on negotiating peer-to-peer with America.
Saddam Hussein was probably the first to figure this out. Seeing that the US, the UN, and others believed he was well on his way to major nuclear capability and that he was rogue enough to use it, Hussein may have decided 10 years ago to forgo building and hiding the infrastructure of a costly bomb-making industry. If the US president and the British prime minister insisted he was a nuclear giant, so be it. He could parade that stature to cow his people and impress his neighbors for free.
Osama bin Laden seems to be playing another version of the nuclear wordsmanship game. Over the years he has repeatedly trumpeted his intent to acquire the capability, underscoring to the Muslim world his claim to global leadership, perhaps also inflaming his jihadist troops with the idea that nuclear fires would purify an apostate world. But make no mistake, bin Laden and the other claimants to nuclear stature are more than pretenders. With persistence, they will eventually end up possessers of the real thing.
Where do these developments leave our goal of no detonations and our strategy of nonproliferation? In tatters.
Consider the storm of invective directed at the Iranians. Having raised suspicions by its secrecy, Iran is accused not of having a bomb or of making one, but of building electric generation plants whose reactors, if misused, might furnish bomb-making material. Future Iranian decisions, not capability today, are at the core of the contretemps.
How is our relentless jawboning influencing that decision? Journalists on scene report that the US campaign is solidifying Iranian public opinion behind the radical mullahs who, no doubt, do covet the bomb.
Is there an alternative path? As a general principle, nonproliferation campaigns ought to be conducted in ways that devalue nuclear weapons. In the Iranian case, that campaign would focus on encouraging the Iranian people to turn their country in a more responsible direction, to see that a nonnuclear choice is the mark of a truly great people.
A grand strategy of denuclearization would move nuclear threats off the front page. We'll all be safer when the global debate features responsible leadership more than bare (nuclear) knuckle brawls.
A change of course requires more than just new White House speechwriters. No single action could have a greater impact on nuclear wannabes than a unilateral US declaration that it was taking its own huge arsenal of nuclear weapons off their hair-trigger alert. What's good for the goose....
• Larry Seaquist is a former Pentagon strategist and US Navy captain who commanded nuclear-capable warships.