During his trip to Europe last week, President Obama announced that the US will host a global meeting this year to address the threat of nuclear weapons. The president called for reinvigorated international institutions to combat the prospect of nuclear terrorism and reverse nuclear weapons proliferation. He agreed to new negotiations with Russia to reduce both countries' nuclear arsenals.
These efforts should be made. However, Mr. Obama also announced that the US must "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." This is a goal that will undermine global nuclear security.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but a successful policy on international nuclear weapons security must strive to support stable possession and effective stewardship of nuclear technology. Only by stabilizing nuclear capabilities, not by eliminating them, will the world be safe from the threat of nuclear weapon use.
The only time in history atomic weapons were used in warfare was when only one country possessed them in very small numbers. Stability since then through deterrence has rested on assured mutual destruction. A world with no nuclear weapons creates an unstable environment in which the first country to redeploy even one gains an extraordinary advantage.
In a future crisis, even if no country has secretly maintained an arsenal, the rush to redevelop a weapon would be intense and the war that would break out to preempt that capacity from happening could escalate rapidly. In 2003, in Iraq, we saw the mistakes that can be made in engaging in preventive war. We must remember that the knowledge and the physics of nuclear weapons are established; we cannot eliminate that.
Whether a world free of nuclear weapons is possible, though, is not the critical point. Rather, we must recognize that elimination as a primary objective is a dangerous idea.
Obama said, "But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change." Eliminating nuclear weapons would not change the world or the way in which states compete – just a capacity they possess in that competition.
During the cold war, it was the presence of second-strike retaliatory capabilities that kept the war "cold." Since India and Pakistan developed nuclear arsenals, their confrontations have been managed very differently with an emphasis on deescalation of crisis moments instead of all-out war, as they had fought in the past.
When facing a nuclear adversary, nuclear possession forces a country to ask, "How can I achieve my national interest while avoiding actual war?" Because of the incontestable destructive nature of the weapons, nuclear states compete short of fighting against each other. Nonnuclear states fare differently in their ability to deter war. Consider how Iraq fared in 1991 and 2003.
The reality of the nuclear era is that we must devise a global system that creates stable possession across the fewest states possible. The focus should not be on equity, but on avoiding nuclear war. Invariably, this does mean sustaining a system of haves and have-nots. But an arms-control regime that provides security to nonnuclear states can guarantee a world in which nuclear use is less likely. Stable possession can provide deterrence to nuclear use and to majorpower warfare (which killed tens of millions of people in the 20th century). This needs to enter into the discussions at Obama's nuclear conference.
The nonproliferation treaty needs to be remade to reflect what we have learned about nuclear world politics since 1969. And prestige issues aside, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is not a response to US nuclear possession but, rather, its own strategic condition, which currently must deal with the potential of American troops on its borders. New discussions with Iran, proposed by the US and five other countries Wednesday, should proceed focused on that strategic reality.
What everyone does rightly fear is the worst-case scenario of an undeterrable nonstate actor acquiring a nuclear device and detonating it in a city. To avoid this, we need significant coordination among nuclear weapons states to secure their arsenals. We'd also need a new approach to arms control that manages the pursuit of nuclear energy without increasing the material necessary for bomb-making. The president has offered some initial good ideas about managing the nuclear fuel cycle and the trade in nuclear-relevant materials. To create buy-in from other nuclear weapons states, the US should prioritize these proliferation concerns over having these states plan for disarmament and a reconfiguration of their national security.
Nuclear possession does not invariably lead to proliferation or use. Both the history and logic of the nuclear era support the opposite conclusion: If possession is managed carefully and regulated through arms control, proliferation can be contained and use avoided.
We need not idealize global politics to make the world more secure.
Richard J. Harknett, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, is an editor of "The Absolute Weapon Revisited." He's currently writing the book, "Nuclear Prominence: Security and the Contestability of Costs."