A perilous call to abolish nukes

Out There

April 14, 2009|By Richard J. Harknett

CINCINNATI -During his recent trip to Europe, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. must "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." This goal would undermine global nuclear security. 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.

During the Cold War, the presence of second-strike retaliatory capabilities kept the war "cold." Because of the incontestable destructive nature of the weapons, nuclear states compete short of fighting against each other. Nonnuclear states fare differently in deterring war.

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. The nonproliferation treaty needs to be remade to reflect what we have learned about nuclear world politics since 1969.

Everyone rightly fears the 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.

We need not idealize global politics to make the world more secure.

Richard J. Harknett, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, is writing the book, "Nuclear Prominence: Security and the Contestability of Costs." This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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