The independent resource on global security

1. A world without nuclear weapons: fantasy or necessity?



At Reykjavik, in October 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan endorsed the idea of eliminating all nuclear weapons. The idea lay fallow until the publication of two articles by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn in January 2007 and January 2008. They argued that the world was at a dangerous tipping point and that the response to the growing nuclear threat required a sustained step-by-step programme and a serious commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.

Russia and the United States have now agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals by concluding a New START Treaty. This could open the door to deeper Russian–US reductions. Many analyses have investigated this, including models ranging from 1000 warheads to zero. Verification is a major issue, but less formidable than many think. Russia and the USA have had years of experience in verifying numbers of operationally deployed nuclear warheads. In fact, the task of verification may become easier as progress towards zero is achieved.

Unless there is a broadly shared international commitment to the goal of a nuclear-free world, however, the momentum necessary to sustain further Russian–US negotiations will be lost. An array of actions is available to nuclear-armed states. Many of these could be pursued without delay, including an agreement to cease the production of fissile material for weapons.

Nuclear deterrence will not disappear even if nuclear weapons are eliminated. It will exist in the form of functioning nuclear laboratories and some capacity to produce nuclear weapons, if needed, over a period of time. Agreements to regulate this will be necessary. A world free of nuclear weapons means that the use of nuclear weapons would not be easily available even to those who have the proven capacity to build them.

Politically, a higher degree of cooperation among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council would surely be necessary. Although governance issues tend to focus on the Security Council, much of the process of eliminating nuclear weapons will be based on regional arrangements, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia and North East Asia.

The obstacles to ending the nuclear threat are more political than technical or military. No law of nature stands in the way.



James E. Goodby (United States) is a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. As a US Foreign Service Officer he served as ambassador to Finland, head of the US delegation to the Stockholm Conference on confidence-building measures in Europe, vice-chair of the US START delegation, Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Security and Disarmament, and held diplomatic assignments with US missions to NATO and the European Communities.