Global Zero: Naive, Dangerous, and Provocative

The Global Zero movement is a multinational effort "to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2030." This movement is surprisingly naive and dangerous, and could result in World War III by the mid-21st century. It is shocking to see the number and stature of the civilian and military leaders that have signed onto this movement.

Given that such a movement advocates for one of the most ambitious and far-reaching geopolitical and military objectives in human history, one would expect the movement to present a very detailed, well-supported, and intellectually rigorous rationalization of the plan to eliminate nuclear weapons, and how such an elimination of nuclear weapons would be a net positive benefit for humans. Instead, we find online an 11-page document with the title "Global Zero Action Plan" that contains only 8 pages of text and little -- if any -- detailed analysis (beyond what appear to be entirely arbitrary timelines and nuclear stockpile targets).

The knowledge base for constructing nuclear weapons is out of the proverbial bag, and has been for some time. As evidenced by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and North Korea, as well as Iran's advanced program, it is not overly difficult for a nation-state to acquire such technology provided they are sufficiently determined and well-resourced. One can readily imagine all the nations that had the easy opportunity to acquire nuclear weapons but which declined for a variety of reasons.

One constant in human history is rapid technological advance and an equally rapid dissemination of such technologies. If one compares the enormous costs and investments (monetary, technical, and social) needed by the Manhattan Project to construct just a couple nuclear weapons with the corresponding efforts required today (e.g., what it took Pakistan and North Korea to construct their weapons, as well as all the other states that acquired their nuclear weapon capacities since the end of World War II), we can trivially extrapolate to what will be the likely ease of acquiring such weapons in the future. Technologies will develop that will make it easier to obtain, extract, and enrich ores that contain fissile elements. Similar advancements will be achieved in the technologies required to weaponize the enriched materials and for delivery.

As much as humans want to roll back the clock on history -- this is impossible.

The goal should not be to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Instead, the goal should be to eliminate the risk of rogue nations and non-state actors from having access to nuclear weapon technologies. Provided our law enforcement and military sectors are appropriately funded and staffed, this is a reasonable goal.

There have been no broad regional or global conflicts since World War II, for one reason, and one reason only: the presence of nuclear weapons. Yes, far too many military personnel and civilians have died, been injured, or been otherwise negatively affected by the (far too) numerous small localized conflicts over the past 65 years. But how many more individuals would have been killed or otherwise affected by conflicts had nuclear weapons not existed? How would the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the numerous proxy wars between the superpowers and/or other major military powers have turned out had not there been nuclear arsenals behind one or both sides of the conflict? If nuclear weapons did not exist, would the NATO allies have been able to withstand a conventional military attack from the Soviets into Western Europe? Maybe not (indeed, likely not, some would argue). Would the Vietnam War have erupted into World War III had not the Americans, Chinese, and Russians all had nuclear weapons? Possibly.

In order to make its case, the Global Zero movement needs to clearly demonstrate that -- over time -- more human lives would be saved by the absence of nuclear weapons than would be correspondingly lost by their absence. The odds of a terrorist organization and/or a rogue state acquiring a nuclear weapon (or more than one) over time -- and subsequently detonating it with massive civilian casualties -- are greater than zero. But the lesson of history is that we do not live in a world without evil, and that it is inevitable (and quite highly likely) that we will witness the periodic rising and falling of "evil empires" around the globe for the foreseeable future. That appears to be -- unfortunately -- the human condition. We can, and should, hope for global peace, but nothing in human history (or current geopolitical events) suggests this is likely to be achieved.

Most regions of the planet are currently engaged in an arms race -- be it the Middle East, Southeast Asia in general, China in particular, or elsewhere. Are Global Zero movement advocates unaware of this reality? Conventional weapons are effectively useless against a nuclear-capable enemy. So why the arms races? Perhaps because conflict is -- sadly -- inevitable, and perhaps there are a number of rogue states that are anticipating/hoping for a nuclear weapons free world over the next 18 years (as the Global Zero movement desires), and are planning to have massive conventional forces available for this time in order to help them achieve their military goals (that would otherwise be deterred had we retained nuclear weapons).

The Global Zero movement states that "[w]e, the members of the Global Zero Commission, with the benefit of our collective experience working on national security issues in many of the key nuclear and non-nuclear countries, have come to believe that whatever stabilizing impact nuclear weapons had during the Cold War, any residual benefits of these arsenals are now overshadowed by the growing risk of proliferation and the related risk of nuclear terrorism." Belief and claims of collective experience are not sufficient. This Commission must present more credible claims that the deterrence effects of nuclear weapons are now outweighed by the dangers of proliferation. Proliferation and nuclear terrorism are major threats, and our law enforcement and military establishments should receive the funding they need to deal with such threats.

But the threat of a first-strike nuclear war brought on by aggressive nation-states is not zero. To claim that the Cold War is over is not accurate. One only need witness how Russia and China behave when they do not get their geopolitical ways. China is a rapidly rising power, and is projected to be a superpower (economically and militarily) in the near future. Russia has the natural resources to rebuild itself as a superpower once again, and there are some indications that its current leadership desires this goal. Other emerging nations may also go bad over the next couple decades. To think that we have collectively moved out of an era where major nations engage in major wars is nonsensical - probably the only reason we have not seen major conflicts between major nations since World War II is due to the presence of nuclear weapons. Remove this type of weapon, and you also remove the factors that have historically prevented such major conflicts.

What should the nuclear arsenal levels be for major nations? That depends on the technology, but the answer is most certainly not zero. If we move to a Global Zero world, we stand a significant chance of moving towards World War III and a continued succession of regional and global conflicts that will ultimately cause more human suffering than if we keep nuclear weapons and enact stronger efforts to reduce proliferation and terrorism.

To quote former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld: "If we know anything, it is that weakness is provocative." Indeed, and for western democracies not to maintain strong nuclear arsenals is weak, and thereby provocative. We must avoid such provocations.