A Breath of Fresh Air on Nuclear Weapons Policy

by William D. Hartung

For the growing number of Americans who are now paying attention to the long-neglected issue of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, the primary reaction is fear, focused on one of three concerns: fear of a nuclear North Korea, fear of a war on the Korean peninsula, or fear of a nuclear war. The regular outbursts by our tweeter-in-chief about unleashing “fire and fury” on North Korea, or destroying the country altogether, only heighten those fears. In fact, Trump’s unhinged statements increase the risk of war.

In this climate, the need to tone down the rhetoric and promote a safer, more sensible approach to the nuclear issue could not be more urgent. That commonsense approach was in evidence at a meeting held this week under the auspices of the Ploughshares Fund, entitled “Nuclear Weapons in a Time of Crisis.” The conference offered one-stop-shopping for anyone seeking a better way out of our current nuclear conundrum. A range of opinions were expressed, but the common thread was that whether the issue is the North Korean nuclear arsenal or the Iranian nuclear deal, diplomacy and communication are infinitely preferable to war or threats of war.

Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione kicked off the proceedings by addressing the elephant in the room, noting that “one of the greatest threats we face today on the nuclear front . . . is from our own government.” In keeping with that concern, the morning session included Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), cosponsors of a bill that would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without seeking congressional authorization. This curb makes sense in its own right but is particularly important given the current occupant of the Oval Office. It could not only create a firewall against a reckless resort to nuclear-weapons use, but it could create a hook for other people in the chain of command to resist a presidential order to strike first. Prospects for passing the legislation in the short term are challenging, but every time Trump makes an incendiary statement on the subject it gains greater support.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) echoed Markey and Lieu’s concerns by announcing that he would put forward a bill that would make it U.S. policy never to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a crisis. Smith’s bill would skip the step of potential congressional authorization and simply ban a nuclear first strike outright. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has also spoken out on the need to address this issue, a further indication that the need to rein in the president’s ability to launch a nuclear war is gaining traction on Capitol Hill.

The Case of North Korea

In addition to making the case for his own bill, Rep. Lieu gave one of the most succinct and compelling cases I have yet heard on the need for engaging in nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, arguing the United States should “try everything possible before we start talking about war.” The obvious first point is that a war on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear or conventional, could put millions of lives at risk. A second point that is made less often is that a military strike would be extremely unlikely to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear capability. The United States doesn’t know how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, or where they are hidden. Ultimately, only a bloody and lengthy military occupation of North Korea might be able to eliminate its ability to maintain a nuclear arsenal. More likely, Pyongyang would lash out militarily far before such an occupation could possibly take effect and before all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be located.

In his keynote address, former Secretary of Defense William Perry underscored Lieu’s appeal for negotiations with North Korea by noting that Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was designed to ensure the survival of the regime. Perry further noted that he does not believe that North Korea would use its nuclear weapons except in response to an attack by the United States.

Perry urged the U.S. to get serious about diplomacy, working closely with China. And he cited his own record of engaging in diplomacy with North Korea during the Clinton administration, which not only capped Pyongyang’s ability to do large-scale nuclear-weapons production but came close to a deal to eliminate its program, until the Bush administration came to power and abandoned negotiations. Although stressing that getting a country that already has nuclear weapons to abandon them is a “steeper climb” diplomatically than getting a country without nuclear weapons to forgo producing them, he nonetheless maintained that diplomacy can work. And it is so far superior to the alternatives that Perry’s appeal to “get serious” about diplomacy could not be more urgent.

The Case of Iran

Although diplomacy with North Korea will certainly be a challenge, that is decidedly not the case with Iran, where a comprehensive, multilateral deal already exists. The agreement has been working to dismantle significant portions of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and lock down the prohibition on Iranian nuclear weapons development through extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The conference’s panel on the Iran deal noted that despite Trump’s decision to refrain from certifying to Congress that the deal is working, there is some hope that the Senate—which would need 60 votes to take any action that would undermine the deal—can block any changes that would unilaterally change its terms in a way that would trash the agreement and provoke an Iranian withdrawal. This still leaves the possibility that Trump himself would tear up the deal. but given his volatility and penchant for abandoning his promises, that outcome is by no means guaranteed. So there is hope even in the face of Trump’s harsh rhetoric that it will be possible to preserve one of the best, most effective nuclear agreements of the modern era.

Although the bulk of the focus on nuclear threats in the press and the Congress has been on Iran and North Korea, the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons are possessed by two nations—the United States and Russia. The nuclear arsenals of Israel, India, and Pakistan also pose serious regional risks. And although agreements concluded over the years have reduced the size of the global nuclear stockpiles, they are still large enough to end the prospect of life on earth, if used in significant numbers. The conference addressed this issue in a segment on the recently concluded UN treaty on the elimination of nuclear weapons, in the form of an interview with Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The UN treaty is one of the most inspiring developments in nuclear policy in a long, long time. The majority of the world’s nations have reemphasized the need to get rid of nuclear weapons, a development that can only increase pressure on the states that possess them to do the right thing.

No one knows how long it will take to eliminate nuclear weapons, but ICAN has helped refocus the global conversation on the basic reality of the nuclear age: the world will never be truly safe from the nuclear danger until these weapons are eliminated from the face of the earth. Reaching that goal will take a heightened global citizens movement, including in the nuclear-weapons states that have so far opposed the treaty. Putting the issue to the public at every opportunity will be central to reaching that goal. A few years ago, having an extended discussion on nuclear weapons prohibition in Washington, even in a room full of policy experts who agree on the need to reduce nuclear arsenals, would have been highly unlikely. That it happened this week is one of the most encouraging elements of a conference that addressed the whole range of nuclear dangers we face.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Photo: Beatrice Fihn (ICAN via Flickr).

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