It is estimated that there are some 23,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the United States and Russia today, with another thousand or so held by China, Israel, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and who knows who else.

As President Barack Obama said in Prague during his overseas journey last week, it could make a monumental difference to the world’s security (and to world history) if the United States would agree to an internationally negotiated reduction in its own nuclear forces (to zero), reversing a 60-year American policy of having by far the biggest, not to mention the most advanced and most varied, arsenal of these weapons — whose peculiar quality is that everyone except the United States is terrified of using one of them.

The American public would be terrified too, were there to be the serious prospect of using these weapons (it certainly scared itself nearly to death at the time of the Cuban missile crisis). It has, during most of those past 60 years, contradictorily consoled itself by the belief that invincibility is invulnerability, even though some of its political leaders and commentators insist that the country remains in permanent danger from Muslim terrorists — or worse, “messianic apocalyptic cults controlling atomic bombs” (guess who that might be?).

What the president proposes is to try to get the Senate to ratify, or to put into practice, arms reduction treaties the United States has already signed, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (already ratified by 148 governments), the Moscow Treaty of 2002, signed in Moscow that year to make a drastic reduction in Russian and American nuclear stocks, and the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty with Russia. He wants a new START agreement to bring the number of strategic weapons to under 1,000 each. He would also like an agreement banning production of new fissile material for weapons, which the Bush administration considered unverifiable.

All this is the grist from which the international arms control community — militaries, governments, universities, think tanks, NGOs and commentators of numerous countries — have been milling public policy proposals. It is admirable that so many people are willing to devote themselves to this dreary task, and certain huge obstacles have to be overcome.

The first is that strategic nuclear weapons have proved to be peacemakers. Neither large nor small countries have been willing to use one of them because they are deterred by the threat of retaliation. That is when they are dealing with other countries possessing these weapons, or having major-country friends who possess them.

There is only one theoretical scenario for using a nuclear weapon against such a state and surviving, and that is by possessing what in the trade is known as a credible second-strike deterrent capability. That is: I can bomb you, and you won’t bomb back because I have so many more nuclear weapons that if you retaliate I will annihilate you (to use Hilary Clinton’s vocabulary).

That is not an entirely credible threat, since if someone should carry out the annihilation option they might find that a government even more powerful than theirs might decide they have shown themselves so reckless and dangerous that they should be annihilated too, in the general interest. But that kind of thinking is Herman Kahn-type Cold War speculation, which eventually reached its zero point in the “MAD” (mutual assured destruction) strategy, and thankfully disappeared with the Cold War.

The totally unconvincing scenario today (for Iran, let us say) is a nuclear attack on a nuclear-armed enemy, producing national suicide. This is the often-cited “apocalyptic madman and his cult” scenario. But even if you identify Hitler as an apocalyptic madman, you must ask if he would really have launched the Holocaust if Jewish physicists had already invented the atomic bomb.

If you want to put an end to nuclear arsenals, there is no clever way around the obstacle that stands in front of Barack Obama, as he follows the nuclear arms policy admonition of four eminent former officials: Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn. Their advice is that the Obama government try to reduce the American nuclear arsenal to zero.

Nuclear arms proliferation will never be stopped so long as the United States insists on maintaining a privileged position of global nuclear domination. So long as that is the American position, no one able to do so will renounce the option that presumably preoccupies Iran: that of possessing a minimum nuclear deterrent.

But if the United States takes the lead in negotiating nuclear disarmament, there is a real prospect that others will follow. If the offer is real, everyone benefits. One begins by observing existing agreements.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.


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