"Getting to Zero: Is Pursuing a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World Too Difficult? Too Dangerous? Too Distracting?"
Book Chapter, Ending War: The Force of Reason: Essays in Honour of Joseph Rotblat, pages 33-56
Author: John P. Holdren, Former Director and Faculty Chair, Science, Technology and Public Policy Program
GETTING TO ZERO: Is Pursuing a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World Too Difficult? Too Dangerous? Too Distracting?
There is remarkably widespread and growing agreement, at the end of the 1990s, on the desirability and feasibility of many of the nuclear-arms-limitation measures treated in the foregoing chapters: on reductions in the nuclear forces of the United States and Russia going well beyond those prescribed in the START II treaty; on de-alerting measures that would increase the reaction time of nuclear forces from minutes to days; on a thoroughgoing revision of targeting practices in order to eliminate all consideration of massive attacks; on bringing into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiating a comprehensive cutoff of production of fissile materials for weaponry; and on other measures to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons in the foreign and military policies of the few countries that possess them and bolster the resolve of the rest to continue to refrain from acquiring them.
As remarkable as the extent of agreement on this range of restraints on nuclear weaponry, however, is the extent of the continuing lack of agreement on the desirability and feasibility of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons altogether — or, at least, on trying to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world (NWFW) on any timescale of practical interest. Notwithstanding the spate of studies and statements, since the Cold War ended, by distinguished groups and individuals arguing that the time has come to address the elimination of nuclear weapons as a practical matter rather than merely a utopian goal, it seems apparent that getting to zero any time soon remains anathema to a majority of the people who populate the national-security establishments of the nuclear-weapon states — or, at least, to a majority of those whose opinions matter most.
NWFW proponents argue that getting to zero is desirable to reduce the horrific risks of intentional or unintentional use of nuclear weapons by the countries that now possess them, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons (as well as chemical and biological weapons) to additional nations and to subnational groups, and to escape once and for all the vexing moral dilemmas of nuclear deterrence; and they argue that getting to zero has been made feasible by the end of the Cold War and by global trends towards democratization, cooperation, and interdependence. The NWFW skeptics, as I will call them, argue (with varying degrees of relative emphasis on the three points), that getting to zero is too difficult (many say impossible), too dangerous (both as a destination and en route), and too distracting from more promising arms-limitation agendas to warrant pursuing it with any seriousness at this time.
In this chapter — which I offer as a tribute to the indefatigable and relentlessly effective pioneer among NWFW proponents, Joseph Rotblat — I address these arguments of the skeptics and weigh them against those adduced in favor of getting to zero by Rotblat and other NWFW proponents. At the end, I indicate where I come out myself on some of the major dilemmas and disagreements that characterize this topic. Before turning to these “pro and con” matters, however, I provide some needed background in two parts: a capsule history of the debate about freeing the world from nuclear weapons, ending with the blossoming of attention to the issue following the end of the Cold War; and an attempt to sort out some of the conceptual and terminological ambiguities about the meaning of zero that are the legacy of this history.
Chapter for a book, The Force of Reason, honoring Sir Joseph Rotblat on his 90th birthday.
- getting_to_zero_john_holdren.pdf (253K PDF)
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