Hostility, More Than Weaponry, Blocks Nuclear Disarmament

<i> Joseph S. Nye Jr. is professor of government and director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and author of "Nuclear Ethics." </i>

Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze met in Vienna last week but were unable to capture the spirit of Reykjavik. Before its bitter ending, the October summit had boosted the hopes of nuclear abolitionists. For a moment it appeared that the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of an agreement, only to be thwarted by Ronald Reagan’s intransigence over his Strategic Defense Initiative.

Would the world be better off if the two leaders had signed an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons? Probably not. One of the problems with premature abolition is that it would neglect the most important part of our peril. It is not the weapons themselves but the hostility in the U.S.-Soviet political relationship that threatens us most. After all, Britain has enough nuclear weapons to destroy us, but we lose little sleep over them. We should focus less on the number of weapons and more on the conditions that minimize the prospects of their use.

So long as mutual hostility remains as high as it is, early efforts to abolish nuclear weapons could actually increase the prospects of their use. There are at least three major reasons:

Since nuclear knowledge cannot be “dismantled"--short of burning the textbooks and the scientists--nuclear weapons can always be reinvented by hostile nations. In a world where the superpowers have 50,000 nuclear weapons, it does not matter much if one side or the other were to hide 100. But in a nuclear-disarmed world, it would matter very much if a nation cheated and hid 100. Indeed, even the rumor of such behavior could lead to the worst kind of arms race--a crash program to reinvent nuclear weapons, with little time to develop the elaborate safety procedures that now surround them. Moreover, in a crisis, there would be tremendous incentive to strike first at the other side’s laboratories and initial weapons.


Another problem with abolishing nuclear weapons before transforming the U.S.-Soviet political relationship is that it would reduce inhibitions against conventional war. Not only would this affect the balance of power, but many experts believe that the most likely circumstances to impel reinvention and use of nuclear weapons would be in trying to win a conventional war. After all, that was how they were first invented and used.

A third difficulty with abolitionism is the problem of proliferation. In a world where the United States and the Soviet Union had abolished their nuclear arsenals, third countries that refused to go along--or that cheated--could wield extortionary power. It is worth remembering that Libya agreed to forswear nuclear weapons as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty but has nonetheless made surreptitious efforts to gain them.

At the same time, we cannot be complacent about a world with nuclear weapons. People who think a system of nuclear deterrence will last forever must ask themselves if they also think humans have become infallible and if Murphy’s Law can be repealed. We need visions of alternatives to keep us from remaining in a potentially fatal nuclear rut. Just as abolitionists need to think more clearly about the conditions for stability in a non-nuclear world, so believers in deterrence must consider the conditions for reducing reliance on nuclear weapons.

Such concerns should lead both abolitionists and deterance believers back to the hard realities of current arms control negotiations. Arms control has often been oversold in the past, and it alone cannot change the political relationship. Nonetheless, the establishment of a regime of rules and procedures in an area of common interest is an important part of a long-term political strategy for a more stable U.S.-Soviet relationship.


SDI and arms control can be mutually reinforcing. In the short term, SDI has provided a useful lever for serious negotiations because of Soviet concerns about U.S. technology. Over the long run, modest defenses may serve as insurance against hidden or proliferated weapons, thus allowing significant reductions in missiles, though not in all weapons. In turn, SDI will need an agreement on significant offensive reductions if it is to meet the Administration’s own criteria of cost effectiveness and survivability. A safe transition to defense dominance requires a cooperative political climate. That is hard to imagine in a world where arms-control agreements are not working.

Fortunately, the type of defenses needed for insurance and the timetable for transition are consistent with research, within the framework of the existing Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. We need less rhetoric about SDI and more hard negotiation about keeping SDI research within the traditional interpretation of the ABM Treaty. That will require flexibility by both sides. Whatever the prospects for eventual nuclear abolition leading to a more stable universe, stability will not come from premature abolition agreements or unilateral technical fixes in a world where existing arms control regimes have been allowed to break down.