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"Thousands, Hundreds or Zero: How Many Nuclear Weapons Do We Need?"
Some experts believe it is time to change U.S. nuclear policies, and they are working as a committee to find what one member calls the "sweet spot"—a plan to give America security while also lowering the international risk of atomic warfare and the proliferation nuclear weapons.
At a conference hosted by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, three speakers reviewed the status of the committee's work and debated the complex nuclear strategies America must develop for the 21st century. The discussion, held on 7 May, was entitled "Thousands, Hundreds or Zero: How Many Nuclear Weapons Do We Need?"
Arnold Kanter, a co-chairman of the committee and a founding member of the Scowcroft Group, an international business advisory group, said the 11 members of the nuclear weapons committee have many different views about America's nuclear policies, but all agree that a change is necessary.
"U.S. nuclear policy can and should be revised rather than merely continued or simply incrementally updated," said Kanter. "This is a time for rethinking U.S. nuclear policy."
Kanter said the main question that a revised nuclear policy should address is: How can the United States best influence the behavior of other countries to lower the risk of nuclear warfare and the spread of nuclear weapons?
At the same time, Kanter said, the nation needs to maintain policies that assure American security.
"We are looking for the sweet spot" in new nuclear weapons policy, he said. "The sweet spot will be the intersection of those actions that the United States can take unilaterally that will maximize our chances of eliciting the international responses we seek," he added, while also "preserving the nuclear capabilities that we're going to need to avoid serious risks" to national security.
Some members of the committee, said Kanter, are pushing for bold, dramatic changes, such as unilaterally dropping the number of U.S. nuclear arms to about a thousand warheads—far below the current number. (The current number is difficult to assess, but the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush indicated in 2006 that it wanted to cut the stockpile by more than half—to about 8000 weapons—by 2012).
Others on the committee, he said, favor more incremental American action, such as unilaterally advancing the date for nuclear weapons reductions called for in a treaty with Russia.
Another speaker, Barry Blechman of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit public policy institute, said he believes the time is right for the U.S. to negotiate treaties that would eliminate all nuclear weapons by a "date certain."
Blechman said that any nuclear treaty that calls for some reduction of weapons would not excite large political support from the public and would face stiff opposition from the 20 to 25 U.S. senators who oppose such treaties as "a matter of ideology." He said such treaties also would be opposed by vested interests "because their systems and futures are affected."
But a treaty to actually eliminate all nuclear arms, he said, would capture a tidal wave of support that "can overcome the inevitable opposition to any sort of proposal."
"There is a need for a radical approach that can mobilize political constituencies, regain the high ground in the proliferation debate and eventually eliminate the threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear war," said Blechman. "I think this can be accomplished safely without raising risks to the security of any nation."
Blechman said such a treaty would require nations to provide an inventory of nuclear weapons, facilities and fissionable material, allow for inspections and verification, and have mechanisms in place to punish cheaters. The treaty must also have what he called "off ramps"—the rights for signatory nations to drop out if various milestones of disarmament are not met by all participating nations. Negotiating such a treaty, he said, could take 20 years, plus decades more to implement.
Morton H. Halperin
The third speaker at the conference, Morton H. Halperin of the Open Society Institute, a non-profit public policy group, sharply disagreed with Blechman. Halperin said an effort to negotiate a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons "is misplaced and in some ways dangerous and counterproductive."
Halperin, who is co-chairman with Kanter of the nuclear policy study committee, said that a U.S. debate on nuclear weapons elimination would exhaust all other effort toward any change in nuclear policy and "would provide an excuse and a requirement not to do anything."
Instead of spending decades seeking worldwide nuclear weapons elimination, Halperin said a new U. S. president could take quick, unilateral action that could encourage other nations to take similar actions.
Halperin said he would favor reducing the nuclear arsenal to a thousand warheads. In addition, he suggested consideration of these actions:
Stressing that the U.S. has nuclear weapons only to deter the use of nuclear weapons by other nations, and that America would not use its weapons first;
A declaration that it is not U.S. policy to use nuclear weapons on warning of an attack, or even on the receipt of an attack;
Making military preparation to survive any conceivable nuclear attack and to then decide upon the proper response;
Such measures would accomplish almost as much as eliminating nuclear weapons while protecting against rogue states that might cheat on any treaty, said Halperin.
Jeffrey Lewis, moderator
The nuclear policy committee is a bipartisan group organized a year ago by the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control specialist with the foundation, directs the study and served as moderator. Lewis said the committee plans to draft "what is essentially an illustrative presidential guidance on nuclear policy" and then offer it to the new U.S. president, regardless of party.
Benn Tannenbaum , associate program director for the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, said that the nuclear policy discussion is one of a series of forums sponsored by the center. He said that the Center is "geared toward connecting scientists who are studying the issues related to national security with policy-makers here in Washington."
The discussion was held at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of AAAS and co-sponsored by the New American Foundation.
29 May 2008