commentary

(Europe's World)

August 1, 2010

This May Be a Key Year, but Alas Not a Decisive One

by Olga Oliker

I agree absolutely with Klaus Naumann that 2010 is shaping up to be a key year for arms control. But I am less optimistic than he that the important steps taken this year genuinely lay the groundwork for disarmament. The arms control agreement signed by the U.S. and Russia in early April, the nuclear summit in Washington, and the other key events he notes accomplish many goals in their own right. But they only revive the possibility of global nuclear disarmament. They do not put us on a path to it.

The most fundamental roadblock to the elimination of nuclear weapons lies deeper than this treaty, or any of these important steps, can reach: Many countries continue to find nuclear arsenals useful. These include both the new treaty's signatories, countries that have more recently developed or sought to develop nuclear capabilities, and even countries that do not, themselves, have nuclear weapons.

Recent proliferants clearly see nuclear weapons as useful; if they did not they would not be proliferants. The world's first nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, for their part, both issued policy statements in early 2010 describing the important foreign policy roles they expect their nuclear arsenals to maintain for the foreseeable future. For both, these roles lie not in using the weapons directly, but in the capacity that implicit and explicit threats of their use have to deter actions by others.

According to Russia's new military doctrine, the purpose of its nuclear arsenal is to deter the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction and to deter any conventional threats to the existence of the state (or its allies). According to the United States' Nuclear Posture Review, U.S. nuclear weapons may be used in "extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies." The U.S. also retains the right to use those weapons against not only other nuclear weapon states, but also non-nuclear weapon states—or non-state actors—not in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. For both countries, even much lower numbers of nuclear weapons can be seen as well-aligned with these purposes.

The maintenance by the United States of nuclear weapons in Europe illustrates yet another purpose of nuclear weapons. Those weapons remain in Europe to demonstrate to America's European allies that the U.S. is truly behind them. The weapons are not targeted against any specific threat, but because they have been there so long, to withdraw them would send a signal of abandonment. Their purpose is less as a deterrent than as a symbol of commitment and trust.

As observers laud the new START treaty for bringing back a framework that will make substantial U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions possible, they must recognise that lowering numbers is not the same as stripping nuclear weapons of their values.

As long as U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are valuable to the Europeans, it remains unlikely that they could be easily traded by Washington for Russian concessions on tactical nuclear weapons in the next round of negotiations, as Naumann suggests. Instead, their withdrawal would have to come at the behest of the European states, for only they can decide that these weapons are no longer a necessary token of U.S. support.

Both the U.S., which has said it will maintain a nuclear force as long as others do, and Russia, which surely feels the same, are a long way from declaring nuclear weapons useless. The process of arms control is not in itself enough to move them in that direction. I agree with General Naumann that this agreement is crucial if we are to shrink huge arsenals. Over time, it may even draw more states into disarmament and safeguards and help ensure the safety of nuclear weapons and materials. I also agree that broad-based international co-operation on nonproliferation, including through the nonproliferation treaty framework, will also help assure security.

Moving towards nuclear disarmament, however, and the sustainable prevention and reversal of proliferation, requires not only that numbers be reduced, but that the political roles that nuclear weapons play should either be deemed moot by leaders or filled by other weapons or policy tools. For now, this still looks a long way off.

This commentary originally appeared in Europe's World on August 1, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.