Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are based in part on the premise that if the states with the most nuclear weapons dial down their numbers that those with fewer will do the same. Just as important, states without nuclear weapons will no longer be tempted to develop them. Sounds like a simple matter of leadership, right?

But today, not only conservatives, but generic realists, make the case that whether or not the United States makes significant strides toward global zero is of no concern whatsoever to states aching to scratch the nuclear itch. It’s explained as well as anywhere in a 2009 paper for the Hudson Institute by Christopher Ford titled Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation, and the “Credibility Thesis.”

Personally, I cast my lot with those who call for global zero. But I can’t help suspecting that conservatives and sundry, self-styled realists are correct when they claim that states that seem to aspire to nuclear weapons — Iran, Syria, and Burma, for instance — aren’t impressed with disarmament. It’s as if disarmament were an acquired taste.

Even more oblivious to calls for global zero are most of those states that acquired nuclear weapons without signing nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. The fourth, though, India, might respond to disarmament leadership on the part of the United States and Russia. As might another which signed the NPT, but, more and more is portrayed as a rival to the United States — China, of course.

But Lavina Lee, author of a foreign policy briefing published by the Cato Institute in February titled Beyond Symbolism? The U.S. Nuclear Disarmament Agenda and Its Implications for Chinese and Indian Nuclear Policy, isn’t so sure.

The Obama administration has elevated nuclear disarmament to the center of its nuclear agenda through the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [among other things, and] expects that its professed goal of “getting to zero” has symbolic value and will encourage reciprocity in terms of disarmament and nuclear arms control by other nuclear weapons states, as well as cooperation on measures to limit nuclear proliferation. [But in] the case of the two rising powers of Asia — China and India — it is highly questionable whether either of these expectations will be met.

For its part, while

China has already responded favorably to the new START treaty [but it] is likely to be viewed in Beijing as merely a first, tentative step toward global zero. . . . In China’s view, the United States and Russia, as “the two countries possessing the largest nuclear arsenals, bear special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament” [Ambassador Li Baodong speaking] and should “further drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals.”

Specifically, writes Ms. Lee

Given that the United States currently has 5,113 warheads in its nuclear stockpile . . . and China’s nuclear capabilities are estimated at around 240 . . . it is unlikely that the Chinese will believe that the New START treaty has created anywhere near the “necessary conditions” to enable China to begin force reductions of its own.

Worse, from China’s point of view (ostensibly anyway)

. . . given President Obama’s own admission that global zero is unlikely to be achieved in his lifetime, the Chinese have cause to question whether the United States and Russia will voluntarily relinquish their nuclear superiority any time soon. Under these circumstances, the United States will be waiting a long time for any Chinese reciprocity on nuclear force reductions.

Along with the token cuts in New START and U.S. adherence to missile defense, neither is the $85 billion that President Obama has committed to the nuclear weapons industry in the United States over the next decade likely lost on China. For India’s part, since it doesn’t loom as a supposed threat to the United States, it

. . . has little reason to view the continuing strategic nuclear superiority of the United States and Russia as a security threat. However, in keeping with its moral and political stance against nuclear weapons [say what? — RW]. . . . Prime Minister Singh, while welcoming the New START agreement also called on “all states with substantial nuclear arsenals to further accelerate this process by making deeper cuts that will lead to meaningful disarmament.”

But professing to support disarmament and putting the onus on the U.S. and Russia to show leadership is somewhat disingenuous on the part of India when what really determines its willingness to disarm lay elsewhere. Ms. Lee explains.

The greatest influence over when India will begin nuclear force reductions remains . . . its nuclear armed regional competitors, China and Pakistan. . . . Any commitments India is likely to make on nuclear force reductions will be linked to both of these states doing the same.

Besides, Ms. Lee writes [emphasis added]:

The bottom line is that the short-term national security interests of both China and India are likely to have greater influence over the level of [disarmament] reciprocity that will be forthcoming [from them], given that global zero is still aspirational and the United States continues to maintain a high level of nuclear superiority.

Which means

. . . there are real opportunity costs associated with elevating disarmament to the center of U.S. nuclear diplomacy. Of concern here is the risk that that the United States will offer much with respect to nuclear disarmament and get little in return. In particular, placing emphasis on disarmament could inadvertently provide both states, especially China, with a reason to condition progress toward nuclear proliferation goals on even greater force reductions by the United States. . . . Linking disarmament to nonproliferation may have had symbolic value but may ironically have the effect of reducing U.S. leverage in achieving nonproliferation goals that are more immediately pressing and achievable. Because the United States has more to lose in getting to zero — if that goal is achievable at all — than either China or India, it would not be wise for America to dissipate its advantages without gaining significant concessions in return.

Even though I routinely read this kind of material for fun (alas, no profit), I found it necessary to read that paragraph over and over to worry some sense from it. With regards to the italicized sentence, why does the United States finds itself in a position to “offer much”? Because it has many more nuclear weapons to divest itself of than China. Thus, Ms. Lee advises the United States not “to dissipate its advantages” in weapons numbers “without gaining significant concessions in return.” Those would include requiring China to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and join in creating a treaty on fissile material treaty before the United States agrees to give up a certain number of weapons.

The problem with maintaining that since China doesn’t have the same approximate number of weapons to count down as the United States and Russia does, it must substitute agreeing to Western treaties is immediately apparent. In effect, it punishes China for its “failure” to have built as large a nuclear arsenal as those of the United States and Russia and for not having as many weapons to dicker down.

How shortsighted of China to have limited its arsenal when it should have foreseen the day when it would be required to reciprocally roll back its weapons with the United States and Russia! In effect, no matter how worthy a goal treaty ratification may be, handicapping a state for its head start in the disarmament race (if you can call a course that will likely require generations to negotiate a race) is no way to promote either disarmament or nonproliferation.

In the end, Ms. Lee’s advice to extract concessions from China before we agree to disarm is yet another attempt by right and other realists to put the nonproliferation cart before the disarmament horse when traditionally disarmament was expected to lead the way.

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