Some said Kim Jong Il was crazy. Others declared that he was canny. When the North Korean leader pushed his country through the door of the nuclear club in October 2006 with the explosion of a nuclear device of unknown size and technical capability, he certainly shook up the international community. Observers feared that the explosion would trigger a new arms race in East Asia. Japan could turn its plutonium stockpile and nuclear know-how into an arsenal in as little as six months. South Korea and Taiwan would follow suit, and China would enlarge its rather small supply of strategic weaponry. The regime established by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the late 1960s, which discouraged but didn’t entirely prevent new entrants to the nuclear club, would be dead—and Kim Jong Il’s fingerprints would be all over the murder weapon.

Given the realities of the post-Cold War nuclear age, however, Kim Jong Il’s decision to test the bomb was not surprising. Like other countries since 1945, North Korea has been a U.S. nuclear target. In November 1950, not long after the outbreak of the Korean War, President Harry Truman threatened to use all weapons in the U.S. arsenal against North Korea. The following month, General Douglas MacArthur requested permission to use 26 nuclear weapons, a request that was renewed several times but ultimately denied.1 In 1958, five years after the armistice, the United States introduced tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. Although those weapons were later removed, the United States still maintained a nuclear threat. The 2002 National Security Strategy, for instance, reserves the U.S. right to use nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike “to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States.”2 And the United States has treated North Korea as just such a “rogue state,” a member of what President Bush called an “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran.

Facing an enormous asymmetrical U.S. threat and no longer able to rely on the Soviet nuclear umbrella, North Korea ramped up its own nuclear program. It was predictably concerned about Washington’s regime change rhetoric and its regime change actions against Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The message of the October 2006 test was clear: Kim Jong Il preferred to be on the producing rather than receiving end of a nuclear weapon.

As the North Korea story demonstrates, the threat of nuclear weapons has not disappeared with the end of the Cold War—and that threat comes from countries big and small. If anything, the risks have increased. Despite the commitment of NPT signatories to reduce and then eliminate their stockpiles, the nuclear club members have made only limited moves in that direction. Indeed, several countries are actively modernizing their arsenals. China is reportedly expanding its limited stockpile and introducing a submarine-launched capability. Even more important, the United States has embarked on Complex 2030, which will produce a new generation of nuclear warheads and may well prompt a whole new round of testing. Meanwhile, there is no adequate international mechanism to safeguard the vast amount of nuclear material now available, enough to build 300,000 bombs.

The United States has refused to take the lead in reducing nuclear weapons or their threat, even though former high-ranking officials such as former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger have recently urged “a world free of nuclear weapons.”3 The United States has the most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, it is the only country to have used nuclear weapons, and it has consistently threatened to use them ever since. A just nuclear policy would focus not simply on attempting to suppress the nuclear ambitions of one Kim Jong Il after another. A just nuclear policy would focus on the nuclear alpha male. The only feasible path to just nuclear disarmament begins with Washington.

Core Misconceptions

The nuclear genie, we are told, is out of the bottle and nothing we do can entice him back in. Nuclear weapons have represented ultimate power ever since the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—as much to send a message of U.S. resolve and capabilities to the Soviets as to bludgeon the Japanese leadership into surrendering. Today there are about 27,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, of which about 11,250 are believed to be operational. The United States and Russia possess over 90% of these deployed nuclear weapons, including thousands on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch within minutes of a command. The other six nuclear weapon states (United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan) maintain fewer than 1,000 operational warheads.

Only one country, South Africa, has voluntarily given up this ultimate power. Several other countries—Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus—agreed to relinquish their portion of the Soviet arsenal in exchange for compensation. A third group, which includes South Korea, Egypt, Brazil, and Libya, has stopped their quest for a nuclear weapon either as a result of pressure or incentives. And then there is the fourth group of 20-30 virtual nuclear weapons states, which Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warns have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time span. What would make either the comparatively weak like North Korea, the incomparably strong like the United States, or near-nuclear powers like Japan to give up this supreme instrument of last resort?

The Bush administration has shown nothing but scorn for the attempts to bottle the nuclear genie. It withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and recently announced that it will allow the major nuclear reduction treaty with Russia to expire. Instead, it has accelerated efforts to strengthen the U.S. arsenal.

The conventional alternative to this “peace through strength” approach has been arms control and non-proliferation. Arms control advocates have worked for 60 years to establish limits—on the number of nuclear club members, on the number of permissible warheads, on the type of permissible tests. While this work has managed the atom, it has not done enough to reduce its destructive force. In some sense, the bipartisan consensus in favor of arms control has normalized nuclear weapons and legitimized their further use in war planning.

Arms control has brought us closer but not close enough to disarmament. The Bush approach, meanwhile, has brought us ever closer to doomsday. The Nuclear Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which had moved to 17 minutes to midnight in the hopeful days of 1991, now stands a mere five minutes from midnight. Disarmament seems to shimmer ever further off on the horizon. But this misconception of disarmament as a utopian or politically risky proposition—as well as the notions that nonproliferation applies only to “rogue states” and that international mechanisms for controlling nukes are ineffectual—are major conceptual barriers to reducing the threat of nuclear weapons and turning back the Nuclear Clock.

Until we address these core misconceptions, workable alternatives cannot replace the current failed policies.

Misconception: The United States is committed to reducing nuclear weapons.

By eliminating an entire class of U.S. and Russian weapons, the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives marked the high point in U.S. commitment to reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. The United States announced it would recall and destroy all nuclear artillery and nuclear warheads for short-range ballistic missiles, and would no longer deploy tactical nuclear weapons at sea or on land-based naval planes. The Soviet Union reciprocated by announcing it would eliminate its nuclear artillery, nuclear mines, and land-based tactical nuclear warheads. Meanwhile, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program—also known as Nunn-Lugar after the two principal senators who sponsored it—has provided funds and training to decommission nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. It has, to date, led to the destruction of over 6,000 warheads and over 400 long-range missiles, secured hundreds of tons of nuclear material, and employed over 50,000 former weapons scientists in peaceful work. In 1992, the United States followed up on these promising developments by stopping the testing of nuclear weapons. From 1992 to 1997, the Clinton administration reduced the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 18,290 to 12,500 warheads.

Since then, the U.S. resolve has largely disappeared. The arsenal has shrunk another 2,500 warheads, and Washington and Moscow negotiated a ceiling on nuclear warheads. But the U.S.-Russian agreements don’t cover delivery vehicles, reserve stockpiles, or tactical nuclear weapons, and the United States still maintains an arsenal of about 10,000 nuclear warheads. And the United States has announced that it will allow one critical agreement—the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)—to expire in 2009, which makes future reductions considerably less likely.4 The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), designed to safeguard nuclear materials scattered around the world, has made important progress in reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation. But the funding and staffing remain inadequate, and the program emphasizes conversion rather than shutting down old nuclear reactors.5

More troubling, the United States is now moving in the opposite direction: toward more nuclear weapons and the production of more nuclear material. With Complex 2030, the Bush administration plans to spend at least $150 billion to upgrade plutonium production and design a new generation of weapons. The new nukes may push Washington to start testing again, which would encourage other countries to do likewise. The Bush administration also wants to build a new generation of “bunker busters” that can be used, ostensibly, against weapons caches buried deep in the ground. The damage that such bunker busters would do to American forces, not to mention civilians in the targeted areas, has not persuaded the Pentagon to rethink this program (though Congress has managed to limit development so far to non-nuclear bunker busters).

The United States has always embraced a position of what it terms the “rational” use of nuclear weapons. It has maintained sufficient force to mount a first strike as well as a second strike attack. It has retained tactical nuclear weapons for use in the battlefield by commanders whose forces are sufficiently decimated and require a “robust” response. Tens of thousands of people over the years have spent their lives thinking about how nuclear weapons are made, deployed, controlled, and used on command. Although many members of this culture have renounced their nuclear war commitments—the former head of the Strategic Air Command has called for nuclear abolition—this nuclear complex maintains its institutional integrity.

The Democratic Party has expressed skepticism over bunker busters and Complex 2030. But it has never challenged the nuclear complex or nuclear war planning. These Cold War realists believe that the United States should continue to claim the right of first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers. They opposed enforcing UN resolutions against the nuclear programs of Pakistan, Israel, and India. And they have resolutely supported the possible use of military options against “nuclear rogue states” such as Iran. In short, both the current administration and its realist critics endorse nuclear weapons as a legitimate source of U.S. power that should be managed rather than sharply reduced.

Misconception: It is technically impossible and politically too risky to eliminate nuclear weapons.

At their summit in Reykjavik in 1986, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan were on the verge of signing an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons. The U.S. arms control and strategy community, instead of breaking out the champagne, reacted with horror.6 The two leaders were about to undermine the doctrine of nuclear deterrence—the “mutually assured destruction” that has prevented nuclear powers from launching first strikes. They were about to remove a cornerstone of U.S. dominance and throw hundreds of thousands involved in the nuclear complex out of work.

The sticking point was Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a defensive shield that he imagined would eventually make nuclear weapons obsolete. He was even willing to share the technology with the Soviets. Gorbachev remained skeptical, and the grand disarmament plan fell apart. Whether or not Washington and Moscow would ever have taken the first steps down this path back in the 1980s, the story suggests the powerful attraction that nuclear disarmament has had, even for the leaders of the two countries most heavily invested in their arsenals.

Reykjavik was not the only time the United States has at least notionally committed itself to nuclear abolition. The United States signed at least six arms control treaties that established general and complete disarmament as the goal of the process. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was originally tasked with preparing comprehensive peace alternatives before more piecemeal arms control treaties became the focus of the agency.

Although nuclear disarmament has not been a hot-button issue for the American public or politicians since the end of the Cold War, the issue has broad public and significant elite support. Opinion polls over the last decade have consistently shown 70% or higher public support in the United States for the global abolition of nuclear weapons, and many former high-ranking officials have endorsed the concept. The most recent and notable example was a comprehensive statement on U.S. nuclear weapons policy signed by 20 prominent former defense, foreign policy, and arms control officials, led by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former defense secretary William Perry, and former Democratic senator Sam Nunn. Convened by the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the group laid out a complete program for overhauling U.S. nuclear weapons policy and strongly endorsed the complete global elimination of nuclear weapons.

Abolition is not only popular. It is feasible. Contrary to the objections of disarmament skeptics, arms control treaties have been remarkably successful. There have been exceptions, of course: the nuclear club continues to fall short of their NPT commitments to move toward nuclear disarmament, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty to pursue missile defense, North Korea appears to have violated the 1994 Agreed Framework. But the test ban treaties, the nuclear-free zones, and the bilateral agreements between the United States and Soviet Union/Russia have by and large held firm. The technical challenges of monitoring have been met. Even in cases of violations, such as the North Korea situation, the Agreed Framework successfully froze the country’s plutonium facilities for nearly a decade and the violation centered on what appears to have been a minor uranium-enrichment research project. If arms control treaties are both politically and technically feasible, then a disarmament plan built on the foundation of existing treaties is neither utopian nor impractical.

Cold War realists have argued that nuclear weapons keep the peace. Deterrence is supposed to have created the longest peaceful stretch in recent history. Although many bloody conflicts arose during the Cold War, none of them involved the direct confrontation of nuclear powers. Disarmament, it is argued, would increase rather than decrease the risk of war. Indeed, some analysts like Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer argue that nuclear deterrence is such a good thing that it should be more evenly distributed.”The gradual spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared,” Waltz has written.7

This argument is weak for two reasons. First, it is impossible to demonstrate that possession of nuclear weapons reduced the risk of war. That nuclear war was averted in Korea, during the Cuban missile crisis, or by accidental launch was more a matter of luck than the efficacy of deterrence.8 The greater access to nuclear materials by non-state actors also undermines the argument, for these actors have no states to defend and are thus resistant to a certain degree to the logic of deterrence. Second, the major powers today have other reasons for not attacking one another. It is, for instance, difficult to imagine China and the United States launching a nuclear war given their significant mutual economic dependency.

Missile defense, the overpriced and oversold defense against nuclear weapons, is no alternative to disarmament. U.S. attempts to protect itself from outside threat has the perhaps unintended consequence of making other countries more fearful of U.S. attack. They reason: if the United States no longer worries about retaliation, it will be free to pursue any intervention, any attack, or any regime change strategy. Moreover, countries with small arsenals such as China, because they worry that missile defense negates their deterrent capabilities, have additional reasons to modernize and expand their capabilities.

The current administration has a calculated indifference to arms control. Its critics continue to believe in the power of deterrence and support only the existing arms control regime. To move toward disarmament, we must both affirm the political and technical feasibility of arms control and challenge the dubious merits of nuclear deterrence.

Misconception: Rogue states are the greatest proliferation threat.

In signing on to the NPT, non-nuclear states agreed to give up research and development of nuclear weapons if the nuclear powers traveled a well-defined road toward nuclear disarmament. But this road has not been traveled, and the fears of nuclear proliferation grow even among the most powerful states. The result is the toxic double standard by which the weak must follow the law and the powerful are free to do as they wish. For geopolitical purposes, the U.S.has conferred its blessing on certain nuclear states—India officially, Israel unofficially—while labeling others as rogue states.

There is no question that the proliferation of fissile material is a great threat to the world system. But the U.S. refusal to make a sustained commitment to disarmament and the hypocrisy of its embrace of some nuclear states and not others are the greater threats. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are not just the atomic, biological, and chemical weapons that other countries possess or want to purchase in order to even the playing field. With its enormous nuclear complex, a chemical weapons arsenal that the Pentagon isn’t planning to destroy until 2023, and a largely covert biological weapons program, the United States remains at the top of WMD heap.9

Particularly in the last six years, the United States has also undermined multilateral institutions that could play a role in monitoring and guaranteeing a non-proliferation regime. The U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative is not, for instance, a multilateral body and key countries such as Russia and China are not members. The United States has refused to negotiate with Iran to find a political solution that could arrest that country’s nuclear program. It deliberately unraveled the Agreed Framework with North Korea, then delayed for four years negotiating a political solution to the crisis until it was too late and North Korea had already tested its bomb. Washington has cut funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, thousands of warheads remain undestroyed, and much of the former Soviet cache of fissionable material is protected by little more than rusty fences.

The current administration plays hardball with the countries it doesn’t want to have nuclear weapons. And what of the so-called acceptable states? Over the objections of the arms control community, Washington inked a nuclear cooperation deal with India that will allow the country to go from producing seven bombs a year to as many as 50 annually. Yet India was the first country to use its civilian nuclear energy program as a cover for a secret weapons program. It never signed the NPT. It stands accused of illicitly acquiring uranium enrichment technology. And the U.S. government sanctioned two Indian companies in 2005 for sending missile and chemical weapons technology to Iran.10 Meanwhile, the United States has remained silent about Israel’s nuclear arsenal even after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted its existence in December 2006.

The Cold War realist critics of the administration continue to divide “rogues” from acceptable nuclear states. Former defense secretary William Perry, former assistant secretary of defense Ashton Carter, and former vice president Walter Mondale all endorsed a preemptive attack against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, despite the risk of triggering a major conflict.11 The Democratic frontrunners in the 2008 presidential race have all taken a hard line against Iran. They haven’t called on the United States to implement the disarmament clause of the NPT. They haven’t called on the United States to establish a just nonproliferation regime that sanctions all parties, including Washington, for failing to stop the sale or transfer of fissionable material. And they say nothing about Israel’s 200-400 high-density nuclear bombs.

A Just Security Policy

A just nuclear policy would eliminate the hypocrisy in the current U.S. approach to nuclear weapons. It would emphasize the importance of arms control treaties but as a means to the end of disarmament rather than as ends in themselves. It would strengthen multilateral mechanisms for the securing of nuclear material.

Such a policy would begin with canceling U.S. plans to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. It would expand funding for the CTR and GTRI programs, pay off its arrears to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and eliminate funding for the wildly expensive and technically suspect missile defense system. Washington would restart negotiations with Moscow over further reductions in strategic arsenals. When the two largest arsenals are cut down to size, the United States should engage the other nuclear powers in the process.

Several plans for the phased reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons have been proposed since the United Nations called, in its very first resolution in 1946, for the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction. In its 1997 report The Future of Nuclear Weapons Policy, the National Academy of Sciences set out a program by which the United States and Russia, in the near term, would reduce to 1,000 weapons apiece and then, in the medium term, bring down levels more dramatically along with other nuclear powers.12 The Abolition 2000 framework provides a time-bound framework that builds on existing arms control treaties such as test bans and nuclear-free zones, requires rigorous monitoring and safeguards, and involves civic groups in the monitoring process.

Another approach, certainly consistent with abolition efforts, focuses on the strengthening of international institutions that can create the groundwork for eventual disarmament. The IAEA, for instance, has proposed a new multilateral framework that controls the nuclear fuel cycle. If all countries submit the spent fuel from their civilian nuclear programs to an international agency, the risk of proliferation is reduced. Better yet, given its conflict of interest between controlling and promoting nuclear energy, the IAEA should be split into two new organizations, one to promote sustainable energy sources and the other to promote nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

The case of Libya also offers an engagement model for dealing with weapons of mass destruction. Rather than isolating the country further, the United States worked with Britain on quiet diplomacy to stop Libya’s unconventional weapons programs in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions and the welcoming of the country back into the international community. Sanctions for violating arms control treaties are appropriate, but they should be applied against all violators, no matter how powerful. However, the disarmament option and a path back to international compliance must always be kept open.

Given the risk of blowing up the planet, the United States must make disarmament a priority. The current administration, or its successor, should appoint a high-profile, broadly empowered “nuclear disarmament czar,” such as Shultz or Nunn, to cut through bureaucratic and political inertia, jump-start efforts to change U.S. nuclear policy, and provide sorely needed global leadership on the issue. It is, of course, no longer just states that post-nuclear threats. Before September 11, the United States intercepted an al-Qaeda message that Osama bin Laden was planning a “Hiroshima” against America. There is no adequate international mechanism to safeguard the vast amount of nuclear weapons material now stockpiled around the world. While terrorist organizations don’t yet have the means to build or deliver a nuclear weapon, the risk remains high.

The abolition of anything—slavery, discrimination—is arduous. With nuclear weapons, incremental steps toward abolition must be applauded. However, only when such efforts to control arms are undertaken within a justice framework—where the rules are fair and apply to all, where the first moves are made by and the greatest financial burdens fall on the strongest powers—will these incremental steps bring us closer to the goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament rather than keep us locked in a world of bristling arsenals and double standards.

Nuclear weapons remain a major threat to humanity and the international community. By committing to disarmament, the United States can restore some of the credibility it has lost over the last six years and help repair its relationship with the global South. The nuclear issue has long divided the international community into those within the club and those outside. Nuclear disarmament, on the other hand, can repair this breach and bring the international community together around a feasible project that still, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Twin Towers, has the capacity to determine the fate of the earth.


  1. Bruce Cumings, “Korea: Forgotten Nuclear Threats,” Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2004. Available at:
  2. National Security Council, “Prevent our Enemies from Threatening Us, Our lives, and Our Friends with Weapons of Mass Destruction: National Security Strategy,” September 2002. Available at:
  3. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free for Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.
  4. Ian Davis, “Armageddon in the Offing,” The Guardian, May 30, 2007.
  5. George Perkovich, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Joseph Cirincione, Rose Gottemoeller, and Jon Wolfsthal, Universal Compliance (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment, March 2005).
  6. Frances Fitzgerald, Way Out There in the Blue (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
  7. Quoted in Drake Bennett, “Give Nukes a Chance,” The Boston Globe, March 20, 2005.
  8. On the risks of accidental nuclear war see, Alan Phillips, “No Launch on Warning,” Ploughshares Working Paper, May 2002.
  9. Federation of American Scientists, “U.S. Biodefense Program,” available at:; and, Peter Eisler, “Chemical Weapons’ Disposal Delayed,” USA Today, November 20, 2006.
  10. Thomas Graham Jr., Leonor Tomero, and Leonard Weiss, “Think Again: U.S.-India Nuclear Deal,” Foreign Policy, July 2006.
  11. Ashton Carter and William Perry, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2006; for Walter Mondale’s position, see
  12. National Academy of Sciences, The Future of Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997).

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