How Many Nukes Do We Need?

President Obama wants to negotiate further reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. (Story here). Why? An attack by either country using just one nuke would be devastating, and the use of a dozen or so could end human civilization as we know it. (Modern nukes are MUCH more potent than the bombs that caused horrific consequences at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) The difference between the current limit (2,200 warheads) and the proposed new limit (1,500) is thus, by itself, pretty meaningless. So it has to serve some other function. Here are some possibilities:

1) It's good symbolic politics. A summit meeting at which President Obama and President Medvedev and/or PM Putin sign a nuclear arms control pact could begin to repair the frayed relationship between the two former superpowers (yes, get used to it), and enhance the international standing of each, reminding the world (i.e., China) that these are still the most powerful countries in the world (as measured by how much damage we can do).

2) A feel-good meeting with the Russkies could then in turn pay benefits on issues of substance, such as cooperation in trying to moderate Iran, oil and gas sales to Europe, and so forth. The most important issue on which cooperation is needed is securing potentially loose nukes, and an agreement on nuclear arms reduction could include elements regarding securing weapons and nuclear materials. But this isn't automatic. Indeed, to the extent that further arms limits do not contain strict verification protocols for the destruction of nuclear weapons, they could actually make things worse: Nukes decommissioned from the Russian arsenal could then end up in the hands of people not subject to the logic of mutual assured destruction.

3) A first agreement under the Obama Administration could be a step towards complete nuclear disarmament, a goal long sought by many peacenicks and their fellow travelers. It is highly doubtful, however, that this would become U.S. policy under the Administration of just about any President. Nuclear weapons technology cannot be uninvented---except perhaps by the application of nuclear weapons to convert the Earth into a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the know-how to make a toaster, much less a nuclear weapon, is lost. Thus, so long as there is the possibility of a single potentially hostile power having a single nuke, the U.S. is not at all likely to reduce its arsenal to fewer than something on the order of a hundred nukes.

For people who think that the longer nukes exist, the greater the likelihood that they will eventually be used against human populations (again), the imperative should be: A) securing loose nukes; and B) developing very highly reliable inspection regimes to ensure that a country that says it has no nukes is telling the truth. Accomplishing these objectives would enable the U.S. to reduce to zero without fear that in doing so, it opens itself to nuclear blackmail. A new arms agreement with Russia could therefore serve yet another purpose: It could operate as a testing ground for new methods of disarmament verification.

Still, I am very skeptical of the prospects for getting a fully effective verification regime off the ground. A power bent on nuclear blackmail could game the system, cooperating with inspections so as to lull others into thinking it's out of the game, and then reconstituting its weapons programs after its potential adversaries have disarmed. (This is not in anybody's long-term interests, but the hypothesized regime---let's call it "North Korea" just for kicks---is not entirely a rational actor.)

Thus, I'm led to conclude that the main goals of the proposed arms control negotiations are as described in 1 and 2.

Posted by Mike Dorf