The Coming Age of Diplomacy

Responding to: The Pope and the Bomb

By: James E. Goodby

February 6, 2020

Pope Francis has spoken of the need to abandon the threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as their possession. This change in Church thinking comes at a time when new dangers that did not exist in the Cold War heighten the risk posed by more nuclear weapons in more hands. These new dangers include international terrorism, well-organized nuclear black markets, and the rise of cyber warfare, which will make the management of any future nuclear crisis even more difficult. Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis overlaid by third-party disinformation. Furthermore, the U.S.-Soviet model of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War was probably unique. We shouldn’t think that deterrence in a world with multiple nuclear powers will work the same way.

The idea of eliminating nuclear weapons must now become more “thinkable.” Commitments already made by governments to a world without these weapons should have led to serious and meticulous analysis, but this has not yet occurred. Some countries dismiss the whole idea. 

Throughout the history of the nuclear age, calculations about nuclear deterrence—how to achieve the desired effect of inducing caution in an opponent’s decision-making—have been surprisingly fluid and, in historical terms, even volatile. Only in part was this a reflection of a changing Soviet military posture. There were also basic changes in American thinking about nuclear war, caused by the availability of nuclear weapons and new technology. Jimmy Carter approved a strategy he called “protracted nuclear war.” His successor, Ronald Reagan, adopted a policy of radical reductions in nuclear weapons that, in effect, vitiated the doctrine of protracted nuclear war. There was a change in the political leadership of the Soviet Union during Reagan’s time. But the numbers of Soviet weapons had been increasing. The changed American attitude toward nuclear deterrence in the 1980s came about because Ronald Reagan thought that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” He said this in his 1984 State of the Union message. It is time for another change in thinking about nuclear deterrence even more radical than that of the 1980s.

Of course, there are formidable technical obstacles to overcome. But the most challenging issues are ethical and political. What is it that needs to be deterred, and how? How do we construct stable regional military situations so that the world does not become free for repeated conventional wars? What kinds of instabilities should we anticipate as nuclear-weapons states divest themselves of nuclear weapons? How do we avoid a situation where biological weapons become the preeminent weapon of mass destruction? How can we create a more disciplined international system, one in which “words matter” and compliance is routine rather than unusual? A vision, like that of a world without nuclear weapons, is useful precisely because it forces us to think hard about issues that are truly important. To its credit, the Trump administration has initiated an international study on “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND). Working groups have been examining the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence and considering how to enhance the prospects for nuclear disarmament.

Nearly everyone agrees now, in 2020, that mutual assured destruction as a strategy is obsolete as well as immoral, but Russia and the United States are still stuck in the mutual nuclear deterrence trap. Although some experts dispute the proposition that the world would be safer without nuclear weapons, most experts content themselves with saying nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented and that hidden nuclear weapons could not be found.

But can we reliably verify the absence of nuclear weapons? Years of successful experience in verifying numbers of operationally deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, that is, those associated with deployed missiles and bombers, show what already is possible. Still, there can be no doubt that ironclad assurances that all nondeployed warheads everywhere in the world have been eliminated will be difficult to come by. To say that nondeployed warheads are hard to find is a truism, but it is also true that warning of an impending activation of concealed weapons can be detected. Nuclear weapons require attention to remain reliable. 

As the process of warhead dismantlement proceeds, an accurate base of information about arsenals that have been built and about fissile material that will remain subject to restraints and elimination should be in hand. During the time it will take to negotiate and implement the steps toward zero nuclear weapons, we can anticipate a steady accumulation of vital information. The history of production of fissile materials will become better understood, and with that information, the outer limits of warhead production can be predicted quite accurately. 

But eliminating nuclear weapons is only part of the quest for peace and international security. Jonathan Schell observed several years ago that nuclear deterrence would not disappear even if all nuclear weapons were eliminated if the means of reconstituting nuclear arsenals continued to exist [1]. For better or worse, what is now known as a “responsive nuclear infrastructure” would make it possible, over time, to rely less on existing nuclear warheads for deterrence and more on the ability to build new ones. A “responsive nuclear infrastructure” means functioning nuclear laboratories and some capacity to produce nuclear weapons, if needed, in a timely way. This may be what nuclear deterrence will look like in the future. 

Critics of the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons also say or imply that political conditions that would make nuclear deterrence unnecessary may never exist. Nations that have acquired privileged positions in the international system by virtue of being nuclear-weapons states will be reluctant to give up that status, or even to accept parity in nuclear weapons as stockpiles are reduced to low levels. Those nations that fear the conventionally armed military might of other nations will be reluctant to give up the option of a nuclear “equalizer.” This is what the fatalists mean when they say the world isn’t ready for such a radical idea as abandoning nuclear deterrence, even if the United States is. But it is ideas such as these, rather than technical problems, that present the most difficult barriers to reaching zero. These are problems that can be overcome. No law of nature stands in the way.

But while we cannot confine the process of working toward a world without nuclear weapons to the narrow task of eliminating nuclear weapons, success in moving toward eliminating the nuclear threat will make it easier to build the broad infrastructure for international cooperation. Of course, the international issues that beset us today will have to be resolved. Last November, in Nagasaki, Pope Francis stressed the essential task: to overcome the differences that divide the nations. He called for “a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family of today and tomorrow.” This is not the same as saying that world government must be achieved, but it will have to be an “Age of Diplomacy,” as former Secretary of State George Shultz calls it.

  1. Jonathan Schell, The Abolition (New York: Knopf, 1984).

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The Coming Age of Diplomacy