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International Security on the Road to Zero

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This consultation is a wonderful opportunity for like-minded diplomats, former officials, nongovernmental experts, and activists to exchange ideas before the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Our discussions have been filled with excitement that the conditions might finally be right to rid the world of nuclear weapons. But that optimism is tempered by intense frustration about the difficulty of inching forward. This week alone, obstacles on the road to zero grew larger as U.S. Senate Democrats lost a seat that had been held by long-time arms control champion Ted Kennedy, new START negotiations remained stalled, and Pakistan blocked consensus on an agenda for the Conference on Disarmament (CD).

As we commiserate, it is easy to attribute all of the problems to somebody else — states that cling to the power and prestige associated with nuclear weapons, or special interest groups that prevent national leaders from acting for the greater good. A more constructive response might include examining our own beliefs and actions to see whether we might inadvertently be doing things that are counterproductive and that are more within our power to change than somebody else’s behavior.

If we are honest, we will admit that deep ambivalence exists, not only among those who doubt the possibility or desirability of eliminating all nuclear weapons, but also among many who wholeheartedly support that goal, but are uncomfortable about the larger changes to security policy that would be necessary to reach it. Concentrating on the vision of “no nuclear weapons” obscures important questions about alternative security arrangements as we reduce, and then eliminate or fundamentally transform, both the weapons themselves and the institutions built around them.

During these consultations, I have heard four main areas of ambivalence. The first involves strategic stability on the road to zero, especially among Russia, China, and the United States. The second involves alliance relations, particularly how to ensure NATO cohesion and preserve extended deterrence as nuclear arsenals decline. The third involves global governance at a time when states care more about preserving flexibility and minimizing short-term costs than they do about the long-term benefits of cooperation. The fourth involves peaceful nuclear technology, now and if global use expands dramatically to avert catastrophic climate change.

Disagreements about how to handle these four areas of ambivalence reflect real and current concerns, not misperceptions or outmoded Cold War mindsets. Failure to address them will make the diplomatic and political environment progressively less favorable even for incremental arms control or nonproliferation advances, let alone for truly transformational leaps. Mishandling them by making domestic and allied support for nuclear cooperation contingent on moves that will predictably increase international opposition, or vice versa, will make it impossible to get the multi-level support required to move forward.

A more productive strategy, I will suggest, involves confronting our own ambivalence, then considering how each of us — as influential individuals, non-governmental activists and analysts, or national representatives — can practice systematic mutual reassurance not only among those countries counted as part of this like-minded group, but including everybody whose cooperation is needed to fulfill the long-term objectives of the NPT.  Even though this means broadening our agenda of challenging issues that must be addressed in order to eliminate nuclear weapons, I believe that pursuing this broader cooperative security agenda is essential to building winning coalitions.


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