Four Paradoxes of the Nuclear Age

A 1950 Japanese film entitled Rashomon describes an incident in which four witnesses to a crime give wildly contradictory but equally plausible accounts of what happened.

In the on-going debate on nuclear weapons, observers looking at the status of nuclear arms give similarly conflicting opinions of what the facts mean, resulting in four paradoxes of the nuclear age.

Numbers of nuclear weapons

For instance, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, there were as many as 70,000 nuclear weapons across the globe.

Today there are some 17,300 worldwide, most still in the hands of the United States and Russia.

The good news is that there has been a decline of more than three fourths in the world’s nuclear stockpile.

The bad news is that there remain17,300 of the most destruction weapons ever developed, almost all of which are larger than the two atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Plus, there is sufficient nuclear material across the globe that could be fashioned into tens of thousands of additional nuclear weapons.

Some people look at these facts and say that 75% of the world’s nuclear weapons have been destroyed. Amazing progress!

Others point to the same numbers to emphasize how much nuclear danger remains in the world.

Proliferation of nuclear weapons

Or take the spread of nuclear weapons.

When he was President in the early 1960’s, John F. Kennedy predicted that there could be as many as 25 countries with nuclear weapons in a few years.

But he was wrong.

Today there are nine nuclear weapons states, not 25.

Nine is still nine too many, but not as many as forecast.

Some observers look at these facts to conclude that the effort to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries is one of the biggest policy successes in the 20th century.

Besides there being fewer nuclear powers than predicted, countries such as Argentina and Brazil began nuclear weapons programs but abandoned them.

South Africa had nuclear weapons and destroyed them.

But there has been tremendous international attention focused on North Korea, which is testing nuclear weapons and missiles, and making wild threats about unleashing nuclear devastation.

Iran may be moving in the same direction, which could spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and is being confronted by an international coalition.

Pakistan has a substantial nuclear weapons force in a less-than-stable environment and confronts its sworn enemy India across a long border. Nuclear war between two countries that have fought three wars is a distinct possibility.

So the effort to stem the spread of nuclear weapons can be seen as either a great policy success or a decades-long effort that threatens to disintegrate.

President Obama’s nuclear weapons efforts

In April 2009, President Barack Obama delivered in Prague, The Czech Reublic, one of the most significant speechesof the nuclear age.

At that time, he said: “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

President Obama’s forthrightness about the dangers of nuclear weapons and his clear vision of a world without nuclear weapons can be compared only to President Kennedy’s June 10, 1963, speech at American University in which stated that the urgency of the nuclear danger transcended America’s differences with the Soviet Union. Kennedy pledged to pursue a nuclear test ban treaty and suspend all nuclear explosive testing in the atmosphere.

President Obama followed his rhetoric by seeking international support for his nuclear agenda. Later in 2009, he secured unanimous United Nations Security Council approval of the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons.

In April 2010, the President organized a Washington, DC summit meeting, followed two years later by another in South Korea, to build support for stemming proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials.

He also negotiated a new arms control agreement with Russia, New START, that will reduce the number of US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

He launched an initial revaluation of American nuclear weapons policy.

And then the President largely rested his nuclear agenda for the next two years.

Despite the soaring rhetoric in that 2009 speech, U.S. nuclear policy is not much different from the cold war. It is but a pared down version of its Cold War predecessor, rather than a significant change in nuclear policy and programs.

The Four Horsemen

In January 2007, four of the most distinguished national security experts in the country, and some of the most hawkish, shocked the political and policy world by advocating in the Wall Street Journal a call for the elimination of all nuclear weapons over time.

This essay was authored by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Nixon), former Secretary of State George Shultz (Reagan), former Secretary of Defense William Perry (Clinton) and former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn.

Their embrace of zero nuclear weapons has drawn the support of a wide variety of former military officers, ex-government officials of both parties, national security officials and diplomats in this country and around the world.

But, and it is a big but, this movement has picked up almost no support in the American political community.

Senators and Representatives have remained mostly mute about, or critical of, this vision.

Even the Senate’s approval of New START in December 2010 was in doubt until the final moments.

To win those 71 votes for ratification, the Obama administration had to promise huge new spending on nuclear weapons even as the President was trying to reduce the bloated US arsenal.

If only Akira Kurosawa, the late director of Rashomon, could make a new film.