Calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons have given voice to the hope that disarmament by the world's great powers will reduce the risk of inadvertent war among them and discourage proliferation by smaller states.
Though laudable, this notion could cause new security problems among those who possess these weapons of mass destruction - and could encourage proliferation by nuclear "have nots," or increased production by those with small arsenals.
Among current nuclear powers, the reduction/abolition process could inadvertently pose three dilemmas. First, as arsenal sizes diminished, the "payoff" for cheating would grow. For example, where secretly holding an additional 1,000 warheads makes little difference when the leading powers have 10,000 apiece - as Russia and the United States still do - that same cache would profoundly alter the balance of power if the announced arsenals had been reduced to 1,000 or lower.
The second dilemma revolves around the increasing vulnerability of smaller arsenals. At today's levels, either of the leading nuclear powers could suffer a "first-strike" while still retaining deadly retaliatory capacity. At lower levels, though, the ability to respond after absorbing an attack grows problematic, particularly if the first blow comes as a surprise. This problem will encourage nuclear powers involved in crises with each other to alert their forces early and to consider launching their weapons of mass destruction "on warning," to sidestep a potentially disabling first strike. Actions of these sorts would greatly raise the likelihood of the outbreak of an inadvertent nuclear war.
These dilemmas carry particular significance for Russo-American relations, as these former cold-war adversaries still stand in a class by themselves - well above all other nuclear powers. However, the third problem posed by sharp reductions revolves around the ease with which nuclear aspirants may achieve parity, or more. For example, if Russia and the US reduced to 1,000 warheads apiece, or less, then China, which currently has some 500 weapons, could rise to equality with little additional effort. Even non-nuclear states such as Germany and Japan could envision easily rising to the first nuclear rank. For a state concerned that good security relations might grow disturbed in the future, the prospect of having a readily achievable path to nuclear parity might prove an irresistible impulse toward proliferation.
For non-nuclear countries pursuing their security in the uncertain post-cold- war world, the idea of abolition leaves two problems unresolved. First, because elimination would occur in phases over a long period, the "have nots" would lack a credible deterrent capability to counter coercive actions by the "haves." Second, even if a smaller state put its faith in the abolition process, which eventually succeeded, great powers would still retain their sizable advantages in military strength.
The Clinton administration has wisely refrained from endorsing the abolition option, for it might encourage cheating, weaken crisis stability, and tempt some states currently content with their situations to seek first-rank nuclear capabilities. These problems with the elimination process should not, however, steer us away from the desirable goal of stemming the tide of proliferation. Other initiatives - announcing that American nuclear weapons will only be used in response to nuclear attacks, for example - should be considered.
Such a prudential American policy toward the use or threat of force might well lessen smaller states' general "demand" for weapons of mass destruction. This shift might even contribute to the conflict resolution process in specific crises. On the Korean peninsula, for example, a binding US pledge to keep nuclear weapons out of the region and to refrain from attacking the North could ensure the success of the Carter Accord by providing Pyongyang the reassurance it ultimately needs to face an uncertain world without the bomb.
From an American perspective, the idea of nuclear abolition poses the possibility of doing good and, at the same time, doing well. Reducing the risk of nuclear war is an unalloyed benefit to all mankind; and returning to a world where military action would be limited to conventional weapons plays nicely to all of the great advantages currently enjoyed by US land, sea, and air forces.
Achieving such a desirable state of affairs, however, is more likely than not, along the way, to fall afoul of the risks posed by nuclear cheaters and proliferators. With this in mind, perhaps the best that can be done at present is to renounce categorically the first use of nuclear weapons, and to behave with great circumspection when pondering the use of our incomparable armed forces.
John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.