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Unraveling the New Nuclear Disarmament Agenda: Between Vision and Reality

Landau, Emily B. and Ophir, Noam | Assessment, June 2008, Vol. 11, No. 1
Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Israel

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In early January 2007, the global nuclear disarmament agenda received important support – indeed, new life – from an unlikely source. Four prominent and formerly high-ranking US officials – George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn – published a piece in the Wall Street Journal under the title "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons."[1] The article, which seeks to rekindle the vision of abolishing nuclear weapons set forth by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, immediately earned a high profile, and it has commanded increasing attention over the past year in US political discourse as well as in the broader arms control debate worldwide. The vision was underscored a year later by the four authors in a second piece entitled "Toward a Nuclear-Free World."[2]

The following essay explains the origins of these new expressions of support for nuclear disarmament and their impact on global thinking about nuclear weapons, and the recent decisions by the US, Britain, and France to carry out unilateral reductions in their nuclear arsenals. The rationale underlying the new call for disarmament is the need to convince potential proliferators that the nuclear weapons states are living up to their own disarmament commitments, and are thus working to erase the "double standard" in the nuclear realm. Yet at the same time, announced nuclear reductions in some of the nuclear weapons states have been accompanied by statements at the official level that clarify the continued commitment to a credible nuclear deterrent. These states have thereby underscored that nuclear weapons are still considered useful in confronting dangerous threats, a tenet that seemingly compromises the disarmament message itself.The essay thus highlights the complexities inherent in the new disarmament message, which make it difficult for this agenda to advance its implied policy goal: namely, drawing nuclear proliferation away from the dangerously close "tipping point" beyond which it may no longer be containable.

The New Disarmament Agenda

As an idea, nuclear disarmament is certainly not new; it is embedded in Article VI of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) in the commitment made by the nuclear weapons states parties to progress toward this goal.[3] It has been reinforced over the years in different arms control initiatives, and it has been promoted at times by leaders of states and included in statements delivered by various groups of states and by NGOs that advocate working toward nuclear abolition. Yet while these combined efforts influenced the nuclear powers to take some steps in the direction of reducing their stocks, total disarmament remained at best a distant goal. Moreover, throughout the Cold War years, the classic "arms control" agenda – which prioritized stabilization of the superpower deterrent relationship over disarmament in the intermediate stage – was at the forefront of efforts to control nuclear weapons.

Calls for nuclear disarmament in its "purest" form have tended to come from the direction of those who view nuclear weapons as inherently dangerous, reprehensible, and even immoral, due to these weapons' tremendous potential for mass destruction. In this view, nuclear weapons have no positive security value whatsoever; indeed, they are considered detrimental to the security and wellbeing of all people, regardless of the threats that states confront.

The new calls for disarmament are of a different kind – they focus less on the nature of the weapons themselves, and more on the nature of the threats that states face. In fact, the words of the four prominent new advocates of disarmament include echoes of traditional thinking in the nuclear realm that recognizes the security value of these weapons. Thus, what has changed for them is the strategic environment of threats, not the deterrent value that is accorded to nuclear weapons.

Two important developments provide the background and impetus for the revived – and revised – nuclear disarmament agenda over the past year. The first is the implications of the end of the Cold War and of the extreme animosity that characterized US-Soviet relations. It is argued that with the radically reduced threat perception in the context of the current US-Russian relationship, the role of nuclear weapons has changed, and both sides can afford to reduce dramatically the level of their arsenals. As Sam Nunn, one of the co-authors of the Wall Street Journal piece said regarding what led him to conclude that the world should be free of nuclear weapons, "I believe that the threat has fundamentally changed."[4]

But this argument has been around for almost two decades, and would not in itself explain the urgency accorded the recent disarmament agenda. The second development, much newer, is encapsulated in the opening sentences of the 2008 Wall Street Journal commentary: "The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point. We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands."[5] This is the crux of the matter: in other words, it is not only that the nuclear powers can afford to downsize their arsenals radically due to altered threat perceptions in their own relationship, but that they must do so in order to avert a much greater danger that is currently evolving. Indeed, in both of the Wall Street Journal commentaries it is implied that greater commitment on the part of the nuclear weapons states to the goal of disarmament is necessary in order to bolster efforts to stop North Korea and Iran from becoming nuclear states. It is the danger of determined proliferators like Iran and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons – and the fear that these weapons might also find their way to terrorist organizations – that has sparked the new urgency for bringing the nuclear states to take their disarmament commitments more seriously.

Concrete Steps toward Disarmament

Concomitant with calls for disarmament at the unofficial level, there has been new movement at the level of states to reduce their nuclear arsenals (table 1). In recent years and especially over the past months, the Western nuclear states – the US, Britain, and France – have publicly announced their intentions to make major unilateral cuts in their nuclear arsenals. [6]


Warhead Type

Total Warheads





(sum of strategic and tactical)

Total Stockpile

(sum of operational and reserve/inactive)











(not included are 5,150 warheads that were removed from the stockpile in 2007 for future dismantlement)


fewer than 300


fewer than 300

< 300


more than 145


more than 145

~ 200


fewer than 160


fewer than 160

fewer than 200

The current Bush administration committedthe US to cut its “operationally deployed” strategic warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012. This reduction was the result of the bilateral Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, or Moscow Treaty) concluded with Russia in 2002. In addition, the US continued to reduce its total nuclear stockpile unilaterally; these unilateral cuts include not only the “operationally deployed” weapons covered under the SORT agreement, but also thousands more warheads that were classified as “responsive force” or “inactive stockpile.”

In December 2007, the Bush administration announced a stockpile reduction of “nearly 50 percent.” As a direct result of this decision, the Department of Defense designated 5,150 non-operationally status warheads for future dismantlement. According to the original plan this reduction was supposed to have been achieved only in 2012.[7] Following this reduction, as of January 2008, the total US nuclear stockpile contained an estimated 5,400 warheads, 4,075 of them in operational status. However, the administration announced its intention to further reduce the stockpile by an additional 15 percent. According to this plan, by 2012 the stockpile will include around 4,500 warheads, less than half of them in operational status.[8]

The reduction in the number of operational warheads is not unique to the US, and there has been movement in the UK as well. On the one hand – and after a major public debate, in which some voices claimed that Britain should be the first NPT nuclear weapons state to announce full disarmament – in December 2006 the Blair government announced its decision to maintain a nuclear deterrent capability beyond 2020. The government chose to purchase new ballistic missiles submarines between 2012 and 2027 to replace their current ones. However, this decision was followed by another to reduce the British nuclear stockpile by 20 percent. This reduction completes a total reduction of the British nuclear arsenal by 50 percent since 1997. The foreign secretary at the time, Margaret Beckett, maintained that the UK now had the smallest arsenal of the five recognized nuclear weapons powers, and that it accounted for only 1 percent of the global stockpile of nuclear weapons.[9] The British plan was to reduce their operational warheads stockpile from “less than 200” to “less than 160.” This goal was reached by November 2007.[10]

In March 2008, France followed the US and Britain with its own announcement of a nuclear stockpile reduction, albeit a more moderate one. President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France will reduce its air-launched nuclear warheads by a third. According to some estimates France currently has approximately 60 air-launched warheads, which means that the actual reduction will be only around 20 warheads. This reduction will leave France with fewer than 300 operational warheads, half the number it had during the height of the Cold War.[11]

The two additional NPT nuclear weapons states have so far not committed themselves to similar unilateral reductions of their nuclear arsenals. Russia currently has approximately 5,200 operational warheads and 8,800 warheads in reserve or awaiting dismantlement, which makes it the owner of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Russia is committed by 2012 to SORT levels of operational warheads (per its bilateral agreement with the US), but as long as it continues to feel that its conventional forces are relatively weak, it will likely emphasize the importance of its nuclear deterrent as a hedge against both nuclear and conventional threats.[12] Therefore, further nuclear stockpile reductions, especially unilateral ones, are not likely.

The case of China is different. China has maintained its belief in the concept of "no first use," and until recently, also of minimum deterrence with regard to its nuclear arsenal. China even went so far as to claim publicly in 2004 that its nuclear arsenal is the smallest of the five NPT nuclear weapons states.[13] This arsenal was deemed the minimum necessary for credible deterrence. However, due to its small size, a further reduction of the stockpile was probably not seriously considered. In fact, a recent official US report claimed that China’s nuclear arsenal increased by 25 percent since 2006, reaching a level of about 180 weapons (although this number may indicate an increase in the number of delivery systems and not actual operational warheads).[14] If this assessment is correct, then as of 2008 the British arsenal would be the smallest of the nuclear weapons states.

Nuclear Weapons: Good or Bad for Security?

While the reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the nuclear weapons states are still well short of their pledges under Article VI of the NPT, they are nevertheless significant steps in the direction of disarmament. One of the arguments raised in the context of the debate over the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea is that the double standard inherent in the NPT – which enshrines the legal status of the five nuclear states (making for two classes of states) – weakens the case for confronting determined proliferators. With the nuclear weapons states not fulfilling their own treaty-based commitments to disarm, it is even more difficult to tackle the proliferation tendencies of these states effectively, namely, with firm and coordinated action.

In a speech in June 2007, then-British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett underscored the link between the call for worldwide nuclear disarmament and efforts to confront proliferators like North Korea and Iran. After embracing the call for a nuclear free world, Beckett described the cases of Iran and North Korea as a factor that makes the debate on disarmament and non-proliferation more immediate and urgent: "I do not believe for a second that further reductions in our nuclear weapons would have a material effect on [the nuclear ambitions of Iran or North Korea]. Rather the point of doing more is this: because the moderate majority of states…want us to do more. And if we do not, we risk helping Iran and North Korea in their efforts to muddy the water, to turn the blame for their own nuclear intransigence back onto us. They can undermine our arguments for strong international action in support of the NPT by painting us as doing too little too late to fulfill our own obligations.”[15]

However, the major factor that has prevented more rapid progress in the direction of disarmament is the steadfast belief on the part of the nuclear weapons states that nuclear weapons continue to play an important role in their overall national security. This perception has yet to be undermined, and when reductions are discussed, they are always couched in the language of "due to the reduced threat that we face, we can afford to reduce our arsenals." The idea – advanced very often by NGOs focused on disarmament, and by some non-nuclear states – that nuclear weapons in themselves are reprehensible and in any case undermine rather than enhance national security has not permeated the official thinking in any of the nuclear weapons states. The unilateral decisions by the US, Britain, and France to retire and dismantle large numbers of warheads were mainly due to operational considerations. The retirement of old warheads, and in some cases also their associated delivery systems, allowed focusing the available resources on more modern, reliable, and effective warheads and delivery systems that are considered to be the backbone of the nuclear arsenals of these states, while having little impact on their total nuclear deterrence capability.

For example, France decided several years ago to base most of its nuclear deterrent on survivable submarines. Therefore, the role of its airborne nuclear component declined and it was able to make a significant cut in that area. In the case of the US, the significant stockpile reductions have not influenced its current nuclear doctrine. The US continues to reserve the right of nuclear first use, including against non-nuclear adversaries. In addition, the Bush administration continues to debate the possibility of renewing the production of nuclear weapons as part of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program.[16]

When explaining the need for new ballistic missile submarines, the British government argued that even though the situation has changed since the end of the Cold War, Britain still needs an independent nuclear deterrent. "The number of countries equipped with nuclear weapons has continued to grow,” declared Secretary of State for Defense Des Browne. “We cannot rule out the possibility that at some point in the next fifty years Britain could face a new nuclear threat. To decide now to run down our deterrent would be taking a huge gamble with Britain's future security. A gamble I am not prepared to take."[17]

A similar message was echoed more recently in France. When announcing the French plan for nuclear reductions, President Sarkozy explained the need to maintain a limited arsenal: “Maintaining the competences necessary to dissuasion at the highest level is a fundamental objective for our security. All those who threaten to attack our vital interests would expose themselves to a severe riposte by France.” The French president went even further, directly linking the need for a continued nuclear deterrent to the threat from countries like Iran: “Everyone must be aware today that even far-flung powers' nuclear missiles can reach Europe in less than half an hour. I’m thinking in particular of Iran. Iran is increasing the range of its missiles while grave suspicions hang over its nuclear program. Europe's security is at stake.”[18]

The challenge of convincing the nuclear weapons states of the need to rely less on nuclear weapons for their security, and to carry out more substantial disarmament efforts, is captured in the interview with Sam Nunn. “People don’t know that the nuclear-weapon states have a hard time thinking about national security without nuclear weapons. They’ve become so relevant," said Nunn. “I think the nuclear powers have varying reasons [for possessing nuclear weapons], but it all goes to dependency on nuclear weapons psychologically. While the threat environment has changed, the psychology of nuclear weapons for the nuclear powers in most cases has not changed.”[19]


While the global disarmament agenda is gaining momentum, a closer look at the rationale behind the trend – at both unofficial and official levels – exposes that it is more in the spirit of "arms control" than classic "disarmament," in that it is focused on threats and relationships, not weapons as such. The new voices advocating disarmament at the unofficial level justify their argument for more determined action by citing diminished threat assessments at the global level (which enable states to risk these reductions), and increased threats at the level of states like Iran and North Korea, which make the reductions imperative. But there is no question – especially at the official level in the nuclear states – as to the continued value of nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes when facing concrete threats. Hence a credible nuclear arsenal is still viewed as necessary by all nuclear weapons states – first and foremost against those dangerous proliferators that may ultimately become nuclear states, as well as terrorists who may get their hands on a bomb.

This creates a complex, perhaps unsolvable equation: the nuclear weapons states reassure the potential proliferators that they too are disarming, but in the same breath they underscore their need to maintain a credible deterrent against those very proliferators.

Until there is no longer a perceived need for nuclear deterrents, promoting the goal of nuclear abolishment will be difficult. Moreover, contrary to the argument of the new disarmament advocates, it is far from clear that this is an effective strategy for dealing with determined proliferators. These states must still be confronted on their own terms and in relation to the very real dangers that they present to regional and global stability and peace.

Still, enhancing the vision of a nuclear free world is a worthy goal; at the very least it strengthens the taboo against nuclear weapons use, and even in light of the apparent paradox, it may also help alleviate concerns that the so-called double standard in the nuclear realm weakens the case of the international community in confronting dangerous nuclear proliferators.[20] In the words of Sam Nunn: “I describe moving toward zero as climbing a mountain, the top of the mountain being zero nuclear weapons. We might not get there in my lifetime, but we need to be heading up the mountain, not down the mountain. We have to head up the mountain together. It’s not going to be a unilateral move. It’s going to have to be moving up the mountain together and hopefully reaching a plateau so that our children and grandchildren can at least get out their binoculars and see the top of the mountain.”[21]


[1]The piece was published on January 4, 2007. One commentator surveyed the impact of the article saying, "The policy community in Washington, DC was astonished by the initial article. Once considered the sole purview of the 'radical left,' the nuclear abolitionist movement was reborn." See Brian Finlay, "The Limits of Zero: How the Rush to Abolition May Not Make Us More Secure," Henry L. Stimson Center, January 22, 2008.

[2]George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," Wall Street Journal,January 15, 2008.

[3]“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

[4]Daryl G. Kimball and Miles A. Promper, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons: An Interview with Nuclear Threat Initiative Co-chairman Sam Nunn,” Arms Control Today, March 2008.

[5] "Toward a Nuclear-Free World."

[6]Adapted from: Hans M. Kristensen, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” January 3 2008; Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2008,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May-June 2008, pp. 54-55; Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “US Nuclear Forces, 2008,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March-April 2008, pp. 50-52.

[7] Norris and Kristensen, "US Nuclear Forces, 2008," p. 50.


[9] “Maintaining the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent,” Foreign and Commonwealth Office, March 9, 2007.

[10]“UK Nukes Hit New Low,” February 26, 2008.

[11]“French Nuclear Reductions,” March 21, 2008.

[12] Norris and Kristensen, “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2008,” p. 54.

[13]“Fact Sheet: China: Nuclear Disarmament and Reduction,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, April 27, 2004.

[14]Hans M. Kristensen, “Chinese Nuclear Arsenal Increased by 25 Percent Since 2006, Pentagon Report Indicates,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, April 8, 2008.

[15]“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons? Speech by the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett,” June 25, 2007.

[16]Noam Ophir, “The Core of the Matter: US Doctrine on Nuclear Weapons use, 1988-2008,” Strategic Assessment 10, no. 4 (2008): 77-84.

[17]“Maintaining the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent,” Foreign and Commonwealth Office, March 9, 2007.

[18] “Sarkozy Announces French Nuclear Cuts, Warns Iran,” March 21, 2008.

[19]"An Interview with Nuclear Threat Initiative Co-chairman Sam Nunn.”

[20] While the steps taken by the US, Britain, and France are welcome, Russia and China lag behind with regard to this new momentum. Interestingly enough, the former three states are nonetheless subject to criticism for not living up to their disarmament commitments much more often than the latter two.

[21]"An Interview with Nuclear Threat Initiative Co-chairman Sam Nunn."