By Jonathan Schell

What is the purpose, if any, of the nuclear bomb, that brooding presence that has shadowed all human life for sixty-five years? The question has haunted the nuclear age. It may be that no satisfactory answer has ever been given. Nuclear strategic thinking, in particular, has disappointed. Many of its pioneers have wound up in a state of something like despair regarding their art.

Now a new moment, full of fresh promise but also with novel perils, has arrived in the nuclear story, and all the old questions have to be asked again. As if responding to some secret signal sent out by a restless zeitgeist, the globe is seething with events large and small in the nuclear arena. Here in the United States, certainly, all the policy pots on the nuclear stove are at a boil. The Obama administration recently completed its overdue Nuclear Posture Review, a statement that Congress requires of the president every four years on the disposition of the country's nuclear forces.

It gives the administration's answer to the key questions: What nuclear forces should the United States deploy? Why? What, if anything, does the United States propose to do with them? The United States and Russia this month signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) agreement, which will reduce warheads to 1,550 on each side and restrict delivery vehicles to 800 apiece. This week, President Obama held a Nuclear Security Summit with the heads of state of forty-seven other nations to consider measures to prevent the diversion of nuclear weapon materials into unauthorized hands. In early May will come the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which is a kind of nuclear posture review for the entire world. Decisions on passage of the long-rejected Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well as a resurrected Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty are also likely very soon.

The key question, of course, is whether the policies and actions will meet the mounting perils of the new situation.

The Nuclear Surge
In a word, the nuclear predicament is coming of age, which is to say that it is fulfilling a potential that every competent scientist has known it possessed since the advent of the bomb in 1945: nuclear technology, no longer the preserve of a few privileged powers, is becoming available on a global basis. This is because of the simple but decisive fact that the bomb is based on scientific knowledge, which is in its nature unconfinable.

To say that the technology is becoming available to all, however, is not to say that it is possessed by all or even that it will be. It means only that if nations or others want it, they will be able to have it. Japan, for example, does not have a nuclear bomb. But one is available to Japan in short order if it so chooses. According to the State Department, the bomb is thus available to some fifty other countries.

Of course, at a certain point, which may not be far off, availability, if not possession, will spill beyond national confines and reach smaller groups. At that point the political walls will have to be high and strong indeed. Otherwise, a nuclear 9/11 may be upon us.

Obviously, any deliberate spread of nuclear technology, such as the "renaissance" of nuclear power that has apparently begun, will only accelerate the surge.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course at Yale on the nuclear dilemma. He is the author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. This piece is an excerpt of a longer essay that appeared in an April edition of The Nation, and is reprinted with permission.

This underlying and irreversible pressure of availability is the backdrop for today's widespread and well-founded dread that proliferation by just a few countries—above all, North Korea and Iran—will push the world over what the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, a group set up by the Japanese and Australian governments, calls a "tipping point," precipitating a "cascade" of proliferation that will wash away the current nuclear order.

The necessary conclusion is clear: proliferation can't be stopped unless possession is dealt with concurrently. In the seventh decade of the nuclear age, the time for half-solutions is over. The head of state with his finger on the button of some aging cold war arsenal, the head of state itching to put his finger on such a button, the nuclear power operator, the nuclear smuggler and the terrorist in his hideout dreaming of unparalleled mass murder are actors on a single playing field.

This is a truth, however, that the world's nine nuclear powers do not like to acknowledge, because it has an implication they are reluctant to accept, which is that if they want to be safe from nuclear danger they must commit themselves to surrendering their own nuclear arms.

Strategic Incoherence
And yet that is exactly what Barack Obama did in his speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, saying:

"So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Encouragingly, his commitment has been accompanied by the widest support for nuclear abolition since President Harry Truman sent Bernard Baruch to ask the world in 1946 to choose between "the quick and the dead." A remarkable phalanx of former and current officials, Republican as well as Democratic, have embraced the goal. Their calls originated with the by-now-famous article by the "Gang of Four"—former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn—who in a January 2007 Wall Street Journal article announced their support for "a world free of nuclear weapons" and called for "working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal."

A remarkable number of new government and civil panels, commissions and other initiatives have also sprung up to support the goal. Among them is a new group, Global Zero, which proposes abolition by 2030 and is supported by a Who's Who of international as well as American signatories. Meanwhile, the traditional antinuclear movement, led by such groups as Peace Action, the American Friends Service Committee and the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, are marshaling support for a nuclear weapons convention.

If Obama's commitment to abolition and the movement in support of it were setting the tone and agenda of current nuclear negotiations, the world might now be in the first stage of a final solution (to give that dread phrase a new and positive meaning) of the nuclear dilemma. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Instead, what have been offered are at best a series of timid makeshifts or, at worst, de facto subversion of the Prague objective. Let us consider two policy arenas: the START agreement and the Nuclear Posture Review.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talk, following the expanded delegation bilateral meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, April 8, 2010.

Nothing on the nuclear stage today is stranger or less adequately explained than the spectacle, still on view twenty years after the end of the cold war, of the United States and Russia holding each other hostage to nuclear annihilation with arsenals in the thousands poised on alert (more than 95 percent of the world's 23,000 or so nuclear warheads remain in the possession of the US, which has some 9,000, and Russia, with some 13,000). The current agreement, which will remain in force until 2020, sets a ceiling of 1,550 warheads on each side that must be reached by 2017. The reduction from the old ceiling of 2,200 is of course welcome. The continuation of a system of inspections is even more welcome. But what are we to make of the 1,550 warheads that remain? The arrangement indefinitely leaves intact the essential fact that the United States and Russia are poised to blow each other up many times over, as if the cold war had never ended.

An answer is often made that the United States must have such an arsenal because Russia still does—as a "deterrent."

Behind this issue looms a larger unasked strategic question. Are nations in general safer when they aim nuclear weapons at one another ("deter" one another)?

What we have heard so far of the Nuclear Posture Review exemplifies the same intellectual debacle. The document rejects the proposal for "no first use." No first use is the policy of using nuclear weapons only in retaliation for nuclear attacks. All other attacks, including ones with biological or chemical weapons, would be met by conventional forces.
(Editor's note: For preliminary analysis of the NPR's impact on New Mexico, read "Nuke It or Lose It" at

The refusal to unilaterally reject no first use crystallizes, as perhaps nothing else can, the strategic disarray of American nuclear policy. Like the persistence of the forces of mutual assured destruction, it represents the banishment of politics from strategy (meaning in fact that strategy no longer is strategy). The first-use policy was born in the 1950s, when US leaders believed they could deter perceived Soviet conventional superiority in Europe only by threatening a nuclear response.

More important for today's concerns is that a no-first-use policy is the sine qua non of any effective nonproliferation strategy. If nuclear weapons are needed not only to counter other nuclear weapons but to repel conventional, chemical and biological attacks as well, then what responsible national leader can afford to do without them? The problem is not merely symbolic. If the nine nuclear powers are ready to use their arms to perform a grab bag of tasks, then the dangers to nonnuclear countries really do multiply, perhaps inspiring them to acquire these devices, evidently so versatile and useful, for themselves.

Toward a New Nuclear Strategy
To escape from this scene of halfhearted and ineffectual measures serving unclear or contradictory goals, the United States needs new strategic thinking.

The great intellectual artifact of cold war strategy was the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. It adopted a new aim for military deployments. In the renowned words of Bernard Brodie in 1946, "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose." This insight, which was recognized as a basis of policy in the early 1960s by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, marked a true revolution in military affairs. Not to fight, according to this policy, was to win. And yet under this policy the way not to fight was nevertheless to plan to fight. The trick was to restrict the plan for fighting to nuclear retaliation, in the hope that that day would never come. Thus was born the paradoxical, or contradictory, policy on which survival in the nuclear age was believed to rest. Safety from nuclear destruction depended not on getting rid of the arms that threatened it but on threats to inflict that same nuclear destruction.

President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia signed the New START Treaty at Prague Castle, April 8, 2010.

And yet the doctrine did also rest on one profound truth—its acknowledgment that "nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," as Reagan and Gorbachev put it in 1985. You might say that deterrence has pursued a sane goal by insane means—a cleavage manifested in the fact that even as deterrence fought off nuclear use, and in a certain sense fortified what has been called the "nuclear taboo" and the "tradition of non-use," it at the same time pinioned the world permanently on the brink of such use.

Is it then possible that abolition can be seen as a rectification and completion of the strategic revolution begun but left unfinished by deterrence? How great, after all, would be the shift from the strategic goal of "non-use," or the "tradition of non-use," to the strategic goal of "nonpossession," to a "tradition of nonpossession"? Doesn't non-use in a way already cast nuclear weapons on history's scrap heap?

The Architecture of Zero
What's needed is to turn abolition from a far-off goal into an active organizing principle that gives direction to everything that is done in the nuclear arena—in other words, a strategic goal.

The indivisible nuclear surge under way in today's world can be mastered only with an indivisible program to defeat it. Let us, then, borrowing from Obama in Prague, take "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" as the new strategic objective—the political goal in the pursuit of which all tactics become the means. That goal has two requisites. The first is getting rid of existing nuclear weapons. The tactical means to that goal are of course negotiations among the nuclear powers. The second requisite is building a system that safeguards the world from the recrudescence of nuclear weapons once they are gone. This system will be the true architecture of zero. The tactical means to that goal are negotiating an ever-tightening web of restrictions imposed on all technology usable for nuclear weapons.

Of the two, the second is more difficult. For while the process of nuclear disarmament will continue for only a limited time, until zero is reached, the architecture of zero must be built to last forever, since the knowledge that underlies nuclear weapons will never disappear. The tactics for reaching this goal only begin with the construction of systems of inspection and enforcement. More important over the long run is building a political and legal order in which the attempt to build a nuclear weapon would be designated a crime against humanity. More important still would be the moral deepening of the taboo.

The art of strategy—so notably absent in today's contradictory mélange of policies—is to combine the measures needed to achieve the two goals into a single, coherent, self-reinforcing plan. It should take the form of a commitment to create the sort of nuclear weapons convention that the antinuclear movement has long advocated—one that, as noted earlier, seeks to ban all weapons of mass destruction.

Such a strategy would build on the truth underlying deterrence doctrine while gradually retiring its absurd features. It would enable nuclear strategy, at last, to catch up with history. It would deliver Russia and the United States from the weapons-forged hostility that politically no longer exists. It would unify the world around a common goal—one already embraced under the NPT by 184 countries and enshrined in their laws. Nuclear states (as long as they persist as such) would be at one with nonnuclear states in preventing proliferation, even as they all worked together to put in place the architecture of zero that would make the ban permanent and safe. Finally, the strategy would provide a measuring rod for judging the merit of interim steps, such as START and no first use. They would be judged by the specific contribution they made to reaching the common strategic goal.

What would nuclear weapons then be for? They almost tell us themselves. "We are here," they say, "to abolish ourselves, and—a big bonus—to put up a barrier to major power war forever after into the bargain. For even after you are rid of us, we will hover in the wings, as a potential that cannot ever be removed." The bomb is waiting for us to hear the message. It has been waiting a long time. If we do not, it can always return to what has always been its plan B, and abolish us.  SFR