Keep dreaming. Proponents of deep cuts claim that a smaller arsenal will help the United States stop the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states and terrorists because having so many nuclear weapons makes it difficult (if not hypocritical) to tell, say, Iran that it cannot have any or to convince non-nuclear countries (such as Brazil and Turkey) to help pressure Iran. This argument makes sense at a superficial level, but on closer inspection it falls apart. As Iran’s leaders decide whether to push forward with, or put limits on, their nuclear program, they likely consider whether nuclear weapons would improve their security, whether they have the technical capability to produce nuclear weapons, whether they could withstand economic sanctions or military strikes from the United States and its allies, and a host of other factors. The size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would not affect any of these calculations.
In my research, I systematically searched for a correlation between the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and a variety of measurable nonproliferation outcomes: state decisions to explore, pursue, and acquire nuclear weapons; voting on nonproliferation issues in the United Nations Security Council; and the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to non-nuclear-weapon states. I couldn’t find any evidence of a relationship. The United States has been cutting the size of its nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s, but there is no reason to believe that its cuts have slowed or reversed proliferation. In fact, the most important diplomatic breakthrough in stopping the spread of nukes — the opening for signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — occurred in 1968, at nearly the peak of the U.S. arsenal’s size. And, remember, 177 countries have never pursued nuclear weapons at any point, including when the United States possessed more than 30,000 warheads.
Some advocates argue that many states signed the NPT only because it mandates cuts to existing nuclear arsenals, but in fact the NPT does not require cuts or disarmament. It simply requires all states to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on measures relating to disarmament. So though the United States can by all means pursue negotiations, it should not come to a deal that further reduces its nuclear stockpile until the world has been made safe for disarmament — and that, unfortunately, will not happen anytime soon.
Matthew Kroenig is associate professor and international relations field chair in Georgetown University’s Department of Government.
– Extracts from FPM