Pres. Obama visits the United Nations next week. In addition to a speech to the General Assembly (see this post for what I think he should say), he will chair a session of the Security Council devoted to the topic of nuclear weapons.
What goes on behind the scenes at the U.N. is always much more significant than what happens in the public appearances, though. Obama's visit will be an opportunity for diplomacy-by-proxy with China, Russia, and India on such topics as countering North Korea's aggressive moves, keeping Iran's nuclear developments under control (under threat of additional sanctions), and coming ujp with something positive in the conference on climate change in Copenhagen later this year.
Worst Notion of 2009: Nomination
In its September 7 issue ("Understanding Teddy"), Newsweek gave voice to one of the worst intellectual ideas of this era--"nuclear optimism". An article titled "Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb" should be satire, or comedy, and, to honor the memory of Stanley Kubrick and my favorite movie, "Dr. Strangelove", should not argue with a straight face for the value of keeping nuclear weapons around. But that's what the article's author, Jonathan Tepperman, does--at great length.
Tepperman promises that a "growing and compelling body of research suggests...the bomb may actually make us safer." Not just the US safer, given the other nations which have it--everybody. The closest thing to any research in the article are suggestions that the participants in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and in the India-Pakistan skirmish over Kashmir in 1999 (when both countries had the bomb) were rational enough to realize that both sides would lose in a nuclear exchange. Well, duh!
The suggestion is not just that Obama can not succeed in eliminating nuclear weapons from the world during his administration--OK, we can all agree that's probably true--but that he should not even suggest their elimination as an objective. The suggestion instead is that we should trade--permanently--a small chance of nuclear war for a larger chance of preventing conventional wars among major powers. In support of this thesis, he points out that nuclear weapons haven't been used on inhabited territory in 64 years, and that there have been no major wars between nuclear-armed nations during that time, either.
Intellectually, he would have an argument if he could prove that there are no circumstances under which a nuclear-armed nation would use them. However, if that were true, they wouldn't be such a good deterrent, would they? And, there is the fact that they WERE used 64 years ago. If you told me there was only a 10% chance they would be used in the next 64 years, I'd still say we can't afford the risk--if we can figure out how to get rid of them.
That's actually the sticking point in total elimination of nukes; the last part, when the few remaining weapons would be permanently disarmed. At that time, there might be a temptation for some nation to cross back over the threshold in order to obtain a decisive, if temporary, advantage. There probably would have to be some international agency, with the highest level of security and protection from the world's great powers, that would have to maintain a deterrent against cheating, because it's simply not that hard for an advanced country to bring them back at any time.
There's one or two good suggestions Tettenbaum makes, things we should do regardless of the long-term objectives (which are and should remain: nonproliferation, progressive reduction, and removal of the hair-trigger). The notion of "nuclear forensics", which would make the origin of any nuclear materials transparent, is a good one that would help ensure against a nuclear power surreptitiously acting through others, like a terrorist group, or improperly disseminating nuclear materials to other countries (as Pakistan did in the '90's). Second, there is benefit in all major nations knowing everyone's capabilities, or lack thereof, which would prevent blackmail, unpleasant surprises, or unknown dangers. (Apparently South Africa had the bomb and gave it up?)
The bottom line for me remains this: those nations which have nukes should have obligations, and they should be substantial and continuing ones. Those that don't agree to them should be punished harshly. When the downside is sufficient, the upside won't look so attractive to nations like iran or North Korea. Just ask the Japanese--they understand the downside very well.