“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
John P. Holdren
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My colleagues and I from the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control concluded, in a study issued in 1997, that the only remaining, defensible function of U.S. nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era is "core deterrence" using the threat of retaliation to deter other countries that possess nuclear weapons from using them to attack or coerce the United States or its allies.

If the only function of nuclear weapons is to deter other countries that possess them from using theirs, there is no reason not to declare and to intend to observe a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Further, there is no need for nuclear forces with the size, diversity, and high alert status of those built up by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, nor any need to continue to develop and test nuclear weapons of new types for new purposes.

We strongly recommended that the United States announce that it will never use nuclear weapons to respond to or pre-empt conventional, chemical, or biological attacks and that it undertake, in consultation with its allies and in concert with Russia, a sweeping transformation of its nuclear forces, practices, and policies consistent with this reduction in nuclear weapons' intended role.

More specifically, we argued that the United States should remove from short-reaction-time alert the roughly 2,000 nuclear warheads it was maintaining in that status; should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; should ratify START II; and should proceed to engage Russia in a further process of staged reductions of not only strategic but also nonstrategic nuclear forces (moving first to a START III with about 2,000 deployed strategic warheads on each side, then to about 1,000 total warheads on each side, and then to a few hundred total on each side). We also recommended that the United States should begin trying to create the conditions that would make possible a global prohibition of nuclear weapons along the lines of those already in force against chemical and biological weapons.

The rationales for these recommendations were that the deterrent need for which the large and highly alerted U.S. nuclear force had been designed had dwindled drastically with the collapse of the Soviet Union; that continuing to maintain such a force, thereby ensuring that Russia would do the same, entailed dangers of erroneous, accidental, or unauthorized use that could no longer be justified by any plausible need for this many weapons or such a high-alert status; that sharply shrinking both U.S. and Russian nuclear forces would reduce the opportunities for weapons, components, or materials from these forces to fall into the hands of proliferant states or terrorists and would set the stage for existing nuclear-weapon states with smaller arsenals eventually to join in a global process of reductions; that the consistency and moral authority of U.S. nonproliferation policy was being increasingly undermined by the failure to take these obvious steps to devalue the nuclear weapons "currency" in international affairs; and that, in the long run, a "two tier" system in which a few states are allowed nuclear weapons, while all others are denied, cannot persist.

The committee's advice has largely been ignored, however, first by the Clinton administration, which had no appetite for the internal battles that embracing the recommendations would have entailed, and then by the Bush administration, which appears untroubled by the logical disconnect between its expansive view of the role of U.S. nuclear forces and its expectation of nuclear restraint from everyone else. As a result, almost none of the recommendations for the devaluation of the nuclear weapons currency has yet been embodied in U.S. policy. (The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty represents at best a modest exception: its embrace of the level of about 2,000 deployed strategic warheads on each side is diluted by its lack of verification provisions, requirements for dismantlement, and commitment to further reductions.)

Notwithstanding the unfortunate fate of the 1997 recommendations to date, they continue to constitute a sensible blueprint for reducing the role of and dangers from nuclear weapons in the early 21st century. The status quo is not stable. If nuclear weapons roles and dangers are not deliberately and relentlessly made smaller, they will get bigger. The largest nuclear-weapon states must lead the way, not drag their feet. The United States and Russia have managed to dismantle thousands of nuclear warheads and delivery systems made obsolete by the end of the Cold War. Now it is time to get on with dismantling our equally obsolete nuclear weapons policies.

John P. Holdren is a professor of environmental policy and director of the science, technology, and public policy program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and director of the Woods Hole Research Center. He is also president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. From 1993 through 2004, he was chair of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) of the National Academy of Sciences.