A Global Nuclear Weapons Freeze

By Daryl G. Kimball

In the seven decades since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have become less and less relevant to the security of possessor states and their allies and more harmful to international security and human survival.

Today, the world’s nuclear-armed states still face significant security threats, but none can be effectively resolved with nuclear weapons or the buildup of nuclear capabilities. Nevertheless, each of these states is modernizing its nuclear arsenal. 

Throughout the Cold War, nuclear risk reduction efforts appropriately focused on the need to halt and reverse the buildup of the massive U.S. and Soviet arsenals. But in the coming years, a renewed and more comprehensive approach involving all major nuclear-armed states is essential.

Beginning in the late 1980s, U.S. and Soviet/Russian leaders negotiated four bilateral arms reduction agreements that have slashed their nuclear stockpiles. Despite that progress, each side still deploys about 1,500 strategic warheads on several hundred bombers and missiles—far more than necessary to deter nuclear attack. If these weapons were used even in a “limited” way, the result would be catastrophic global nuclear devastation. 

Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States is prepared to pursue cuts that go an additional one-third below the ceilings set by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Russian President Vladimir Putin’s answer, so far, is “nyet.” He claims that U.S. missile defense plans threaten Russia’s retaliatory potential and maintains that other states’ nuclear arsenals must be addressed. 

Clearly, Washington and Moscow can and must do more. Each possesses an arsenal that is 10 times larger than any other nuclear-armed adversary. Furthermore, with New START verification tools in place, additional nuclear reductions do not require the negotiation of a new treaty. 

Despite sharp differences on Ukraine and other issues, Obama and Putin could jointly announce they will accelerate the pace of reductions under New START. As part of the announcement, each leader could say that he would be willing to go further as long as the other does so. A reasonable target would be to reduce each side’s arsenal to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads and 500 strategic delivery vehicles.

This approach could spur the world’s other major nuclear-armed states to get off the sidelines and join the game. The involvement of these states is essential.

As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists wrote in Arms Control Today in May, the numerical nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia may be over; but elsewhere, “a dynamic technological nuclear arms race is in full swing and may increase over the next decade.” 

China, India, and Pakistan, in particular, are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. In addition, Pakistan has dangerously lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use by developing tactical nuclear weapons capabilities to counter perceived Indian conventional military threats. North Korea continues its nuclear pursuits in violation of its earlier denuclearization pledges.

These arsenals, although smaller in number, are dangerous and destabilizing. Leaders in Beijing, New Delhi, and Islamabad profess support for nondiscriminatory disarmament and minimum deterrence, but there is little or no dialogue among themselves and with others on nuclear risk reduction. Ignoring the commitment made by the nuclear-weapon states at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to undertake further efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons, Chinese officials suggest they will not do so unless there are additional, deeper U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons cuts.

Some in Washington naively suggest that the response to these trends should be to increase the lethality and quantity of U.S. nuclear forces. That would only compound the problem by giving these states a cynical excuse to expand their arsenals even faster.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the nuclear-weapon states’ “step-by-step approach” to disarmament, more than 140 non-nuclear-weapon states have tried to catalyze progress by convening a series of conferences that document the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use. The effort is vitally important, but has not yet led to a unified, realistic diplomatic proposal for halting nuclear competition and starting multilateral disarmament talks.

Creative ideas are needed to overcome the obstacles and excuses. Beginning with the third humanitarian-consequences conference in Vienna this December and the 2015 NPT Review Conference, leading states, including the United States, should actively press those states not yet engaged in the nuclear disarmament effort to freeze the size of their arsenals and their fissile material stockpiles as a first step toward multilateral, verifiable reductions.

Nuclear weapons continue to pose global dangers. Their elimination is a global enterprise that requires renewed leadership, dialogue, and action on the part of all the world’s nations. A unified push for further U.S.-Russian arms cuts combined with a global nuclear weapons freeze could create the conditions for multilateral action on disarmament and open the door for multilateral talks on the elimination of nuclear weapons.