A Chance at Zero

Bruce Blair is the President of the World Security Institute.  He is an expert on U.S. and Russian security policies, specializing in nuclear forces and command-control systems. From 1970 to 1974, Dr. Blair served in the U.S. Air Force as a Minuteman ICBM launch control officer and support officer for the Strategic Air Command’s Airborne Command Post.  He is the author of numerous books and articles and is currently involved in a project exploring the potential elimination of nuclear weapons globally.

Question: What is behind the recent discussion about the total elimination of nuclear weapons?

Blair: There is a growing consensus in the United States in particular and in some other countries that the utility of nuclear weapons has greatly declined since the end of the Cold War. After the 9/11 attacks, the pew has shifted more and more in this direction. If you do a so-called “net assessment” of the pros and cons of nuclear weapons, the value of nuclear weapons to deter who we are “deterring” (i.e., the Russians, the Chinese), it’s not like the Cold War. Can we deter the terrorists with nuclear weapons? Not really. Can we use nuclear weapons against terrorists? No, because we can’t find them. If we could find them, we could use conventional weapons, not nuclear weapons, against them. Is there still a risk of unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons in the world? Yes. Is there some chance that they might be used intentionally by states against other states? Yes. You go through the whole list of arguments for and against nuclear weapons, and the bottom line is that the liabilities outweigh the benefits and that nuclear weapons will eventually be used if they are not eliminated. The only lasting, effective solution to the danger of nuclear weapon proliferation and of nuclear terrorism is to eliminate them -- globally, comprehensively, and completely.

Question: You were talking about the United States. But India created a nuclear device against China; Pakistan created one against India; Israel…

Blair: Each country in the world does different assessments and reaches different conclusions. I think experts in the United States are the most convinced that it is in their national interest to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the world because we have compensating power: economic power and other forms of soft power as well as conventional “hard” power that can replace nuclear weapons for all practical purposes. So the United States is in a special position of advantage, which gives our country the luxury to imagine the world without nuclear weapons. It’s not the same calculation in Russia, China, Iran or North Korea. You have to consider each country on a case by case basis. In the case of Russia, which I visited not long ago to talk about this idea, there is a great deal of skepticism about a world without nuclear weapons because Russia’s conventional strength is much lower than the United States’. And the demographics of the Russian population suggest that it will not be able to maintain a large standing conventional army over time. For those reasons, Russia relies heavily on nuclear weapons for security, and not only vis-à-vis the United States, but also China, particularly in the Far East. Russia has very good relations with China, but [Russian leaders] look over the long term and worry that Russia needs nuclear weapons to offset an overwhelming Chinese conventional advantage.

So different countries have different calculations, but some countries have begun to embrace the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons. It is a fairly strongly supported idea in Pakistan and India. Yet, Russia, the United States and China would have to lead the effort as partners in this revolutionary change. If these three countries were to join forces for this agenda, then I’m convinced that India would participate. If India participates, Pakistan would also participate. You have the outlier countries like North Korea, Iran and Israel to deal with. But the world moves… If the world could finally move in tandem, cooperatively, toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, I think it would be harder and harder for outlier countries to isolate themselves against the world on this agenda.

Question:  However, the technology for building nuclear weapons is still there…

Blair: The technology is more and more accessible by countries and even potentially by terrorist groups or non-state actors, but the difficult part of nuclear weapons is the materials: the highly enriched uranium or plutonium. It’s not really the design of the bomb, because bomb technology is fairly well-known now. So the question is: can you get the material for the bomb? That is a much more difficult problem because either you would have to enrich uranium the way Iran is doing it today in its cascades, which is a big project and not something you can do very easily and certainly something you can’t do very secretly, or you reprocess plutonium from reactors into bombs. That’s also a big project.  That’s what North Korea has been doing.  It is possible that North Korea and Iran, which don’t have anything close to the scientific base of Russia and the United States, are acquiring the ability or have the ability to make a nuclear bomb. So the technology spreads. The genie is out of the bottle. So it is always possible that another country or a group will pursue a nuclear bomb and if they can get the materials for the bomb, then they can build it. Still, getting the materials is a huge challenge for non-state groups.  Terrorist groups, for example, would have to steal or buy the materials from another state.

Question: Can the ban on chemical weapons be a precedent for the elimination of nuclear weapons?

Blair: There is a ban on biological weapons and chemical weapons, although there is no verification [and enforcement] on biological weapons. That is one of the problems. Still, essentially all nations agreed to ban them.  I think it was President Nixon in 1969 who lead that effort to ban the “bug bomb.” Many people argue that biological and chemical weapons are not in the same league as nuclear weapons. They don’t have nearly as much utility.  They are harder to control.  The damage they cause is not anywhere on the same scale. Nuclear weapons are unique, so banning biological and chemical is not really a precedent. [Eliminating nuclear weapons] would be an extraordinary achievement.  I don’t think it has any historical equivalent.

Question: Do you personally believe that we will one day have a world free of nuclear weapons?

Blair: Absolutely. I am completely convinced.  I never used to be until a few years ago.  Although I don’t think it is possible unless there is popular, public support for the idea.  That means that this will never happen unless the public becomes as aware and committed to the idea, as they have become, say, to global warming and the need to effectively contain greenhouse gas emissions.  What is needed is an effective international public campaign that inspires tens or hundreds of millions of people to support this idea.  Otherwise there won’t be enough leadership in the United States and around the world, because it would be viewed as too politically risky, just too politically impractical.

What is interesting is that in recent years this goal has been embraced by the mainstream in the United States and other parts of the world, by a variety of countries from Norway to Great Britain, India and Pakistan. It is a view that has become nonpartisan, not just the goal of the liberal or left part of the political spectrum, but of the middle and even conservatives.  So what makes it possible to imagine that this can happen is when there is a political coalition in the United States that brings left, right and center together in a common cause.  That could generate widespread public support for the idea.  Then leaders can feel empowered to take action on this agenda.  This issue for me right now is at the same place that global warming was five or eight years ago.  It was considered to be not politically possible in the United States to put the problem of global warming seriously on the agenda for action, but now it’s possible to think that we are actually going to do something about global warming in the American political system.  The reason is because of a huge shift of public opinion.  So we have to effect a similar shift of public opinion on nuclear weapons in order to think that it’s feasible.  But I think we can do it.

-- 07/08