Zero Has No Legs

President Obama's strategy to protect us from the danger of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism is about to be tested. The precept that good deeds (and fabulous speeches) beget good deeds will face reality at two major international conferences: Obama's Nuclear Security Summit in mid April and the Review Conference of the Parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in May.

Obama proffered an attractive vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and a theory--that if Russia and the U.S. reduce their stockpiles, other nations will be inspired either to give up their nuclear arms or refrain from acquiring them. That is the best kind of leadership--setting a good example, serving as a role model, changing the atmosphere.

Well the United States and Russia just did agree to cut their nuclear arsenals by 30%, according to provisions in the new START treaty, which Obama will sign in April. Here is where the effects of this agreement will be tested:

  1. Will North Korea now agree to scale back its military nuclear program?
  2. Will Iran agree to live up to its international obligations and allow proper IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities?
  3. Will Pakistan and India scale back their military nuclear programs?
  4. Will terrorists have less access to the roughly 10,000 tactical (small) nuclear bombs Russia has, which are not covered by the new treaty?
  5. Will the NPT be revised, especially to close the clause that allows nations to quit the treaty--and take with them their dual-use faculties--and legally make bombs?

I predict (and it takes very little foresight to make this prediction) that the American and Russian moves toward zero will have no discernible effect on any of these burning issues. The President will have to employ other means to foster the nations involved to make progress in the required directions.

I am not against inspiring the people of the world and their leaders. However, it seems quite evident that the U.S., its allies, and other responsible powers must add strong incentives for nations to deproliferate and strong disincentives for those who do not. Much stronger sanctions, fuller enforcement of the ban against shipping nuclear material from one nation to another, diplomatic pressure on India and Pakistan to settle their differences (rather than providing either with nuclear assets and know-how), and at least leaving military options on the table are all called for.

Nuclear arms are the greatest threat to our security, that of our allies, and to world peace. It is time to treat them accordingly.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). He can be reached at To learn more about Dr. Etzioni's policy positions, you can follow him on twitter: @amitaietzioni.