"Iran Worried U.S. Might Be Building 8,500th Nuclear Weapon," read the headline. This front page banner in the satirical weekly, The Onion may not have gotten the number exactly right. The Obama administration reported in 2010 that the U.S. possesses 5,113 warheads in the stockpile and an additional 4,500 retired, but not yet dismantled, making the grand total even higher than the spoofers had guessed.
While media pundits in the U.S. warn darkly of Tehran's nuclear ambitions, America itself is regarded as the main nuclear threat in much of the world today. The United States argues that it needs these weapons to deter attacks on itself and its allies, and that it would only use them to prevent or respond to such an attack. But people in other countries wonder why we need so absurdly many of them -- secreted away in missile silos, on submarines and in bombers, computer-targeted to obliterate their cities at the turn of a key.
The U.S. rightly wants to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to nations like Iran that do not yet possess them. Quite simply, the more actors that have the bomb, the greater the risk that it will eventually be used, either as part of a regional war, or in a freelance act of terror. Yet by what right can we ask others to abstain, when we ourselves continue -- along with our Cold War rival Russia -- to maintain an arsenal large enough to destroy life on the planet several times over?
The problem is not just that we lack the moral authority to preach nonproliferation. The larger problem is that the U.S. is setting a bad example for other nations to follow. We are telling others, by our hoarding of warheads, that in order to be secure in the world today you need nuclear weapons -- and lots of them. Is it any wonder if leaders in Iran and elsewhere might want to buy some protection for themselves with a nuclear stockpile of their own?
In truth, nukes make nobody safe. They breed fear, and fears and mutual suspicions make for war not peace. A world bristling with weapons of mass destruction may be temporarily frozen in terror (a condition called in strategic parlance "mutual deterrence.") But the smallest spark in that tinderbox can set off a conflagration. Unless we find some way to eliminate these scourges from the earth, it is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
World leaders recognize these dangers. Every recent president has engaged in arms control talks with Russia, and worked toward strengthening nonproliferation programs. Nuclear weapons numbers have been significantly reduced over the past decades, most recently through a series of START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations between the U.S. and Russia which were initiated by president Reagan in 1982. But so far we have not succeeded in fundamentally altering the Cold War logic which keeps thousands of warheads in U.S. and Russian arsenals on hair-trigger alert more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Not only is this ongoing nuclear standoff certifiably insane for both countries, but in a time of deficits and cutbacks in government spending it is a madness that we can no longer afford. The dirty little secret of our ongoing nuclear weapons program is how expensive it is. Few Americans realize that we are spending more dollars today on nuclear weapons research, development and modernization than we were at the height of the Cold War, even after factoring in for inflation.
All told, the U.S. lavishes over $50 billion a year on nuclear arms related programs. To give some perspective, this is nearly double what we devote to all other scientific and technological initiatives combined, including the space program.
President Obama stated in 2009 that he wanted to work toward eventually creating a nuclear weapons free world. As a step in this direction, the administration is currently considering several options for cutting America's nuclear arsenal, most likely in conjunction with future arms control negotiations with Russia. Many in the Pentagon believe that this is an idea whose time has come, a change in focus which will free up funds for our real defense needs rather than maintaining thousands of redundant nuclear warheads in perpetuity.
"Small numbers of nuclear weapons produce dramatic effects," three Air Force authors assert in the military journal, Strategic Studies Quarterly. "In fact, the United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure while maintaining a stable deterrence."
Yet even before the administration has decided on what course to take, some Republicans are already up in arms. Thirty-four lawmakers sent a letter to the White House warning of dire consequences should the president reduce our nuclear arsenal. "I just want to go on record as saying that there are many of us that are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that this preposterous notion does not gain any real traction," Representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said.
Where were these critics when Republican presidents like Reagan and both Bushes cut back the US nuclear arsenal (Bush Senior by nearly 50 percent)? But in an era of Obama-can-do-nothing-right, the GOP hawks have been quick to paint the president as weak and naive because he wants to continue the decades long trend toward reducing nuclear weapons. The real weakness would be holding onto an antiquated nuclear force which no longer serves our strategic needs.
In a 2004 poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, when asked how many nuclear weapons the United States needs to deter other countries from attacking, the average response was 100.
The president's final number will undoubtedly be much higher than what Americans say that we require to remain safe. Still, by cutting our warheads to possibly hundreds rather than thousands, we will have taken a big step toward lowering global tensions and saving billions of dollars. We would also gain crucial standing to actually persuade countries like Iran not to join the nuclear club.
And not to worry, we would still have more than enough weapons to ward off an attack by China, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, and any conceivable nuclear power that might rise in the future. What we might no longer have, however, was enough firepower to unilaterally terminate life on the planet. You would think that even a Republican might concede that that is not such a bad idea.
(A version of this article was first published in Le Monde Diplomatique)