02/01/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Zero Tolerance for Nuclear Weapons

There were many low moments in yesterday's disrespectful, intolerant inquisition of secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel by key Republican senators, but some of the most troubling involved the dismissive, ill-informed tone they took towards serious proposals for reducing global nuclear arsenals.

The criticisms centered around Hagel's support for Global Zero, an organization whose goal is to set in motion a process that will lead to a world free of nuclear weapons. The goal itself should be uncontroversial. Presidents of diverse political leanings, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, as well as a majority of former U.S. secretaries of defense and secretaries of state have endorsed it. What has too often been missing is a road map for getting there.

In a May 2012 commission report with the decidedly non-threatening title "Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture," Global Zero made a series of suggestions on how to responsibly reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals on the road towards nuclear disarmament. Gen. James Cartwright, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, chaired the commission and its members included Hagel, former ambassadors Richard Burt and Thomas Pickering, and retired General Jack Sheehan. Major elements of the report include calls for reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 900 total warheads, with 450 deployed, sharply down from current levels of 5,000 warheads with about 1.700 deployed; substantially increasing decision times for a nuclear launch to avoid a catastrophic, accidental nuclear war; and beginning multilateral negotiations to move beyond the U.S.-Russian context and bring other nuclear powers into the conversation about nuclear reductions.

The Global Zero report, well worth reading in full, speaks to the essential point that Sen. Hagel's critics don't seem to grasp: "the irrelevance of nuclear weapons to 21st century threats." Nuclear weapons can't stop a terrorist attack, or resolve a border dispute, or curb climate change, or stop epidemics of disease, or fend off cyber-attacks, or meet any of the other genuine challenges we face. Their only viable use is to prevent other countries from attacking the possessor nation with nuclear weapons, an objective that would be achieved far more reliably by getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether, given the danger of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation and the small but nonetheless real possibility that nuclear weapons or bomb-making materials could fall into the hands of a terrorist organization.

It is in this context that the attacks on Sen. Hagel by Republican critics like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) should be judged. Inhofe opened his remarks by noting that "we used to be talking about Russia and the United States" but that now the more urgent issues are things like the threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. What Inhofe failed to explain was why possessing 900 nuclear warheads instead of 5,000 could leave the United States any more vulnerable to an Iranian attack, assuming that Iran moves forward and gets a bomb in the first place. He seems to attach some sort of mystical power to nuclear weapons, assuming that more are somehow better and that one level of overkill will bestow greater influence than another.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) echoed Sen. Inhofe's faith in the magic of nuclear weapons by suggesting that the reductions suggested in the Global Zero report -- which would still leave the United States with massive nuclear overkill -- would "create uncertainty in the world among our allies and potential adversaries." The intent of the Global Zero recommendations is quite the opposite. Their purpose is to replace the current danger and uncertainty created by the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons with confidence that there is a secure path towards the reduction and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.

There were other points of contention, including the question of whether Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) are sacrosanct. But the big lie of the hearings was the suggestion by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and others that Sen. Hagel and Global Zero support "unilateral disarmament." To the contrary, the Global Zero report expresses a preference for reciprocal steps to be taken by both the United States and Russia, steps that would hopefully pave the way towards multilateral talks that would persuade other nations to reduce and eventually eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. In the event that Russia is slow to take up the challenge, the report suggests that the United States could take the lead in moving down to the level of 900 warheads -- hardly the "unilateral disarmament" asserted by Ayotte and others.

It would be refreshing to hear a reasoned debate in the Senate about how best to reduce the nuclear threat, but that will have to wait for another day. In the mean time, perhaps the focus on the Global Zero report will encourage more people to actually read and consider its proposals, and to recognize the need to get rid of nuclear weapons, via one path or another. Postponing that conversation puts all of us at great risk, as does clinging to nuclear weapons in a world where they should have no place.