According to Robert McNamara, quoted with approval by Joseph Cirincione in his invaluable new book, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, the continued possession of large nuclear arsenals by the US and its NATO allies is “insane…immoral, militarily unnecessary and destructive of the non-proliferation regime.” Mr. McNamara was referring to the failure of the original nuclear states to abide at this late date by their commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty negotiated in 1968 to agree to dispose of their nuclear weapons.

The former secretary of defense speaks with the vehemence of a reformed sinner while Cirincione, who has served as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee, writes as a seasoned Washington observer alert to the hazards of overstatement. His sobriety is both a virtue and a problem for his book, which ought to be read by everyone as a matter of life and death, is not one of those glib, one-theory-fits-all exercises that reside for months on best-seller lists but a tightly reasoned attempt to avert an avoidable apocalypse.

“It is difficult, if not impossible,” he writes, “to convince other states to give up their nuclear weapons ambition or adhere to nonproliferation norms when immensely powerful nuclear weapons states reassert the importance of [these] weapons to their own security.” Thus there “is a real possibility…of a system-wide collapse of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. If this were to occur it could bring the world back to the brink of annihilation for the first time in some twenty years.”

To address this threat Cirincione outlines a series of steps that the original nuclear powers might take, of which the first and by far most urgent is to prevent terrorists and other nations from obtaining the bombs and components scattered throughout the vast, ramshackle nuclear facilities of the former Soviet Union, a process that has been underway in Russia with United States funding since the Soviet collapse. With additional funding, Cirincione writes, this all-important threat reduction program “could be accelerated to secure or eliminate the vast majority of nuclear weapons and materials by 2010.” The Harvard nonproliferation experts Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, however, observe that by the end of 2005, “just over 54 percent of the 230 buildings…containing weapons-usable nuclear material” had been made secure.1 The 2007 military budget, moreover, provides only $1.1 billion for this purpose while allocating $11 billion for missile defense and $60 billion for the Iraq war. Graham Allison, another Harvard nonproliferation expert, conjectures that a $10 billion crash program could secure the most vulnerable facilities in a hundred days if President Bush were so inclined.2

Cirincione also proposes a new system controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency to guarantee a supply of nuclear fuel to countries that need it for civilian use, provided that they agree not to acquire the means to produce their own fuel—whether in the form of enriched uranium or plutonium. Thus Iran, for example, would no longer be able to pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of building uranium enrichment facilities for its civilian energy program.3 Less convincingly Cirincione argues that the emergence of new nuclear states might be prevented by intensive efforts to solve entrenched conflicts in such places as the Middle East and Central Asia. Israel, for example, might be convinced to shut down its nuclear program and turn its nuclear material over to the IAEA if all other states in the region agreed to do the same.

It is the tension between Mr. Cirincione’s rational proposals for multilateral nuclear disarmament and the irrational forces in opposition that lends his fine book an unexpected tragic dimension. Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Truman, joined by the British and Canadian prime ministers, proposed an international nuclear disarmament plan enforced by the new United Nations. Stalin’s rejection of this plan in late 1945 led to the first wave of nuclear proliferation. By 1949 the Soviets had tested their own bomb and by 1964 China, citing threats from the United States and its former ally, the Soviet Union, also had a bomb. According to Jaswant Singh, a former Indian foreign minister, “no responsible Indian leader could rule out the option of following suit.”

Once India detonated its “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974, Pakistan claimed it had no choice but to begin a weapons program of its own. “If India builds a bomb,” Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said, “we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry but we will get one of our own.” “As one state goes nuclear,” Cirincione writes, “another state is forced to do so and then another and another. In short ‘proliferation begets proliferation,'” as in the case of Iran’s putative effort to produce a bomb. The question raised tacitly by Cirincione is whether the reverse may also be true: that disarmament will beget disarmament.


A rapidly accelerating arms race led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, “a mainstay of the international security system,” which entered into force in 1970 and was reaffirmed indefinitely in 1995 by 188 countries. Only India, Pakistan, and Israel have refused to sign, while North Korea has withdrawn. Under the treaty only the five states that already had nuclear weapons, the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China, may own them but may not transfer them to other states while states without such weapons must agree not to seek or develop them. All parties to the treaty, however, may produce nuclear energy, a major loophole since the technology to produce nuclear fuel by enriching uranium can be adapted to make bombs. The treaty also calls upon the five nuclear powers to dismantle their arsenals under a future agreement calling for “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The treaty has been successful in limiting the spread of nuclear arms to only four states—India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—in addition to the five original nuclear powers, and in providing inspectors to monitor nuclear programs. But the promised accord on general disarmament does not yet exist and as the original nuclear powers, especially the United States, continue to pursue new nuclear technologies, the treaty’s effectiveness becomes increasingly precarious.

There is enough fissile material in the world today for 300,000 bombs, Cirincione writes, “shared in ‘weapons usable form’ by some fifty countries.” More than thirty states now have at least one metric ton of this material. Forty states, according to the IAEA, can now build a nuclear weapon while the eight or nine nuclear states themselves still possess 27,000 bombs, nearly all held by the US and Russia, each bomb capable of destroying a city, and generating a vast cloud of nuclear poison. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn sponsored legislation to reduce nuclear stockpiles and prevent the spread of nuclear technology from the former Soviet facilities under the program for threat reduction mentioned above. Under the Nunn-Lugar legislation the number of weapons held by Russia and the United States will be reduced to about 19,000 warheads by 2007, far fewer than the 50,000 in 1980, but still enough to sustain Mr. McNamara’s diagnosis of insanity.4 Unless the treaty is enforced by all parties, still more states and nonaffiliated groups will feel free to follow the example of the original nuclear powers, rendering nonproliferation meaningless. The “brink of annihilation” will then have been reached or worse.

The example of India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and now perhaps Iran suggests that neither persuasion nor threats by the major nuclear powers acting individually and often at cross-purposes with the others will prevent further proliferation and its highly probable result. This leaves only the shared interest of the major powers in their own survival as the basis for effective universal nuclear disarmament, but this cannot be contemplated much less achieved until these powers themselves overcome their differences, honor the NPT—especially Article Six which calls for general and complete nuclear disarmament under strict international control—and offer the other nations incentives to comply, including security guarantees.

This may seem a utopian solution, but there is no other, for in a multilateral nuclear environment effective deterrence, as Cirincione argues, is highly questionable, if not impossible, and there is and will be no defense. Should the major nuclear powers resolve to take such a démarche, the step-by-step disarmament process described by Cirincione provides a clear map of how it could be achieved. Far less complex technologically than a solution to the problem of global warming or the AIDS plague, universal nuclear disarmament requires only the willingness of the participants to preserve life on earth, including their own lives and those of their families and compatriots. In the case of nuclear disarmament, where there is a will, there is a way, but the converse is no less true. In 1981 George Kennan wrote that

we have [piled] weapon upon weapon, missile upon missile, new levels of destructiveness upon old ones…helplessly, almost involuntarily, like the victims of some sort of hypnotism, like men in a dream, like lemmings headed for the seas.

Cirincione, an optimist at heart, wants to awaken us short of the brink, but will we—can we—respond?

Today’s impending nuclear arms race echoes the frenzied militarization of a century ago when the European powers still had time to avert the senseless catastrophe that would soon befall their people, a catastrophe whose unforeseen consequences include, among others, the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler, World War II, nuclear weaponry, the Holocaust, the cold war, and the unstable entity known as Iraq. Urgent disarmament proposals dismissed then as naive, impractical, blind, and so on must be seen in light of the madness that followed to have been the greatest wisdom. It was the sleepwalking war makers who proved to be naive, impractical, and blind as they led their countrymen into the abyss from which emerged the disasters of the twentieth century and beyond. The difference between then and now is that there may be no one left to render a similar retrospective judgment should the nuclear powers fail to disarm.


Without compliance under the Non-Proliferation Treaty the world faces a multilateral nuclear environment whose inherent instability will be greater by orders of magnitude than the fragile cold war truce whose near violation during the Cuban Missile Crisis was much on the minds of Reagan and Gorbachev when they hoped but failed to eliminate their suicidal weaponry twenty years ago at Reykjavik, joking bravely about throwing a party for the world when the last weapon was junked. Instead the world awaits what those leaders dreaded, a spark—the kidnapping of a girl named Helen, the murder of a trivial archduke in a minor country, the fantasies of ideologues, fools, and fanatics, of which recent history provides so many examples, to bring the history of our armed and dangerous warrior species to an end.

Our common sense has failed us once again. Rather than dread these suicidal weapons, nations embrace them as symbols of strength, imagining future conflicts in which their enemies but not themselves are vaporized, a flight from reality that would be shocking were it not so deeply embedded in human behavior as to seem normal when we consider the excited crowds in the squares and boulevards of August 1914 cheering their imminent slaughter; or the sons of that generation’s survivors, singing as they march toward Stalingrad to be blown to bits; or four successive American presidents, otherwise rational, pursuing against all evidence and reason a pointless struggle in the deadly jungles of Vietnam, a country that meant America no harm and now, far from having littered Southeast Asia with Communist dominoes, is a prospering candidate for the World Trade Organization; while today another murderous struggle is being lost in the cruel streets of Baghdad, of all unlikely American battlefields. Is it possible that Freud’s much-disputed idea of a universal death wish in precarious balance with the wish to live is reasonable after all: that death is driving as we doze on the bus to Jonestown?

Assume the worst and most likely outcome: negotiations and threats fail and Shiite Iran a decade or less hence, like North Korea today, tests a bomb with impunity provoking its Sunni neighbors—Saudi Arabia and Egypt—to arm themselves accordingly. Or the Musharraf government falls and jihadis come into possession of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the A.Q. Khan network. Or perhaps Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites, precipitating a Middle East arms race fueled by a nuclear industry revived by the rising cost of fossil energy.

Challenged by the redistribution of power in an increasingly decentralized and anarchic world, the forty-year-old nonproliferation agenda of the nuclear states is cracked and crumbling. To Iran and other emerging powers in the Islamic world and beyond, the monopoly held by the nuclear states is arbitrary and unjust, a two-tier arrangement offensive even to moderates in those countries: Why should history have endowed some nations and not others with apocalyptic weapons? Why abide by a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which the nuclear signatories, having pledged to disarm, have ignored for decades? No longer a virtuous bulwark against nuclear catastrophe, the victors of World War II represent to these emerging powers an arbitrary, patronizing, and hypocritical affront, with colonialist overtones, preaching disarmament from atop their illegitimate stockpiles. As Mr. Cirincione writes:

The health of the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] depends on the performance and resolve of the key state supporters of the regime. If the US and Russian nuclear arsenals remain at disproportionately high levels, if they and other nuclear weapon states modernize their arsenals with new weapons and expensive missiles, submarines, and bombers, then many nations will conclude that the weapon states’ promise to reduce and eventually eliminate these arsenals has been broken. Non-nuclear states may therefore feel released from their pledge not to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iraq’s abandonment under pressure from Washington of its nuclear weapons only to be devastated by the United States won’t encourage others to follow Saddam’s example; nor has South Africa’s or Libya’s or the former Soviet republics’ decision to disarm influenced North Korea and Iran to do the same. Far from convincing Iran and others to forgo nuclear arms, the existence of these weapons in the hands of the nuclear powers provokes them to resist their unequal status.

The impracticality of universal nuclear disarmament resides not in its logic but in the tragic passivity of the human condition facing self-destruction. The démarche proposed by Cirincione and others would at a stroke repair the moral standing of the nuclear states, deprive the emerging powers of their justification if not necessarily their means and intention to have a bomb, empower the IAEA to act with full international support—military if necessary—against pariah states that threaten to violate the nuclear-free status quo, and perhaps restore somewhat the illusory, but nonetheless welcome, equilibrium that has occasionally prevailed in world affairs. Generals and statesmen need not fear nor pacifists rejoice. Nuclear disarmament will not compromise the ancient freedom to wage conventional war but will guarantee its continued possibility.

The evidence also suggests that in an honest, worldwide referendum individuals would overwhelmingly choose to be rid of nuclear weapons. What sane person would not? Mr. Cirincione cites an IPSOS poll taken in 2005 showing that “66 percent of Americans believe that no country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, including the United States,” while only 13 percent believed that the United States and its allies should maintain a nuclear monopoly (a monopoly that is of course impossible). What is true of people individually, alas, is not true of gangs, cults, or states, for as Hermann Goering famously articulated his idea of statehood to an American interviewer at Nuremberg,

Naturally the common people don’t want war…. But, after all, it is the leaders…who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Mr. Cirincione cites Richard Perle’s echo of this formula in a comment to Newsweek in 1983 that “democracies will not sacrifice to protect their security in the absence of a sense of danger” and Perle’s advice fifteen years later in a letter to President Clinton, signed by himself and a group of neoconservatives, that “the only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use…weapons of mass destruction… [which] means removing Saddam Hussein…from power,” a precursor of the argument heard today to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. President Clinton ignored this advice. But Perle’s neoconservatives found a willing partner in Clinton’s successor who “changed the focus” from attempts to remove nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons from “outlaw regimes” to removing the regimes themselves rather than merely their weapons, in the belief, Cirincione writes, that “the US could determine which countries [should] have nuclear weapons and which [should] not. American power, not multilateral treaties, would enforce this judgment.” Among the consequences of President Bush’s decision to shun negotiations and denounce North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as evil were North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and resumption of its plutonium program, the Iraq disaster, and Iran’s accelerated nuclear program in which, Cirincione observes,

most of the construction and development…has occurred since 2000, including the opening of plants to produce uranium gas, the first successful operation of a centrifuge cascade to enrich uranium, and the construction of a vast facility to house over 50,000 centrifuges.

Meanwhile the Bush administration’s proposal “to research and possibly develop new nuclear weapons coupled with new doctrines justifying [their] use even against non-nuclear targets” has “encouraged other nations, such as Russia and France, to develop similar plans and encouraged the view that nuclear weapons should be an essential component of a nation’s security program.”

Critics of comprehensive nuclear disarmament will argue that the fundamental problem is not the weaponry but the knowledge to make and deliver it, knowledge that cannot be unlearned; that war and ever more deadly weapons are inseparable from human history and thus from human nature as the battlefield has evolved from a patch of earth to the whole world, and weapons from rocks to atoms, bringing the endgame into view. It will also be objected that today’s rogue states and nonaligned groups will ignore the treaty, as India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have already done, even should the major powers disarm, and that no inspectorate will be able to guarantee their compliance since there will be no consensus among the major powers on using the threat of force to do so; that national security demands not disarmament but overwhelming power. It will surely be objected on practical grounds that nothing—neither the prospect of unbridled proliferation nor the wisdom of Chekhov’s assurance that a gun over the mantle in Act One foreshadows a shooting by Act Three—will convince today’s nuclear powers to junk their weapons of mass suicide—not even the increasing certainty that multilateral nuclear deterrence and defense are impossible.

No such proposal, in any case, can be plausibly made while the United Sates is at war and the current regime in power. But failure to disarm given the possibility of the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons foreshadows a world in which a dozen or more states, some of them in regional or faith-based alliances, including nonstate groups, are able to visit mass destruction on rivals and enemies—a situation whose instability is intrinsic to the system. The bilateral arms race that horrified the leaders at Reykjavik was unstable enough. The multilateral nuclear arms race that may follow will be a replay of August 1914, this time with intercontinental missiles primed for split-second response tipped with multiple-megaton warheads.

So let us return at last to the real world and the fear that haunts Cirincione’s book and admit that the nuclear powers may never renounce the illusory safety of their absurd weaponry of which the United States has already placed between 180 and 480 tactical warheads in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Turkey in further violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, inviting Iran and other future nuclear states to do the same for their allies. And even if the present nuclear powers are willing to destroy their weapons it is far from certain that the required international pressure can be mustered to make the pretenders comply. The perennial popularity of the Book of Revelations suggests the depth to which our careworn and deadly species is intrigued by fantasies of escape: by apocalypse, Armageddon, Götterdämmerung, nirvana, and other nihilist heavens.

Yet Cirincione is right to raise the issue boldly, for unlikely as nuclear disarmament may be, it would be worse than foolish not to urge it, bearing in mind that between 1968 and 1992, 183 nations actually endorsed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in 1995, 188 agreed to renew it indefinitely, though the original nuclear states continue to ignore their treaty obligation to disarm. Now that North Korea and presumably Iran have chosen to follow America’s example and ignore the NPT as well, the time for temporizing has expired. Yet humanity in these final decades may not be powerless to save itself and if it were, we should in the time remaining be ashamed not to try to forestall our self-immolation, at least to the extent of posing seemingly utopian alternatives to our governments in the strongest terms. One such proposal was recently put forth by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed essay, endorsed by sixteen other distinguished participants at a recent conference organized by Mr. Schultz and Sidney Drell at the Hoover Institution to “reconsider the vision that Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev brought to Reykjavik.” In a subsequent Op-Ed article Mr. Gorbachev endorsed their proposal and emphasized its urgency. But is anyone listening? For a little longer the decision remains in our hands and then it won’t be. Whether or not we choose life is, as Hamlet said, the question.

This Issue

March 15, 2007