U.S. can set the stage for global nuclear security

By Lee Hamilton
Feb 8 2009


One of candidate Barack Obama's statements during the presidential campaign really caught my attention. He said: "We'll make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy." It was noteworthy because nuclear strategy has not featured prominently in our strategic discourse since the end of the Cold War.

My immediate reaction to Obama's statement was "good luck," but we should not be so cavalier. Securing nuclear weapons should be the paramount concern of U.S. foreign policy. No threat risks graver repercussions than the detonation of a nuclear weapon on U.S. soil.

A large U.S.-Russia nuclear exchange could destroy both countries and devastate the world. Such a catastrophe is unlikely, but accidents and miscalculations cannot be ruled out.

Two summers ago, a U.S. B-52 bomber crew flew from North Dakota to Louisiana without knowing live nuclear warheads were on board. For a few intense minutes in 1995, Russia mistook a Norwegian scientific rocket launch for a possible nuclear submarine sneak attack.

Broadly speaking, the United States faces four interrelated nuclear challenges: First, preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials or weapons; second, stopping additional states from developing nuclear weapons or latent nuclear weapons capabilities; third, reducing the numbers and roles of existing nuclear weapons in nuclear-armed states, including the United States; and fourth, maintaining confidence in the safety and reliability of our nuclear arsenal.

U.S. leadership and cooperation with other major powers is essential. Today, Russia and the United States jointly account for more than 95 percent of the world's nuclear weaponry and 80 percent of the world's nuclear weapons-usable material. A comprehensive program to secure all vulnerable nuclear material and weapons within four years is overdue.

Russia is especially important, but efforts should extend to the more than 40 countries that have nuclear-weapons material. Three-quarters of the world's nuclear research reactors that use highly-enriched uranium fuel await conversion to operate on less weaponizable fuel or lack sufficient security upgrades to protect against terrorist threats.

Additionally, the United States, with its partners, must remain dedicated to verifiably denuclearizing North Korea and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

We can reaffirm the goal of nuclear disarmament, consistent with our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. I am not suggesting that the United States go to zero unilaterally immediately or rashly, but such a statement's symbolic power would be immense.

We should declare limits on the possible use of nuclear weapons. Gen. Colin Powell, for example, has said, "I can see very little military, political, or any other kind of justification for the use of nuclear weapons." The United States could state that nuclear arms are weapons of last resort, and that their only purpose is to deter attacks against the United States, its troops, or U.S. allies, and, if necessary, to retaliate against nuclear aggression.

Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which outlaws nuclear weapons tests, an issue on the international community's agenda since the early 1950s, would signal to the rest of the world our sincerity on this issue without significant costs to our deterrent capability.

Finally, we can introduce greater transparency into our nuclear program, setting an example for all other nuclear powers. A good place to start would be to state publicly what we spend on nuclear weapons and be more open about our capabilities. If we hide behind a wall of secrecy, other countries will too.

As the strongest power the United States has little, if anything, to lose by being more open.


(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)