Getting to Global Zero

Arms Control Group Aims to Rid the World of Nuclear Weapons by 2030

Lawrence J. Korb attends an event on eliminating all the world’s nuclear weapons by 2030.

President Barack Obama delivers a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, April 5, 2009. In the speech, the president announced his commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons. (AP/Herbert Knosowski)
President Barack Obama delivers a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, April 5, 2009. In the speech, the president announced his commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons. (AP/Herbert Knosowski)

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the historic Reykjavik summit on nuclear weapons between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Global Zero, an arms control group, hosted an event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, October 11–12, 2011. The purpose of the meeting, attended by some 100 current and former officials of all the world’s nuclear powers except North Korea, was to lay the groundwork for launching multilateral talks that would do away with all the world’s nuclear weapons by 2030 (“global zero”). As an interim goal, they advocated that the United States and Russia immediately reduce the number of their nuclear weapons to 1,000.

Key members of President Reagan’s national security team, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Treasury and State James Baker, and Richard Burt, chief negotiator in the START I talks, gave major speeches at the event. All of these officials endorsed the idea of global zero, which in their view would be “winning one more for the Gipper.”

Among their points: There must be no exceptions to global zero. All nuclear powers must eliminate their weapons. Furthermore, the reductions along the way must be proportional—that is, all nations must reduce the same percentage; there must be frequent, regular, intrusive inspections by an international body like the International Atomic Energy Agency; and the U.S. president must take the helm in leading reductions, as President Reagan did at Reykjavik.

The speakers also felt the U.S. president should take the lead in getting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, which bans testing of nuclear weapons, and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, or FMCT, which prohibits the development of fissile materials which can be sued to make nuclear weapons, ratified right after the 2012 election. They also felt that President Barack Obama or his successor should emulate President George H.W. Bush, who in 1991 made sweeping changes to the U.S. nuclear force structure unilaterally. With the stroke of a pen, President Bush ordered the destruction of all U.S. ground-based tactical nuclear weapons, withdrew sea-based tactical nuclear weapons from deployment, and took all strategic bombers and Minuteman II missiles off alert status.

Better still, President Obama could use a second term in office like President Reagan used his second term to make dramatic changes in the U.S. nuclear posture.

At the summit, I was on a panel discussing the cost of nuclear weapons. I pointed out that the United States currently spends about $60 billion per year to operate and maintain its nuclear triad of bombers, ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched missiles, and that if it wants to refurbish, repair, and modernize its existing nuclear arsenal, it will have to spend approximately $600 billion over the next decade.

This will mean that the share of the baseline defense budget consumed by nuclear weapons will rise from its current 10 percent share to at least 15 percent, as the projected size of the defense budget will decline by 5 percent to 15 percent over the next decade. Modernizing the submarine-launched ballistic missile portion of the triad will cost $110 billion, the bomber leg another $55 billion, and $88 billion to refurbish and repair the nuclear complex.

Also on my panel were Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, and Jeff Skoll, the founder of eBay. Branson argued forcefully that the $1 trillion earmarked for nuclear weapons could be invested in clean technology, efficient power generation, job retention, and better education.

President Obama certainly supports global zero. Less than three months after taking office he gave an electrifying speech in Prague announcing his commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Using the same rhetoric that inspired so many people (including me) to work for his election, the president stated, “We have to insist: Yes, we can.”

But President Obama was not alone in his call. Two years before his speech, four hard-headed national security realists—Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Shultz, and William Perry—launched a campaign arguing that the United States should lead the way in getting to a world free of nuclear weapons—what analysts dubbed “global zero.”

And more significantly, in 1986, 23 years before President Obama’s speech, President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev came together in Reykjavik, Iceland, and almost agreed to eliminate the 50,000 nuclear weapons they possessed within a decade. While the agreement foundered on whether the United States could and would share Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, technology with the Soviets, the Reykjavik meeting did lay the groundwork for eliminating all intermediate-range nuclear weapons and for two subsequent START agreements.

The real concern in accomplishing the goal of Global Zero today or even making significant reductions in the current level of nuclear weapons, however, is the change in attitude toward arms reductions by many Republican lawmakers, who are opposing every Obama initiative, including ones that their party once supported. For example, it was Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and H.W. Bush who negotiated treaties with the former Soviet Union calling for significant reductions in nuclear weapons. Yet when President Obama made a relatively minor reduction in New START, many Republicans made it difficult for the treaty to get Senate ratification.

As Shultz put it, “The Washington today is not the Washington I knew.”

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow