Nuclear Disarmament and Neighborhood Bullies

MADRID – Twenty-five years ago, at a summit in Rejkjavik, Iceland, US President Ronald Reagan stunned the world and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, by proposing global and comprehensive elimination of all nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the skepticism of the United States’ defense establishment, together with Reagan’s adamant refusal to abandon his Strategic Defense Initiative nipped this bold move in the bud.

That was a tragic missed opportunity, for a US-Soviet agreement, reached in what was still an essentially binary international system, might have had truly global meaning. Although US and Russian stockpiles still account for more than 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads, US President Barack Obama’s disarmament goal, Global Zero, is proving far harder to accomplish now, given how much the world has changed since the Cold War’s end.

Not only has the number of nuclear states increased, but the so-called “nuclear renaissance” – the revival of nuclear power, owing to rising oil prices and environmental concerns – has put nuclear technologies into growing use. This revival holds important implications for nuclear proliferation.

More importantly, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel might not be particularly impressed by Russian and American assumptions that they can meet their defense needs with far smaller nuclear arsenals. Nuclear disarmament must therefore focus not only on a truly total elimination of stockpiles by the major powers, but also on regional powers’ concerns. Global Zero must go hand in hand with a robust strategy of conflict resolution and confidence-building in trouble spots such as Southeast Asia and the Middle East.