MADRID – Since its launch in December 2008, Global Zero, the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, has run up against some formidable challenges. One is related to the readiness of the two major nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, to move from the stockpile reductions to which they agreed in the New START treaty to complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Others concern smaller nuclear powers’ willingness to go along, and whether reliable inspection, verification, and enforcement systems can be put in place.
But these issues are not the real problem. Although Russia and the US possess roughly 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads, their nuclear capabilities are less of a threat than is the danger of proliferation. It is this fear of a fast-growing number of nuclear-armed states, not the fine balancing of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, that the case for Global Zero must address. Indeed, addressing the underlying security concerns that fuel nuclear competition in regional trouble spots is more important to the credibility of Global Zero’s goal of “a world without nuclear weapons” than is encouraging exemplary behavior by the two major nuclear powers.
After all, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel might not be particularly impressed by a reduction in the US and Russian nuclear-weapons stockpiles from gross overkill to merely mild overkill. There is a stark lack of synchrony between the (admittedly qualified) improvement in the two major nuclear powers’ bilateral relations and conditions in volatile regions around the world.
This gap is bound to affect negatively the processes of nuclear disarmament that are now being envisaged, for these states’ flirtation with nuclear weapons is not just a quest for prestige or status; it is an attempt to counter the conventional superiority of hostile neighbors – or, as with Iran and North Korea, of the US itself.