A public event sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the British American Security Information Council (BASIC)

Read the event analysis, A World Without Nuclear Weapons: The International Dimension

On Tuesday, March 6, 2008, USIP hosted a wide-ranging discussion entitled "A World Without Nuclear Weapons: The International Dimension." The panelists included Ambassador Max Kampelman, distinguished lawyer, diplomat, and educator, as well as former vice chairman of the Institute’s board of directors; George Perkovich, vice president for studies – global security and economic development, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Ambassador James Goodby, research fellow at the Hoover Institution. USIP President Richard H. Solomon moderated.

During the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, Reagan framed a vision of "going to zero" on nuclear weapons. However, even if the vision of eliminating nuclear weapons were to be realized, the international community would still be left to grapple with the twin dilemmas—that nuclear weapons cannot be "un-invented" and the challenge of addressing "cheating" on the part of nuclear-armed nations.

In his opening comments, Solomon argued that, "With the end of the Cold War, things became even worse." The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a multiplicity of threats, including containing rogue nuclear scientists. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 further complicated the nuclear situation, with the specter of suicide bombers armed with nuclear weapons, the weakened role of nation-states, and the growing influence of non-state entities and networks. This confluence has led distinguished figures to reconsider the "Reagan vision" for eliminating nuclear weapons.

Kampelman shared the story of his 1985 appointment by President Reagan as ambassador and head of the U.S. Delegation to the negotiations with the Soviet Union on Nuclear and Space talks in Geneva. Shortly after this appointment, Kampelman was present at the meeting in which President Regan told his aides that Margaret Thatcher had been correct in suggesting that the West can do business with Gorbachev. In Geneva and later in Reykjavik, Reagan proposed to Gorbachev the elimination of nuclear weapons. Kampelman recalled the consternation among Reagan’s staff when the president announced this proposal to the Soviet leader.

The events of Sept. 11 profoundly impacted Kampelman. "I saw nothing happening in society that was addressing this issue. I recalled Reagan’s zero," he recollected. Had the airplanes that attacked New York City and Washington been carrying nuclear weapons, those two cities and much of the Eastern Seaboard would have been in ruins. Kampelman reunited his staff from the Geneva negotiations and resolved to move ahead on this issue. These actions led to cooperation with other distinguished specialists in the field.

The proliferation of unsecured nuclear weapons in the post-September 11 era is part of what Kampelman calls the "road to hell." At least 27 countries have or are en route to having nuclear weapons, and he underscored the importance of not merely reducing nuclear weapons numbers but actually eliminating them. Such idealism has been a major driver of American history, he said. National leaders must "try to move the ‘ifs’ of near-destruction to ‘what out to be."

Perkovich addressed the argument that the elimination of nuclear weapons is impractical. There is a common misperception that automatically equates nuclear disarmament worldwide with unilateral U.S. disarmament. Instead, there should be a framework to make the entire world safe from nuclear weapons. Another argument against non-proliferation is that such weapons cannot be "un-invented." However, nuclear technology can be contained, just as the use of CFCs that pollute the Ozone Layer have been significantly curtailed worldwide. A viable mechanism to monitor the elimination of nuclear weapons is essential.

Perkovich reported on a recent Oslo conference on non-proliferation in which he, Kampelman, and Goodby participated. A key facet of the event was the participation of non-nuclear states, states aspiring to hold nuclear weapons, and nuclear-armed states. Within this framework, there are numerous challenges involved in the bargaining to create an "equitable order" regarding nuclear weapons. A further challenge, he repeated, is the creation of a viable system of verification. Perkovich proposed the establishment of a panel, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to explore the issue of nuclear non-proliferation.

Goodby discussed the evolution of the vision to "get to zero." Today’s "new abolitionists" on nuclear weapons are former government officials who are concerned that the world has changed. These figures stress the importance of concerted bold actions and vision on the issue. Massive support for the renewal of negotiations exists between the U.S. and Russia. Agreement on the issues must be global, encompassing nuclear states, near-nuclear states, and non-nuclear states. Operationally deployed nuclear weapons should be the focus of this initiative. Nuclear disarmament should take place in stages. The reduction of tactical nuclear weapons should also be addressed. The positions of India, China, Britain, and France on nuclear non-proliferation should be taken into account.

In his closing remarks, Goodby recalled former Secretary of State George Shultz emphasizing the importance of this issue at the Oslo conference. "Wake up everybody!" Shultz had said. Kampelman was dubious that the non-proliferation schemes discussed during the panel were viable. It is hypocritical for the U.S. to hold nuclear weapons while asking other states to discard them. Instead, the U.N. should hold countries to a standard of "absolutely zero" nuclear weapons. States found in violation of this standard should be politically, economically, and culturally isolated. It is possible that the U.N. could create a bank of weapons-grade materials to provide energy worldwide.


Archived Audio

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  • Ambassador Max Kampelman
    Of Counsel, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and former USIP vice chairman of the Board of Directors
  • Ambassador James Goodby
    Research Fellow, The Hoover Institution
  • George Perkovich
    Vice President for Studies – Global Security and Economic Development, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Richard Solomon, Moderator
    President, U.S. Institute of Peace

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