Yes, Nukes: The Global Zero Utopia

There are many specters haunting our world, but one is of our own making—the utopian vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, the dream that has come to be called "global zero."

The vision of the total elimination of nuclear weapons is a postmodern version of an old idea, popular early in the twentieth century, when Norman Angell's The Great Illusion (reprinted in 1933) was required reading in intellectual and policy circles in the United States and Europe. Seventy-six years before Barack Obama was honored in Oslo, Norman Angell also won the Nobel Prize, having come to prominence with the argument that global economic interdependence rendered war futile and unprofitable and therefore obsolete.

In a decade of revived American missions abroad, the Democrats would seem to inherit the mantle of the great, flawed peacemaker. But will they ever take it?

Angell's theory expressed the war-weary and wishful temper of the time. Enthusiasm for achieving peace through international institutions and legal constructs ran high in the period after the disastrous First World War, its most fulsome expression being the Kellogg-Briand Pact, named for its authors, an American secretary of state and a French foreign minister. Ratified by parliaments around the world (and by the US Senate on an 85-1 vote, with only Wisconsin Republican John J. Blaine voting against), the pact sought to deal with the problem of international aggression by simply outlawing war. Less than two years after the pact entered into force in 1929, one of the signatories, Japan, invaded Manchuria. The world "community"—that is, the rest of the treaty parties—did nothing. Other signatories followed suit: Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935 and Germany launched World War II with the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Asserting that the world should forsake nuclear weapons sounds—and is—a lot like declaring that war should be illegal.

The great powers that signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact understood its utopian character, but they affirmed it anyway. As with any public endorsement that embraces virtue and rejects vice, the pact appeared to offer little to lose. What did it matter if there was no reasonable assumption that all parties would act in good faith, and no mechanism for enforcement? What harm could come from a lofty ideal formalized with fanfare and champagne in Paris? Realists among its supporters argued that even if prohibiting war couldn't actually end aggression, it would at least bolster the principle that disputes should be resolved peacefully. Outlawing war made good people feel better; how could that be bad?

But, looking back, we can see that the illusion created by Kellogg-Briand, that war had been outlawed, together with widespread but unjustified faith in the League of Nations, was part of the negligence that allowed Hitler to build his strength and seize vast territories from his neighbors without serious opposition. The Kellogg-Briand frame of mind contributed to the responsibility-evading defense and foreign policies of Britain, France, and others in the 1930s, countries that might have stopped Adolf Hitler in his tracks if they had not been so wishful and unrealistic. Far from making the world safer, proclaiming the "norm" of nonaggression had lulled the great powers into a lethal vulnerability. The lesson here is that nations, by indulging utopianism, do not necessarily make the world more idealistic. In fact, they may help bring about the very evils they are trying to eliminate.

Asserting that the world should forsake nuclear weapons sounds—and is—a lot like declaring that war should be illegal. And the arguments for adopting the goal of "global zero" are no more convincing now than the arguments in support of the Kellogg-Briand pact eighty-two years ago or those advanced at the General Disarmament Conference in Geneva that followed in 1932. When the discussions in Geneva bogged down after a year of talk, President Roosevelt insisted that "if all nations would agree to eliminate entirely from possession and use the weapons which make possible a successful attack, defenses automatically would become impregnable and the frontiers and independence of every nation would become secure." Therefore, he said, the ultimate objective of the conference must be "complete elimination of all offensive weapons."

So what is today's argument for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons, a goal President Obama embraced to wild applause in Prague in 2009? The statement that launched "global zero" appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2007, under the title "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons." Signed by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and others, it was the product of a conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in October of the previous year. It is a tribute to the reputation and high standing of the authors that their statement has been endorsed by many statesmen and policy officials who regard themselves as realists, as well as precipitating a worldwide campaign supporting the concept, if not the details, of a nuclear-free world.1 The article has been followed by further statements from them and others, as well as movies, media appearances, press conferences, congressional and presidential speeches, international conferences, demonstrations, and the like. "Global zero" organizations have been established on many university campuses in the US and abroad, and tens of millions of dollars have flowed into research institutions and advocacy groups in support of the idea of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. With T-shirts, bumper stickers, and celebrity endorsements, it's a full-blown happening.

Full text available by subscription to World Affairs Journal.

Richard Perle is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Bigstock/Makhnach S.

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  • Richard Perle served as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, and a staff member to Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.). Mr. Perle is coauthor of An End to Evil (Random House, 2003) and author of Hard Line, a political novel. He codirected AEI's Commission on Future Defenses.
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