Shane J. Maddock: The Case for Nuclear Zero

Nuclear ApartheidToday we welcome a guest post from Shane J. Maddock, author of Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the PresentAfter World War II, an atomic hierarchy emerged in the noncommunist world. Washington was at the top, followed over time by its NATO allies and then Israel, with the postcolonial world completely shut out. An Indian diplomat called the system “nuclear apartheid.” Maddock provides an illuminating look at how an American nuclear policy based on misguided ideological beliefs has unintentionally paved the way for an international “wild west” of nuclear development, dramatically undercutting the goal of nuclear containment and diminishing U.S. influence in the world.

In today’s post, Maddock makes the case for why current U.S. policy on nuclear weapons causes an increase in global nuclear proliferation of instead of decreasing nuclear development across the globe.


For most of the nuclear age, nuclear abolitionists have worn the label of starry-eyed utopians, but a nuclear-free world has emerged as a pragmatic goal that would enhance U.S. security and reduce international tensions.

In the twenty-first century, nuclear weapons have ceased to be an asset for great powers. They are fundamentally unusable against the threats facing the major states, and the superpowers’ large nuclear arsenals only grant legitimacy to the efforts of smaller powers to acquire nuclear weapons in order to guard against great power attacks.

The gap between U.S. military power and the rest of the world is so great that nuclear weapons are superfluous. In 2012, the United States military budget constituted 39 percent of all global defense expenditures. Moreover, the United States and its allies occupied eleven out of the top fifteen spots on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s list of military expenditures for that same year. Together, the eleven nations account for over 60 percent of the world’s defense spending, while the only two nations that could be construed as even remotely hostile to the United States—Russia and China—combined to account for only 15 percent of global military spending. When a nation and its allies are out spending their closest rivals by a ratio of 4 to 1, it is reasonable to ask why nuclear weapons are necessary. In fact, this gap would be slightly larger if one included all U.S. allies in the calculation

U.S. military dominance in both the quantity and quality of its weapons has reached a point where it has stopped increasing the nation’s security and has begun to erode it instead. Unable to match the conventional might of the United States, nations who fear American coercion can either seek nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack or use the threat of retaliatory terrorist attacks to make Washington pause. U.S. fear that its enemies will resort to either of these two options, in turn, leads to pressure to increase military spending to even higher levels.

An extraordinary array of former military and government officials have concluded that the elimination of nuclear weapons is a necessary first step to stop this escalatory spiral. Important figures that are currently advocating nuclear abolition include former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev; former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz; former U.S. secretaries of defense William Perry and Frank Carlucci; former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Berger, and Robert McFarlane; former President Jimmy Carter; former Vice President Walter Mondale; and two former generals who supervised American nuclear forces, Lee Butler and Charles Horner. Many of these men had reputations as arch Cold Warriors, but have concluded that the new international realities make nuclear abolition a vital goal.

Yet some scholars and former officials decry nuclear abolitionists and argue that the United States must always maintain nuclear superiority. But the assumptions they use to defend their position are extremely questionable. Why would nuclear abolition compromise U.S. security? If a state such as North Korea attempted to reject an international ban on nuclear weapons, the United States and its allies would have such an overwhelming military and economic advantage that Pyongyang would likely be deterred from ever using its weapons. In an instance where deterrence failed, the United States would still have the capability to retaliate at a level that would leave North Korean society devastated.

These opponents stand logic on its head when they argue that nuclear abolition would spur proliferation. What motive would states have to proliferate if other states did not have nuclear weapons? They seem to assume that the United States would abandon its nuclear weapons unilaterally, but that misrepresents the goals of the global zero movement, which seeks elimination of all such weapons by every nation. If nuclear abstinence became the norm, violators would become pariahs—much as Syria recently did by violating the global norm against using chemical weapons. Moreover, the consortium of states prepared to enforce the global ban would be so large as to deter most potential cheaters.

Once nuclear weapons are eliminated, one could begin talks to draw down global conventional arsenals and shrink the gap between U.S. military expenditures and the rest of the world, further stabilizing the international environment. The conclusion is a powerful one: the time has come to seriously pursue nuclear abolition.

Shane J. Maddock is professor of history at Stonehill College. His book Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present is now available in paperback. He is also coauthor of American Foreign Relations: A History and editor of The Nuclear Age.