Nuclear Disarmament: Why Reaching for Zero Makes Sense

India’s Brahmos missile, which was developed jointly with Russia, on display in 2018. Photo Credit: Politico, Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Nuclear weapons have dominated U.S. security strategy for decades. The overwhelming power of these weapons has captivated the minds of U.S. scholars, strategists, and policymakers alike. However, this fascination with complete annihilation has created an impenetrable bubble around U.S. security strategy that has kept the U.S. indebted to its past rather than looking towards the future to protect its security interests.

In 2009, President Obama delivered a speech stating that, “the United States would take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons” and called for the U.S. to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”[i] Twelve years have passed, and the U.S. has made no real effort to fulfill either promise. Instead, the U.S. has decided to leave its Cold War mentality intact and continues to see proliferating and maintaining nuclear capabilities as the only way to ensure its security.

The Trump Administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review includes such plans as to update the land-based ICBM force, as well as Ohio-class submarine forces, and develop the new B-21 Raider bomber.[ii] Additionally, the review called for the development of two new low-yield nuclear capabilities: the Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and a sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).[iii] Furthermore, U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty leaves further opportunity to proliferate nuclear capabilities, allowing the U.S. the option to develop new intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM).[iv]

These progressions seem to eliminate the possibility of nuclear disarmament and fail to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons in national security strategies. Also, the U.S. along with other nuclear-armed states have taken vast steps to improve their nuclear arsenals.[v] Because of this outcome, it is fair to say that most nuclear-armed states have concluded that the current security environment is too dangerous to relinquish their nuclear weapons. This conclusion has led to narrow-minded views about U.S. national security policy that overstates the importance of nuclear weapons, causing other key developments that bolster U.S. deterrence abilities to be overlooked.

Why Nuclear Disarmament is not Plausible

Advocates of the U.S. nuclear arsenal assert that disarmament would lead to the return of great power war, increase the risk of a nuclear monopoly, and harm strategic stability.

Many scholars and policy experts that advocate against U.S. nuclear disarmament initiatives point to the success of mutually assured destruction (MAD) as a reason why nuclear weapons should remain a tool for national security strategy.[vi] Since the advent of nuclear weapons, the international system has not seen a large-scale war occur and has been relatively peaceful.[vii] Proponents of this argument claim that the anarchic nature of the international system requires states to satisfy their security needs and that nuclear weapons are the ultimate tool for accomplishing this goal.[viii] Additionally, the existence of nuclear weapons constrains state behavior by decreasing incentives to use conventional weapons to solve conflicts.[ix] If states were to disarm, this would make the international system prone to great power conflict once again.[x]

Another reason scholars and strategists oppose U.S. nuclear disarmament is that nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented.[xi] Simply disarming does not eliminate the ability of states to rebuild their nuclear arsenal in the future.[xii] In other words, access to nuclear information and material cannot be prevented completely, and if states wanted to rearm, they would be able to acquire the knowledge and material to do so, thereby enabling a state to restart its nuclear weapons program in an effort to gain a strategic advantage over its adversaries.[xiii] This could lead to a hostage-like situation where one state is able to dominate all the others through coercive nuclear threats and actions.

In addition, opponents of U.S. nuclear disarmament argue that removing nuclear weapons would create greater strategic instability.[xiv] Currently, U.S. conventional capabilities are superior and tilt the military advantage in favor of the U.S.[xv] Because of the imbalance in conventional arms, U.S adversaries would seek to keep their nuclear arsenals to off-set any edge the U.S. would gain from its conventional supremacy.[xvi] If the U.S. were to give up its nuclear abilities, this would make any conventional advantage the U.S. has obsolete, and would leave the U.S. defenseless against an adversarial nuclear strike.

Why Nuclear Disarmament is a Realistic Goal for the U.S.

Skeptics of nuclear disarmament claim that the threat of great power competition is severe and any discussion to disarm is naive, irresponsible and endangers U.S. national security interests. This argument is weak for the following four reasons.

First, conventional weapons have advanced since World War II (WWII); these improvements have led to conventional assets to become far more effective tools of deterrence than in the past. For example, alterations to military programs have increased firing rates of combatants, making soldiers more effective on the battlefield.[xvii] Additionally, the development of ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons, and other conventional strike options enable states to launch accurate attacks against adversaries in a timely manner with little effort.[xviii] These developments, along with many others, have led to an increase in the accuracy, lethality, and delivery of conventional forces, making them viable tools for deterrence strategies that did not exist prior to WWII and a feasible alternative to nuclear weapons.

Second, technological developments have reduced the impact of great power competition in the international system. The use of drone technology empowers states to conduct important operations that minimize risks to military personnel.[xix] Also, drones offer states alternate methods to reduce civilian casualties compared to other large-scale conventional operations.[xx] Furthermore, the deployment of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems helps lessen the effectiveness of ballistic missile attacks and provides protection to civilians and infrastructure that also was not available during WWII.[xxi] Another important detail that has altered great power competition between states is the growth and integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into military war plans. Although these technologies do not completely eliminate the negative impacts of great power competition, they do deliver some constraints on warfare that were not possible previously.

Third, the United Nations (UN) did not exist until after WWII. The UN as an international organization is heavily skewed towards the needs of the major powers.[xxii] Because the UN favors the great powers, their security concerns are more likely to be addressed. This offers a diplomatic alternative to solving major power competitions that was not available during WWII or prior.[xxiii] Fourth, “nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapon on earth.”[xxiv] While great power wars of the past created immense suffering, participants on both sides were able to survive and recover from the conflict. Great power war was never going to lead towards extinction of the human race.The same cannot be said for nuclear war.

Supporters of U.S. nuclear forces argue that complete disarmament does not prevent states from rearming and could lead to a nuclear monopoly. Although this argument has some merit, advocates overemphasize the benefits of a nuclear monopoly.

If a state were to rearm, it would have to build a sufficiently sized nuclear force to deter all of the actors in the international system and be willing to use this force whenever necessary. Additionally, the nuclear monopoly would have to launch a considerable size nuclear attack against an adversary in order to have a significant impact. However, even conducting a limited nuclear attack would carry catastrophic implications that would affect the entire planet for well over a decade.[xxv] If a nuclear monopoly did use its nuclear arsenal, the consequences would be devastating to its own security due to the long-term effects of nuclear weapons. In other words, a state that seeks to have a nuclear monopoly would not gain any benefit from doing so because conducting a nuclear strike would potentially lead to its own destruction. Therefore, it would not make sense for a state to seek a nuclear monopoly.

Advocates of U.S. nuclear forces declare that disarmament leads to strategic instability. Although this argument is relevant, it overstates the value of U.S. conventional supremacy.

Even though the U.S. does have preeminence when it comes to conventional force, it does not guarantee U.S. victory in every military scenario. The U.S. relied heavily on its conventional superiority to win in Vietnam, but, ultimately, this advantage was not enough to deliver a favorable outcome to the U.S.[xxvi] Furthermore, the recent agreement signed with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan is another example of how U.S. conventional advantages do not mean that adversaries will be defeated.[xxvii] Simply having conventional superiority does not mean that other nuclear-armed states would see disarmament as destabilizing and guaranteeing  U.S. military dominance. These results provide evidence that conventional supremacy comes with limits and is not a promise of military triumph.

Call to Action  

For decades, U.S. national security strategy has dismissed the possibility of nuclear disarmament.  Instead, strategists promoted the proliferation and development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as the best way to ensure U.S. security interests. Supporters of U.S. nuclear deterrence forces argued that nuclear weapons prevented great power competition, eliminated the threat of a nuclear monopoly, and helped secure strategic stability between states. These claims may have been relevant at one time, but they’re no longer suitable reasons to maintain U.S. nuclear capabilities.

Improvements in accuracy, lethality, and delivery of conventional forces have bolstered their deterrence capabilities. Additionally, technological developments such as AI, drones, and ABM systems offer constraints to conventional conflict that were absent in the previous era. Moreover, a nuclear monopoly would not pose      a great security risk to the U.S. because the monopolizer would also have to risk its own security if it decided to use nuclear weapons. Also, nuclear weapons remain the most powerful device created and would certainly spell disaster for humanity if they were used. Lastly, nuclear disarmament would have limited effects on strategic instability because U.S. conventional superiority does not assure military victory. For almost 75 years, U.S. strategy has been a dangerous game of Russian roulette that will come to an end one way or another. It is for these reasons that the U.S should seriously consider and initiate nuclear disarmament measures. The clock is ticking, and our luck may run out soon.


[i] Barack Obama “Remarks by President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered,” The White House, April 5, 2009.

[ii] “The Nuclear Posture Review, 2018,” Department of Defense, February, 2018, X.

[iii] “Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons,” Congressional Research Services, September 6, 2019, 1.

[iv] Andrew Erickson, “Good Riddance to the INF Treaty: Washington Shouldn’t Tie its Own Hands in Asia,” Foreign Affairs, August 29, 2019.

[v] Nina Tannenwald, “The Vanishing Nuclear Taboo: How Disarmament Fell Apart,” Foreign Affairs, November, 2018.

[vi] Sinan Ülgen, “The case against total nuclear disarmament,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August 25, 2014.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Aura Sabadus, “Nuclear Disarmament: The Case Against,” E-International Relations, October 5, 2009.

[ix] Robert Art, “Between Assured Destruction and Nuclear Victory: The Case for the “Mad-Plus” Posture,” The University of Chicago Press, April, 1985.

[x] Ülgen. “The case against total nuclear disarmament.”

[xi] Charles Glaser. “The Flawed Case for Nuclear Disarmament,” Survival, 1998, 114.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Michael O’Hanion, “Is a World Without Nuclear Weapons Really Possible?,” Brookings Institute, May 4, 2010.

[xiv] Christine Leah and Adam Lowther, “Conventional Arms and Nuclear Peace,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, 2017, 16-17.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid, 14-15.

[xvii] Dave Grossman, “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” Back Bay Books, 2009, 189.

[xviii] “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Services, November 10, 2010.

[xix] Robert Weiner and Tom Sherman, “Drones spare troops, have powerful impact,” The San Diego Union Tribune, October 9, 2014.

[xx] Daniel Byman, “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice,” Foreign Affairs, July, 2013.

[xxi] “An Assessment of U.S. Military Power: Ballistic Missile Defense,” The Heritage Foundation,  November 17, 2020.

[xxii] Robert Citino, “No Respect: The United Nations in Peace and War,” The National World War Two Museum, June 26, 2020.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] “Nuclear Weapons,” The United Nations: Office of Disarmament Affairs.

[xxv] Kevin Krajick, “Even a Limited India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Bring Global Famine, Says Study,” The Earth Institute, March 16, 2020.

[xxvi] Keister, Isaac, “Technology and Strategy: The War in Vietnam” (2016). Student Theses, Papers and Projects (History).

[xxvii] Saphora Smith et al, “U.S. sees Taliban deal as exit from Afghanistan: Militants see it as victory over the superpower,” ABC News, March 3, 2020.

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