By JACOB HEILBRUNN
The New York Times, October 29, 2010
A SKEPTIC’S CASE FOR NUCLEAR DISARMAMENTBy Michael E. O’Hanlon174 pp. Brookings Institution Press. $26.95
In “A Skeptic’s Case for Nuclear Disarmament,” Michael E. O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution who has attracted much controversy on the left for supporting the Iraq war, joins the debate. O’Hanlon expertly unravels the myriad threads of the often abstruse disputes about nuclear weapons and disarmament. He seeks to chart a middle ground between the nuclear abolitionists and the proponents of retaining the bomb in perpetuity. His solution is to advocate full dismantlement — but only if the United States and other major powers can reconstitute nuclear weapons rapidly if, say, menaced by a foreign foe who had secretly kept them. Like many attempts to cope with the problem of nuclear proliferation, however, O’Hanlon’s proposal is unpersuasive. His book is better at outlining the problems surrounding disarmament than at solving them.
According to O’Hanlon, pushing for disarmament without retaining the right to reconstruct nuclear weapons is sheer utopianism. He also notes that no major power is about to defer to the United Nations Security Council for authorization to rebuild these weapons. So he suggests the creation of a “contact group for each country that wishes to preserve the right to build or rebuild a nuclear arsenal under extreme conditions.” But this defies credibility. What commander in chief would ever put America’s national security in the hands of a “contact group”?
Still, as O’Hanlon sees it, one advantage of pushing for disarmament is simply that it might promote more general enthusiasm for arms reduction. “Tired of incrementalism,” he states, “the American public has long since lost its real interest in arms control.” But did it ever have any such interest in the first place? O’Hanlon himself doesn’t seem to have all that much interest in full disarmament.
His suggestion is that the United States should pursue a rather Machiavellian policy: On the one hand, it should “endorse a nuclear-free world with conviction.” On the other, “it should not work to create a treaty now and should not sign any treaty that others might create for the foreseeable future.” Only when Iran, North Korea, the status of Taiwan and Kashmir, and a host of other issues are settled will the great powers be able to cooperate on moving toward a world truly free of nuclear weapons. Of course, setting world peace as a precondition for nuclear disarmament is tantamount to saying it will never occur.
Even the act of disarming, O’Hanlon notes, could throw America’s relations with its allies into turmoil. Japan continues to rely on American nuclear assurances. So does Europe. In short, the American nuclear umbrella extends far and wide — indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested last year that a “defense umbrella” now extends to shield Middle East states like Saudi Arabia from a potential Iranian strike.
Rather than seeking the utopian dream of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, keeping a small arsenal on hand as a deterrent is far more likely to preserve the peace than abandoning them completely. The fundamental problem is that nuclear weapons are not the source of international tensions but an expression of them.