Nuclear Weapons Will Always Be Possible

I laud Beatrice Fihn’s bold thinking and her work on abolishing nuclear weapons. I agree that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will positively affect the choices of even non-signatories, as is often the case with international regimes. My main critique is not novel; in a world where nuclear weapons are possible, I believe the United States needs them to protect against nuclear use and blackmail. Even if all countries signed and promised to adhere to the Treaty, I would still not advocate for the United States to give up all its nuclear weapons. Countries break their promises; China and Russia are no exceptions. So, while I think we should work toward global zero, I do not support achieving reaching this goal.

But this does not mean the United States should not rethink its nuclear policy entirely, as Ms. Fihn argues. Many emerging technologies have not are yet to be fully operationalized in the military sense, such as hypersonics and AI. These are areas where arms control and restrictive treaties could have a real impact. Chinese military officers have suggested to me that China would be open to such discussions precisely because it is easier not to do something than to reverse a capability once it is developed. What are some capabilities that everyone would be worse off if all the greatest militaries in the world developed and fielded them? We need to think ahead to create norms and regimes now to prevent the introduction of new technologies that could have a destabilizing impact. This is one way we can make the world a safer place, even if it still has nuclear weapons in it.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Eric Gomez argues that U.S. nuclear strategy is due for a reconsideration. As the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons undergoes modernization—a process that will take more than a decade—the time is right for rethinking what we should be doing with them. Gomez argues against relying too heavily on nuclear deterrence, which increases the risk that nuclear weapons will be used and makes them more attractive to countries that lack them.

Response Essays

  • Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that the United States government must achieve two significant goals in its nuclear weapons policy: First, it must prevent strategic competition with China from devolving into a nuclear arms race; and second, it must pave the way for nuclear arms control, ideally in conjunction with a reluctant Russia.

  • Beatrice Fihn calls attention to another aspect of current nuclear weapons policy debate—the growing movement to prohibit nuclear weapons entirely. Some 45 countries have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, just five short of the number required for ratification, and those party to the treaty will exert increasing pressure on the rest of the world to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.

  • Michael Kofman argues for the continuing importance of Russia to U.S. nuclear strategy. Rather than a return to the Cold War, or a buy-all-you-can spending spree, Kofman argues for paying close attention to Russia’s own strategic planning, which requires much more attention than Russia’s headline-grabbing new weapons systems.