Thomas C. Schelling
Dædalus, Fall 2009
A new and popular disarmament movement was provoked by a completely unexpected combination
of Henry A. Kissinger, William J. Perry, Sam Nunn, and George P. Shultz with their
op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal from January 4, 2007, and January
15, 2008. For the first time since the demise of General and Complete Disarmament
(GCD) in the 1960s, there is a serious discussion of the possibility of utterly
removing nuclear weapons from the planet Earth. Furthermore, the discussion is taking
place among nuclear policy professionals, the people who publish in Foreign Affairs,
International Security, and other serious journals.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies, founded in London in 1958 and
notable for its Adelphi papers, published in August 2008, Paper 396, Abolishing
Nuclear Weapons, by George Perkovich and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace. It was central to a conference at the Carnegie Endowment
that produced 17 response papers from around the world. Other meetings similarly
motivated have been occurring, many under the sponsorship of the Nuclear Threat
Initiative (NTI). The Stanley Foundation convened 25 officials, including diplomats
from UN institutions, U.S. and foreign experts, and officials from other nations
“to examine the first steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons.” The rapporteur
of that meeting noted, “Participants were in general agreement that complete and
eventual disarmament, or global zero, is the objective.”
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which publishes Dædalus, awarded
the Rumford Prize to Perry, Nunn, Shultz, Kissinger, and Sidney Drell at its 1929th
Stated Meeting in October 2008, for “their contribution to nuclear abolition.” President
Obama’s April 2009 Prague speech, in which he stated “clearly and with conviction
America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,”
was a sign that the disarmament debate was now a serious enterprise.
Some of the motivation, among the diverse respondents on the issue, is to fulfill,
or appear to fulfill, the “commitment” undertaken by the official nuclear-weapons
states in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “to pursue negotiations in good
faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an
early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament
under strict and effective international control.” The underlying motive would be
to renew and strengthen the Treaty itself, by removing an objection often voiced
by non-nuclear governments about unacceptable discrimination. Some of the motivation
is evidently to spur an overdue drastic reduction in Russian and American nuclear
warheads, especially those on high alert.
But hardly any of the analyses or policy statements that I have come across question
overtly the ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.1 Nearly all adduce the unequivocal
language of The Wall Street Journal quadrumvirate.
None explicitly addresses the question, why should we expect a world without nuclear
weapons to be safer than one with (some) nuclear weapons? That drastic reductions
make sense, and that some measures to reduce alert status do, too, may require no
extensive analysis. But considering how much intellectual effort in the past half-century
went into the study of the “stability” of a nuclear-deterrence world, it ought to
be worthwhile to examine contingencies in a nuclear-free world to verify that it
is superior to a world with (some) nuclear weapons.
I have not come across any mention of what would happen in the event of a major
war. One might hope that major war could not happen in a world without nuclear weapons,
but it always did. One can propose that another war on the scale of the 1940s is
less to worry about than anything nuclear. But it might give pause to reflect that
the world of 1939 was utterly free of nuclear weapons, yet they were not only produced,
they were invented, during war itself and used with devastating effect. Why not
expect that they could be produced – they’ve already been invented – and possibly used
in some fashion?
In 1976, I published an article, “Who Will Have the Bomb?” in which I asked, “Does
India have the bomb?”2 India had exploded a nuclear
device a couple of years earlier. I pursued the question, what do we mean by
“having the bomb?” I alleged that we didn’t mean, or perhaps didn’t even care,
whether India actually possessed in inventory a nuclear explosive device, or an
actual nuclear weapon. We meant, I argued, that India “had” the potential: it
had the expertise, the personnel, the laboratories and equipment to produce a
weapon if it decided to. (At the time, India pretended that its only interest
was in “Peaceful Nuclear Explosives” [PNEs].) I proposed
an analogy: does Switzerland have an army? I answered, not really, but it could
have one tomorrow if it decided today.
The answer to the relevant question about nuclear weapons must be a schedule showing
how many weapons (of what yield) a government could mobilize on what time schedule.
It took the United States about five years to build two weapons. It might take India – now
that it has already produced nuclear weapons – a few weeks, or less, depending on
how ready it kept its personnel and supplies for mobilization. If a “world without
nuclear weapons” means no mobilization bases, there can be no such world. Even starting
in 1940 the mobilization base was built. And would minimizing mobilization potential
serve the purpose? To answer this requires working through various scenarios involving
the expectation of war, the outbreak of war, and the conduct of war. That is the
kind of analysis I haven’t seen.
A crucial question is whether a government could hide weapons-grade fissile material
from any possible inspection verification. Considering that enough plutonium to make
a bomb could be hidden in the freezing compartment of my refrigerator, or to evade
radiation detection could be hidden at the bottom of the water in a well, I think
only the fear of a whistle-blower could possibly make success at all questionable.
I believe that a “responsible” government would make sure that fissile material would
be available in an international crisis or war itself. A responsible government
must at least assume that other responsible governments will do so.
We are so used to thinking in terms of thousands, or at least hundreds, of nuclear
warheads that a few dozen may offer a sense of relief. But if, at the outset of
what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every
responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize
their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely,
there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous
efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. And what
I see a few possibilities. One is that the first to acquire weapons will use them,
as best it knows how, to disrupt its enemy’s or enemies’ nuclear mobilization bases,
while itself continuing its frantic nuclear rearmament, along with a surrender demand
backed up by its growing stockpile. Another possibility is to demand, under threat
of nuclear attack, abandonment of any nuclear mobilization, with unopposed “inspectors”
or “saboteurs” searching out the mobilization base of people, laboratories, fissile
material stashes, or anything else threatening. A third possibility would be a “decapitation”
nuclear attack along with the surrender demand. And I can think of worse. All of
these, of course, would be in the interest of self-defense.
Still another strategy might, just might, be to propose a crash “rearmament agreement,”
by which both sides (all sides) would develop “minimum deterrent” arsenals, subject
to all the inspection-verification procedures that had already been in place for
An interesting question is whether “former nuclear powers” – I use quotation marks
because they will still be latent nuclear powers – would seek ways to make it known
that, despite “disarmament,” they had the potential for a rapid buildup. It has
been suggested that Saddam Hussein may have wanted it believed that he had nuclear
weapons, and Israel has made its nuclear capability a publicized secret. “Mutual
nuclear deterrence” could take the form of letting it be known that any evidence
of nuclear rearmament would be promptly reciprocated. Reciprocation could take the
form of hastening to have a weapon to use against the nuclear facilities of the
But war is what I find most worrisome. In World War II there was some fear in the
U.S. nuclear weapons community that Germany might acquire a nuclear capability and
use it. There is still speculation whether, if Germany had not already surrendered,
one of the bombs should have been used on Berlin, with a demand that inspection
teams be admitted to locate and destroy the nuclear establishment. Would a government
lose a war without resorting to nuclear weapons? Would a war include a race to produce
weapons capable of coercing victory?
Could a major nation maintain “conventional” forces ready for every contingency,
without maintaining a nuclear backup? Just as today’s intelligence agencies and
their clandestine operators are devoted to discovering the location of terrorist
organizations and their leaders, in a non-nuclear world the highest priority would
attach to knowing the exact locations and readiness of enemy nuclear mobilization
Would a political party, in the United States or anywhere else, be able to campaign
for the abandonment of the zero-nuclears treaty, and what would be the response in
I hope there are favorable answers to these questions. I’m uncertain who in government
or academia is working on them.3
One can take the position that substantial nuclear disarmament makes sense, and
that the abstract goal of a world without nuclear weapons helps motivate reduction
as well as presents an appearance of fulfilling the NPT commitment. Maybe some
leaders of the movement have no more than that in mind. But even as a purely intellectual
enterprise the “role of deterrence in total disarmament,” to use the title of an
article I published 47 years ago, deserves just as thoughtful analysis as mutual
nuclear deterrence ever received.4
In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United
States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would
have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or
commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’
nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure
emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could
become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first
few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.
It took a couple of decades for the United States to work out a satisfactory theory
of “strategic readiness,” of how to configure strategic nuclear forces to provide
reasonably comfortable assurance against surprise or preemption, with appropriate
command and control. Nothing is perfect: we never did solve the MX missile
basing problem; we apotheosized a “triad” that didn’t really exist; we missed the
early opportunity to restrain multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles
(MIRV); we never had an agreed understanding of “flexible response” or “no-cities”
and its relation to counterforce targeting; and we let a president carry us away
with an expensive dream of active defense of the population. Still, we got away
from soft, exposed, unready bombers and missiles; we avoided the troubles that rival
anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) systems would have brought; and we understood
the MX problem, if we couldn’t solve it.
There are now many proposals for radically reconfiguring the strategic offensive
force. Possible reductions in numbers get plenty of attention. The composition of
the force – undersea, airborne, and fixed; gravity, ballistic, and cruise; air and
naval – gets less attention, but will receive it intensely when service rivalries
become aroused. The proposals that to me sound hasty and in need of more thought
than I can detect behind them are those that would drastically change the readiness
status of the strategic force. These involve various proposals for reduced alert
status. In particular, some propose physically separating warheads and vehicles.
An extreme case is the idea of “strategic escrow,” warheads removed from vehicles,
presumably at quite some distances, and stored under international supervision.
I have heard proposals for keeping warheads nearby but separate from the bombers
or the missiles themselves. There are also proposals, which I’m not able to judge,
for electronic de-alert or failsafe retargeting.
What I think took those couple of decades I mentioned was really getting “vulnerability”
under control. It began seriously with the Gaither Committee in 1957, got incorporated
into the surprise-attack negotiations in 1958, led to airborne alert for bombers
and abandonment of Atlas and Titan, and gave the navy a strategic lease on life.
One key to reduced vulnerability was dispersal. Minuteman was spread out so that
no single enemy weapon could destroy more than one. (Decoys for the same purpose
were considered during the MX predicament.)
What has me worried is a new kind of “dispersal,” a perverse kind: offering multiple
disabling points for an enemy to target. If a missile or bomber can be rendered
inactive by, alternatively, destroying it, destroying its warhead, or destroying
the means of locomotion from warhead storage to vehicle, vulnerability has increased.
If removed warheads are stored centrally, or in clusters, “dispersal” has been reversed.
(Subjecting warhead storage to inspection eliminates the possibility of keeping
locations secret from potential targeting.) If there are limited transport routes
by which warheads can join their vehicles, vulnerability is increased. And maybe
not just vulnerability to strategic attack but to disruption or sabotage as well.
Another theme of strategic readiness that took pretty good hold during those decades
was “crisis stability.” The concept involved a couple of potentially contradictory
ideas: that any urgent efforts to enhance readiness in a crisis should be unnoticeable,
lest they alarm the enemy, and that any efforts should be so visible that, if they
were not being taken, the enemy could see they were not! On balance I think the
consensus was that the dynamics of mobilization should be minimized; that, of course,
could depend on what kinds of actions we are talking about. And the actions depend
on just what mode of de-alert or separation of components is being considered.
I worry that the necessary scenario analyses tofind the strengths and weaknesses,
especially the weaknesses, of these proposals have not been done. I do not want
to see many years – more than half a century now – of painfully acquired understanding
of the requirements of “safe readiness” be lost or ignored in a hurried effort to
invent new configurations of readiness-unreadiness. In particular, just what can
be done on what time schedule and with what visibility to the public or to the enemy
(or to international referees) in various kinds of crises needs to be thoroughly
worked out; the logistics need to be carefully simulated; and the range of choices
needs to be identified.
I do not perceive that this analysis is being done before proposals are launched
that would produce highly unfamiliar strategic-readiness situations. What we have
developed and become acquainted with should be dismantled only when we are sure
we understand what we may be getting into.
We have gone, as I write this, more than 63 years without any use of nuclear weapons
in warfare. We have experienced, depending on how you count, some eight wars during
that time in which one party to the war possessed nuclear weapons: United States
vs. North Korea, United States vs. People’s Republic of China, United States vs.
Viet Cong, United States vs. North Vietnam, United States vs. Iraq twice, United
States vs. Taliban in Afghanistan, Israel vs. Syria and Egypt, United Kingdom vs.
Argentina, and USSR vs. Afghanistan. In no case was nuclear weapons introduced,
probably not seriously considered.
The “taboo,” to use the term of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1963 – he
deplored the taboo – has apparently been powerful. The ability of the United States
and the Soviet Union to collaborate, sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly, to
“stabilize” mutual deterrence despite crises over Berlin and Cuba, for the entire
postwar era prior to the dissolution of the USSR, would not have been countenanced
by experts or strategists during the first two decades after 1945.
These are two different phenomena, the taboo and mutual deterrence. We can hope
that mutual deterrence will subdue Indian-Pakistani hostility; we can hope that
the taboo will continue to caution Israel, and that it will affect other possessors
of nuclear weapons, either through their apprehension of the curse on nuclear weapons
or their recognition of the universal abhorrence of nuclear use.5
There is no sign that any kind of nuclear arms race is in the offing – not, anyway,
among the current nuclear powers. Prospects are good for substantial reduction of
nuclear arms among the two largest arsenals, Russian and American. That should contribute
to nuclear quiescence.
Concern over North Korea, Iran, or possible non-state violent entities is justified,
but denuclearization of Russia, the United States, China, France, and the United
Kingdom is pretty tangential to those prospects. Except for some “rogue” threats,
there is little that could disturb the quiet nuclear relations among the recognized
nuclear nations. This nuclear quiet should not be traded away for a world in which
a brief race to reacquire nuclear weapons could become every former nuclear state’s
For exceptions, see Harold Brown and John Deutch, “The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy,”
The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2007, and Charles L. Glaser, “The
Instability of Small Numbers Revisited,” in Rebuilding the NPT
Consensus , ed. Michael May (Stanford, Calif.: Center for International Security
and Cooperation, Stanford University, October 2008),
Thomas C. Schelling, “Who Will Have the Bomb?” International Security
1 (Summer 1976): 77–91.
See Sverre Lodgaard’s and Scott Sagan’s essays in this issue of Dædalus
for expert analyses of the problem of stability without nuclear weapons.
Thomas C. Schelling, “The Role of Deterrence in Total Disarmament,” Foreign
Affairs 40 (1962): 392–406.
T. V. Paul, The Tradition of the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford.
Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008); Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Thomas C. Schelling, “The Legacy
of Hiroshima,” in Schelling, Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).