“Societal Verification” Will Not Lead to a World Without Nuclear Weapons
Michaela Dodge /
Recently, Rose Gottemoeller, acting under secretary for arms control and international security, delivered a speech exploring the idea of private citizens contributing to monitoring illicit weapons of mass destruction activities—so called “societal verification.”
While all options for increasing U.S. insight into other countries’ weapons of mass destruction activities should be open, it is ultimately a political response to cheating that matters—and the State Department’s record is poor.
Two of the most prominent examples are North Korea and Iran. Through violations of their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea acquired six to eight nuclear weapon devices, and Iran is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons program.
A third example is Russia, which has provided significant intellectual and material help to the Iranian nuclear weapons program and violated every single arms control treaty the United States has ever signed with it—yet the State Department rewarded it by negotiating a New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START). This treaty mandates unilateral U.S. reductions of strategic weapons while leaving Russia’s manifold advantage in short-range nuclear weapons intact. The treaty’s degraded verification regime complicates making judgments about Russia’s massive nuclear modernization program.
The idea of a world without nuclear weapons is dangerous. Was the world in 1917 or 1939 safer than it is today? Proponents argue that if the U.S. leads in reducing its nuclear weapons, others will follow. There is no historical evidence that this is correct—quite the contrary.
South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons while the U.S. still tested and modernized its nuclear arsenal. North Korea, India, and Pakistan conducted nuclear explosions after the U.S. stopped testing its nuclear weapons and dramatically reduced its nuclear arsenal after the end of the Cold War. Countries acquire or give up nuclear weapons based on their national interest, not their perception of U.S. leadership.
The U.S. is the only country in the world that provides nuclear security guarantees to about 30 other countries in the world. But the U.S. nuclear weapons complex has been under-funded for years, as the Obama Administration acknowledged during the debate about New START. However, its commitments to nuclear modernization have not survived even a year after the treaty entered into force.
Instead of unilaterally disarming, the U.S. should move toward a “protect and defend” strategy combining offensive, defensive, conventional, and nuclear weapons. This is the best way the U.S. could respond to the challenges of today’s environment.