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Nuclear Zero? Why Not Nuclear Infinity?

Author: Matthew H. Kroenig, 2011-2012 Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow
July 30, 2011
Wall Street Journal

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The international Global Zero movement has captured the imagination of people around the world. Proponents argue that by cutting its nuclear arsenal dramatically, the U.S. can lead the way to a "world free of nuclear weapons."

In response, many of the world's leading strategic thinkers—both those skeptical of, and hopeful for, eventual global nuclear disarmament—have invested great time and energy imagining the possible advantages and disadvantages of living in a world with zero nuclear weapons.

To reframe the debate, I propose an alternate number as a possible size for the U.S. nuclear arsenal: infinity.

Imagining a world in which America possesses infinite nuclear weapons—just as advocates of nuclear zero imagine the opposite—it's hard not to conclude that having infinite weapons is preferable to having none.

The primary purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter our enemies and assure our friends. No adversary would be restrained by the fear of attack from a nonexistent nuclear arsenal. But the prospect of fighting an adversary with unlimited nuclear firepower would induce much more caution even in our most reckless enemies.

Many of our allies today worry that if we continue to cut the size of our arsenal, we won't have enough nuclear forces to extend the nuclear umbrella to them and retain a large enough reserve capacity to simultaneously deter challenges against ourselves. Drawing down to zero would greatly exacerbate those fears. Building to infinity would put them to rest.

Some claim that the primary reason to reduce our nuclear weapons is to convince leaders in other capitals that if we don't need nuclear weapons, they don't either. But building to infinity could also dissuade proliferation by convincing countries that they have no hope of ever achieving nuclear parity with the U.S.

Of course, building to infinity would strain the national budget, and maintaining the arsenal could present real security problems, especially regarding command and control. Nevertheless, if forced to choose, the United States would be more secure with infinite nuclear weapons than with none.

Let me be clear. I'm not advocating that the United States build an infinite number of nuclear weapons. That is an absurd and arbitrary goal. But so is zero.

Having dispensed with the extremes of the debate, it is time for serious strategists to get back to the hard work of deciding what roles and missions nuclear weapons ought to have in U.S. defense policy, and what nuclear force structure is appropriate for achieving them.

Mr. Kroenig is professor of government at Georgetown University and an affiliate with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the author of "Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons" (Cornell University, 2010).

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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