The answer to the question headlining the Saturday afternoon panel at the Munich Security Conference, "The Future of Arms Control and the NPT: Is Zero Possible?" is rather simple: No.
The elimination of nuclear weapons is as wonderful an idea as it is fantastical. That hasn't prevented it from preoccupying the minds of world leaders, and not just liberal ones, ever since the dropping of the atomic bomb. Ronald Reagan, whose mantra was "peace through strength," was a nuclear abolitionist. More recently, former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have joined former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn and Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Perry in calling for "a world free of nuclear weapons."
None of these men support the radical prescription of American unilateral nuclear disarmament, but that doesn't make the idea of "Global Zero," (to take the name of the organization committed to a "world without nuclear weapons") any more likely. Nuclear weapons provide an enormous strategic benefit to the nations that acquire them, which is why governments spend vast sums in their obtainment. It is why, to take the situation that has captivated the world for the past several years, the Iranian regime has risked so much in terms of its isolation on the world stage and the threat of economic hardship that will come with tighter sanctions to join the nuclear club. No number of briefing papers, commissions, and security conference panels have yet to describe a realistic way by which the world will divest itself of these weapons—and Saturday's discussion in Munich was no different. Even if the goal were to be achieved and all nuclear arms were abolished, that still would not erase nuclear know-how, the intangible knowledge contained in the brains of thousands of scientists around the world. Given that know-how, and the funds to support it, what treaty's verification mechanism would realistically prevent one of the world's less trustworthy and transparent states—and several come to mind—from using the global elimination of nuclear weapons as an opportunity to start a Nuclear Club of One?
Listening to the panelists—Senator John Kerry, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, former German Foreign Minister and Social Democratic Party leader Frank Walter-Steinmeier, former Indian National Security Advisor Mayankote K. Narayanan—one heard dire warnings about the threat of nuclear proliferation and how it is the solemn responsibility of Russia and the United States (as the nations that inaugurated the nuclear age) to eliminate nuclear weapons. But the connection between these two goals is chimerical. Would-be nuclear powers like Iran do not need the pretext of American or French or Russian or Chinese nuclear capability to acquire their own weapons; they want them regardless for the power and influence they bring. Arguing that nuclear abolition makes attempts to stop proliferation more credible—as President Obama has done repeatedly in speeches from Prague to the United Nations—simply plays into the morally specious arguments of international bad actors.
To appreciate how this mindset forms, consider "The Bomb," a two-hour documentary hosted and co-written by Claus Kleber, one of Germany's most prominent newsmen and the moderator of the panel. A recent critique published by The Weekly Standard describes how the film purports to show how "it is the United States that committed the original sin by developing the first nuclear weapons, and the current risk of proliferation is merely the consequence of America's transgression." On the Web site for the Munich Security Conference, convener Wolfgang Ischinger (a former ambassador to the United States) published a letter to the editors of the magazine attacking the piece. Introducing Kleber the other day, Ischinger said that he should wear criticism from the magazine as "a badge of honor."
The responsibility for throwing cold water on all this silliness was left to Josef Joffe, the redoubtable editor of Die Ziet and one of Germany's most perceptive political analysts, who compared his position as a Global Zero skeptic to that of an agnostic at a Baptist convention. He pointed out that "history simply does not support" the notion that great power disarmament encourages non-proliferation, noting that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have dramatically reduced stockpiles all the while other nations have built up theirs. Joffe rolled a proverbial stink-bomb down the church aisle by challenging the supposition that nuclear weapons are strategically archaic, noting that Israel helps ensure its security with its nuclear status. And he added that North Korea, a "third-world country, [is] treated as a first-world power" because of its status as a nuclear state. Further, he challenged the fundamental logic underlying any plan to achieve complete nuclear disarmament, because, as stockpiles are cut, each weapon becomes more valuable due to the basic principle of scarcity.
How to explain why such distinguished and knowledgeable figures would support something so utterly fanciful? There's a common trait in elder statesmen that compels them to find benign, fuzzy ideas around which they can all cohere. In this sense, Global Zero is just another aspect of building one's legacy. Or perhaps Global Zero is just a noble lie; an idea that sounds pleasant to third-world ears, but in which everyone tacitly understands to be non-operative.