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The Logic of Zero
IVO DAALDER is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. JAN LODAL is immediate past President of the Atlantic Council of the United States and a former senior Defense Department and White House official in the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton.See more by Ivo DaalderSee more by Jan Lodal
U.S. nuclear weapons were born nearly 65 years ago with the purpose of winning a worldwide war against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. They grew up to deter a massive Soviet army that threatened to invade and dominate all of Europe. With the disappearance of that threat almost 20 years ago, nuclear weapons entered middle age in search of a new mission -- a search that continues to this day. Some suggest nuclear weapons are necessary to deter, or even preempt, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Others believe they are needed to destroy deeply buried, hardened targets in hostile states. But the reality is that only one real purpose remains for U.S. nuclear weapons: to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others.
That reality has yet to sink in. U.S. nuclear policies remain stuck in the Cold War, even as the threats the United States faces have changed dramatically. Today, the gravest threat comes from the possibility of terrorists bent on delivering a devastating blow against the United States acquiring the capacity to do so with nuclear weapons. This threat is compounded by the dangers of nuclear proliferation, as more and more countries hedge against potentially negative developments in their regions by acquiring the wherewithal to build the bomb. Then there is the increasing global demand for nuclear energy, which will spread the infrastructure necessary to produce fissile nuclear materials still wider. The world, in short, is on the verge of entering an age of more nuclear weapons states, more nuclear materials, and more nuclear facilities that are poorly secured -- making the job of the terrorists seeking the bomb easier and the odds that a nuclear weapon will be used greater.