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  • The Economist

Move the base camp

THERE was a time when the sort of people who campaigned to rid the world of nuclear weapons wore anoraks and thick jumpers and camped out in yurts. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, both secretaries of state in Republican administrations, did not belong among them. But those men have now been joined by Barack Obama and a cohort of hard-nosed politicians and diplomats in embracing the cause of multilateral disarmament with the aim of getting to zero nuclear weapons.

They argue that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is fast reaching a “tipping point” beyond which it will be impossible to check their spread. Their use either in war, by accident or by terrorists is becoming increasingly likely. The only way to confront this danger, it is claimed, is by starting a phased, verifiable, multilateral process to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Since the cold war, America and Russia have cut their stocks sharply, but they still account for 95% of the world's 20,500 nuclear weapons. If they dismantle their arsenals they will be in a stronger position to preach to others.

You might conclude that the gravel-voiced Mr Kissinger is going soft, but the idea has caught on among other strategic thinkers. World leaders, such as Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, have signed up. In September 2009 the UN Security Council endorsed the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Much of the running has been made by Global Zero, an organisation founded four years ago that is holding its third “summit” in London next week. It has come up with a four-phase action plan for reaching zero by 2030 (see article). The plan starts in the right place, with the scaling down of America's and Russia's nuclear arsenals to 1,000 weapons apiece. It acknowledges that progress will depend on verification and other states playing their part.

An alpha particle for effort

Part of the point of Global Zero is to inspire interest in the subject. The old way of doing arms control—highly technical and incremental—no longer captures the public's imagination. It also fails to deal with today's worries, such as a nuclear Iran triggering proliferation in the Middle East, or Pakistan's bomb falling into the hands of jihadists. If states contemplating a weapons programme believe that counter-proliferation can work, then they are less likely to proliferate themselves.

There are some big objections to Global Zero's aspirations. In a world where owning even a handful of bombs would confer huge advantage, verification will have to be completely reliable. Thankfully, the sophistication of verification techniques is improving at a rate that makes this at least feasible. And getting even close to zero may require settling some of the world's most intractable arguments, such as the tussle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir or the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, though America and the former Soviet Union made some progress in cutting weapons, despite their cold-war relations. Lastly, nuclear deterrence and America's extension of it to its allies may be one reason why great powers have not directly gone to war against each other for 65 years. That's true; but even if nuclear weapons were eliminated, the threat that they could be rebuilt would remain a reason to avoid conflict.

What about terrorists or rogue states? Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented; they use a mature, widely understood technology. At present, it is all too easy for nuclear material to be diverted from a civil programme to bombmaking. Without a treaty to prohibit the use of fissile material for weapons production the world will not get to zero.

But do not conclude from this that the Global Zero campaign must be either a fantasy or a cynical ploy to use token disarmament to stop proliferation. It is neither. If done in the right way the process of disarming can do enormous good, regardless of whether that final step can ever be taken. Sam Nunn, a former American senator who now leads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, likens nuclear zero to a mountain. Even though the peak is far beyond reach today, it still makes sense to move from the foothills up the mountain to a higher, safer base camp. From there—who knows?—the world may one day be able to strike out for the summit.

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