Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Risks: The Pace of Nonproliferation Work Today Doesn’t Match the Urgency of the Threat

Part of Nuclear Security Project Resource Collection

Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Risks: The Pace of Nonproliferation Work Today Doesn’t Match the Urgency of the Threat

Want to dive deeper?

Visit the Education Center

Henry A. Kissinger

Chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc., former U.S. Secretary of State

George P. Shultz

Former U.S. Secretary of State

Every American president since the end of World War II has sought to come to grips with the unique security risks and challenges associated with nuclear weapons. The specter of a nuclear war, accident, proliferation or terrorism has led to serious and sustained efforts to control, reduce and eliminate nuclear risks. Over the decades, progress has been made in reducing nuclear weapons, and bringing about international agreements on nonproliferation.

Recently, the four of us have supported two major policy initiatives: the 2010 New Start Treaty with Russia, which verifiably reduced bilateral nuclear stockpiles; and the Nuclear Security Summits of 2010 and 2012, which have energized global efforts to secure nuclear weapons and materials. Both initiatives are significant and hopeful steps that add to a solid foundation of bipartisan accomplishment over many decades. Most notably, the number of nuclear weapons in the world today is less than one-third of the total in 1986 at the time of the Reagan-Gorbachev Reykjavik summit.

Despite these considerable efforts, nuclear dangers remain all too real. Technological progress and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional states are compounded by dangerous complacency. Bilateral relations between the two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, are frayed, and there are continuing difficulties in effectively addressing emerging nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran, punctuated recently by a test explosion in North Korea. Combined with the dangers of suicidal terrorist groups, the growing number of nations with nuclear arms and differing motives, aims and ambitions poses very high and unpredictable risks.

It is far from certain that today's world can successfully replicate the Cold War Soviet-American deterrence by "mutually assured destruction"—the threat of imposing unacceptable damage on the adversary. That was based essentially on a bipolar world. But when a large and growing number of nuclear adversaries confront multiple perceived threats, the relative restraint of the Cold War will be difficult to sustain. The risk that deterrence will fail and that nuclear weapons will be used increases dramatically.

Global leaders owe it to their publics to reduce, and eventually to eliminate, these risks. Even during the Cold War, the leaders of the two superpowers sought to reduce the risk of nuclear war. What was possible among declared enemies is imperative in a world of increasing nuclear stockpiles in some nations, multiple nuclear military powers and growing diffusion of nuclear energy. A global effort is needed to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread, and ultimately end them as a threat to the world. It will take leadership, creative approaches and thoughtful understanding of the perils of inaction. Near-term results would lay the foundation for transforming global security policies over the medium and long term. We suggest four areas requiring urgent consideration:

1. Securing nuclear materials to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism. Materials necessary for building a nuclear bomb today are stored at hundreds of sites in 28 countries—down from over 40 countries just 10 years ago. But many of these sites aren't well secured, leaving the materials vulnerable to theft or sale on the black market. Important commitments were undertaken to secure nuclear materials and improve cooperation during the 2010 and 2012 Nuclear Security Summits. These could improve security for generations to come. Yet no global system is in place for tracking, accounting for, managing and securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials.

At the next Nuclear Security Summit, planned for 2014 in the Netherlands, world leaders should commit to develop a comprehensive global materials security system—including procedures for international assurances—to ensure that all weapons-usable nuclear materials are secure from unauthorized access and theft.

2. Changes in the deployment patterns of the two largest nuclear powers to increase decision time for leaders. In the 2008 campaign, then-Sen. Obama said: "Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I will work with Russia to end such outdated Cold War policies in a mutual and verifiable way." The U.S. should work with nuclear-armed nations world-wide to remove all nuclear weapons from the prompt-launch status in which nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are deployed to be launched in minutes. To jump-start this initiative, the U.S. and Russia should agree to take a percentage of their nuclear warheads off prompt-launch status—remembering Ronald Reagan's admonition to "trust but verify."

3. Actions following New Start. The progress in the strategic field has been considerable. Washington should carefully examine going below New Start levels of warheads and launchers, including the possibility of coordinated mutual actions. Such a course has the following prerequisites:

a) strict reciprocity; b) demonstrable verification; and c) providing adequate and stable funding for the long-term investments required to maintain high confidence in our nuclear arsenal.

Consolidating and reducing U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons not covered under New Start should also be a high priority. It must be recognized that as some other nuclear-armed states are building up their inventories, or if new nuclear powers emerge, U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions face an inherent limit. The nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pose a direct threat to regional and global stability. Unless these two states are brought into compliance with their international obligations, their continued nuclear programs will erode support for nonproliferation and further nuclear reductions.

4. Without verification and transparency, nuclear-security agreements cannot be completed with confidence. The U.S. should launch a "verification initiative" that involves the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and global scientific experts in developing essential technologies and innovations for reducing and controlling nuclear weapons and materials. The principle of enhanced transparency could also be applied to missile defense so long as it doesn't risk capabilities. Taking the lead in fostering greater transparency sets an important base line for all nations and can facilitate future verification of nuclear materials and weapons.

This strategy focused on immediate steps would give leaders greater confidence to take measures to improve security in the near-term. It would boost prospects for support by legislatures. Close consultations with Congress are crucial.

We also need a new dialogue. In our January 2007 op-ed on these pages, we identified practical steps toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. These steps will involve many nations, not just those currently in possession of nuclear weapons. Progress will require greater cooperation. The U.S. must work with other key states to establish a joint enterprise with common objectives to achieve near-term results. Russia and the U.S., with the largest nuclear stockpiles, have a special responsibility in this regard.

  • A coalition of the willing. The Nuclear Security Summits could provide a model for leaders working together to create a joint enterprise that would generate a coalition of willing states to establish priorities and achieve progress on specific steps. Essential subjects should be identified in which many nations have a stake, and to which many must make a contribution. A timetable for meetings between heads of government would help build a diplomatic structure for engagement, within which foreign ministers, defense ministers and others can work together between the meetings of government leaders.
  • Regional dialogues. Such a joint enterprise should include and be reinforced by regional dialogues. Top political, defense and military leaders should explore with their counterparts a range of practical steps on core security issues. The Euro-Atlantic region—an area that includes Europe, Russia and the U.S., four nuclear weapon states and over 90% of global nuclear inventories—will need to play a central role. China and other key states will need to be engaged both on multilateral issues and within their own regions.

The continuing risk posed by nuclear weapons remains an overarching strategic problem, but the pace of work doesn't now match the urgency of the threat. The consequences of inaction are potentially catastrophic, and we must continue to ask: How will citizens react to the chaos and suffering of a nuclear attack? Won't they demand to know what could have been done to prevent this? Our age has stolen fire from the gods. Can we confine this awesome power to peaceful purposes before it consumes us?

Mr. Shultz was secretary of state from 1982-89. Mr. Perry was secretary of defense from 1994-97. Mr. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973-77. Mr. Nunn is a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. All are distinguished fellows or visiting distinguished fellows at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Read it in The Wall Street Journal.

Read the op-ed in Russian, Spanish, French, German, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese (PDFs).

Explore the Collection

Your are currently on

Stay Informed

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.

Sign Up

The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


My Resources