'Countdown to Zero' Renews Attention on Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Countdown to Zero panelists speaking in Washington, DC on July 30, 2010. (Szuhan Chen)

WASHINGTON, July 30, 2010 - U.S President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) this April, a major step in the further reduction of nuclear arms. What the new START Treaty implies, and the further challenges that lie ahead in what has has been dubbed "the Second Nuclear Age," were the substance of a panel discussion here by three experts on nuclear issues after a screening of Countdown to Zero, a new documentary on nuclear disarmament.

James Acton, an Associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that "the real significance of those treaties is not the defined terms of the US’s rights ... but the demonstrated willingness of the US and other weapon states to work on nuclear weapons, to work outside of the Grand Bargain.” The "Grand Bargain" is a concept whereby nuclear states cooperate to reduce their arsenals while simultaneously agreeing to prevent non-nuclear weapon states from gaining access to nuclear weapons technology. Instead of working within that framework, Acton proposes  to resolve the deficit of trust by creating a new global system of rules surrounding nuclear weapons that includes sanctions and stronger export controls.

Author of the Adelphi paper Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, Acton indicated that there are different interpretations of nuclear weapon abolition around the world. For example, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa tend to focus on disarmament, while their allies in START Treaty are more concerned with proliferation. The idea behind the international policy of abolition is a combination of both perspectives.

The director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, Jeffrey Lewis suggested that instead of arguing who is bad and who is good, "we should see [nuclear weapons] as a shared danger. They pose profound moral and even metaphysical questions of what it means to have the capacity to distinguish civil society.”

Lewis argued that John F. Kennedy's supposition that accidents, madness, and miscalculation still frame the threats that nuclear weapons pose today. "Today, those three concepts dominate a global view on nuclear weapons, discerning a challenge that should be approached through the process of 'cooperation, not confrontation'."

M. Scott Davis, Deputy Director of the Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs at the US State Department, sees the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the most universal arms control treaty in existence and as a departure from traditional US policy. He described the multiple benefits of the NPT, including the use of multilateral nuclear assurances and collective efforts to universally appease all countries present at the conferences. The balance between three pillars of the treaty—non-proliferation, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and disarmament—are crucial.

Reported by Szuhan Chen and Kaitlin McAndrews from Asia Society Washington Center.