Global Zero and Common Sense
No. 2 2010 April/June
Sergei A. Karaganov

Dr. Sc. (History),
Honorary Chairman,
Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy;
Academic Supervisor
of the Faculty of World Economics and World Politics
of the National Research University Higher School of Economics.
Moscow, Russia


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
ORCID: 0000-0003-1473-6249
ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 26025142400


Email: [email protected]
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Nuclear Weapons in the Modern World

This article is based on the material prepared for a Trilateral Commission meeting.

On the surface, the nuclear weapons situation has been developing quite successfully. Russia and the United States have signed a new strategic arms reduction treaty, sending a meaningful signal to the international community. The parties will eliminate the excessive stockpiles of strategic offensive armaments. The political effect of the treaty is obvious, too: the document normalizes relations between the two states, which facilitates further cooperation. The treaty provides a strong backing for the political positions of U.S. President Barack Obama, cast as the most constructive and progressive president in the past decades, and, possibly, in many years to come. Russia and the U.S. have resumed control over nuclear armaments, which the previous U.S. administration dismantled, and have agreed on a more transparent and predictable regime. The resumption of control over nuclear armaments is advantageous to Russia for political-psychological reasons, as it is the only field where this country maintains its superpower status.

The participants in the Washington nuclear summit reached accords on cooperation in limiting further proliferation of nuclear weapons and technologies that may be conducive to their acquisition. They reiterated the general approach regarding the need to jointly combat the potential nuclear terrorism. The summit proclaimed a number of commitments, such as renouncing further production of weapon-grade plutonium and taking out fissile materials. Russia and the U.S. are resuming cooperation to phase out the excessive fissile materials stockpiled in the past.

Of course, the signed accords are important, but the key point of the summit is the political-psychological effect that it makes: it creates the impression that the world leaders are ready to work together in the non-proliferation field.

Iran, which is seeking to come in possession of nuclear weapons or the capability to produce them, is likely to encounter a much tougher resistance to its plans. Although Tehran can hardly be stopped, the concerted international effort can limit its ambitions and opportunities, set a higher price for other such aspirants, and inhibit the possible chain reaction of nuclear proliferation in the region.

However, debates about the role of nuclear weapons in the modern and future world are only beginning. Regrettably, they are still based on the mentality and concepts inherited from the past, although the recent changes in the world have made it almost unrecognizable. Therefore, the adequacy of old concepts is to be challenged.


Just a reminder of these changes:

  • An unprecedented change in the correlation of economic powers in the world. The history has never known such a rapid redistribution of influence, and it is the crucial factor;
  • The climate change and the new industrial revolution have caused an increased competition for natural resources, water, food, and, hence, for territories. This competition will be stepping up while taking various forms;
  • An inevitable proliferation of nuclear weapons (which might be regulated by joint efforts at best) has apparently begun. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined the club of nuclear weapon states.
  • New challenges to international security have appeared, such as international terrorism, cyber crime, and piracy. The real impact of these threats is not clear yet;
  • The old world governance institutions – the UN, WTO and IMF – have weakened, while the new ones have been lagging behind in their development;
  • The role of nation states and regional blocs is reviving – to the detriment of the agencies and institutions of multi-party supranational governance. The European integration project seems to be unique for the present stage of history;
  •  The Euro-Atlantic space, including the former Soviet Union and the Old West, remains split, although not as deeply or antagonistically as during the Cold War years. In actual fact, the Cold War lingers.
  • NATO is seeking the position of the key element of military-political governance of the world, and has more reasons than anybody else to aspire to the role. Yet it notably lacks legitimacy, as it was severely compromised by the aggression against Yugoslavia and Iraq’s invasion by the U.S, the coalition leader, and its allies;
  • The growing security vacuums in a number of regions, including the Gulf and the Middle East, are exacerbating the situation;
  • A lack of understanding of the current developments, a sort of intellectual political chaos, aggravates the situation in the military-political sphere. It has changed dramatically, compared with the period of 1945-1990, when the West formulated the modern military-strategic theory, along with its basic concepts of deterrence, expanded deterrence, strategic stability, etc. But the concepts of European universal – one and indivisible – security and of “a common European home,” which have been brought forward to replace them, refuse to take root.

For lack of new concepts, old ones have been offered in the military-strategic field. For example, three years ago, four outstanding U.S. foreign and defense policy thinkers and policymakers – Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Schultz presented their idea of a nuclear free world, the “nuclear zero.”

Many snubbed the call, assuming it was the Americans’ ruse to make the world absolutely vulnerable to U.S. superiority in conventional armaments. But I felt respect for the initiative. Knowing those people, I am confident that their thinking could not be that primitive. In a bid to try and rid the world and their successors at top posts of the horrible moral dilemma – threatening to destruct millions for the sake of averting a war, or destructing these millions if the war is unleashed – these venerable intellectuals and politicians risked their reputation to stop the world from slipping to nuclear weapons proliferation. They devoted their whole lives to strengthening nuclear deterrence and U.S. nuclear potential. And now they called for giving up this very foundation of nuclear deterrence as immoral and unreliable.

The striving towards a world free of nuclear weapons was proclaimed an official objective of the U.S. policy by Barack Obama. Other world leaders, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, could not but support him, risking otherwise to be branded immoral retrogrades.

I must confess I met the request of many friends I respect and subscribed to the “nuclear zero” initiative. I regretted it upon learning that the seemingly innocent and highly moral idea evolved into a mass movement, presumably with a decent funding. Since the Communist times, I’ve been allergic to mass movements that set clearly utopian goals.

I believe this movement makes no sense. Nobody is going to give up nuclear weapons. Nor is it feasible – technically or politically. One might close the issue by offering a proof of this stance. But I must say that the anti-nuclear movement is harmful. Firstly, it may result in the reduction of nuclear armaments to a dangerous minimum, as it opens the Pandora’s Box of negotiations over the reduction of non-strategic nuclear armaments. Secondly, it distracts from the search for new ways of setting peace and stability in the new world.

The skeptical attitude to the idea of a nuclear-free world seems to be gaining momentum. Three years after the first article, the same “quartet” of U.S. politicians published a new one, calling for boosting the expenditure to strengthen the reliability and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and overhauling its infrastructure, without actually giving up the “nuclear zero” idea.

So far, I have had no opportunity to talk with any of these venerable colleagues of mine. Yet I see the reasons behind the appearance of the new initiative: the concern over the underfunding of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the recent years and its decreasing effectiveness, and the understanding that the nuclear proliferation genie is out of the bottle and that nobody is going to give up the nukes. U.S. superiority in non-nuclear arms after two political defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan does not look that convincing or intimidating any more. The Americans therefore will need to rely on nuclear deterrence, or intimidation, to use the old era term.

Soon after the “quartet” published its new article, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden (the herald of bad news in the incumbent administration) announced an increase in the expenditure to support and modernize the U.S. nuclear potential.

The United States delayed the release of the new nuclear doctrine, Nuclear Posture Review Report. It reduces the number of scenarios under which Washington might resort to use nuclear weapons first. The document renounces the development of new nuclear ammunition, but a closer look shows that it provides for the upgrades of nuclear ammunition components. This effectively implies the development of new nuclear ammunition. But no more fault-finding: the document looks positive.

The U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, released two months earlier, lists “mounting” missile threats – which, incidentally, have decreased by several times in the past few years. The list includes efforts by a number of states to enhance the protection of their missiles from pre-launch attack.

This is what really takes your breath away. And we in Russia scolded the Security Council Secretary for bringing forward the pre-emptive strike concept, which never found its way into the text of the military doctrine.


Thus, we are witnessing an increasing political instability, and worse, a tumult of minds.

I would call it a theoretically pre-war situation, as it has much in common with what we had before World War I. There is, however, one crucial difference showing that this is not the case, despite the tremendous redistribution of powers and a variety of destabilizing elements in the international system.

The main reason is the availability of the huge nuclear arsenals in Russia and the U.S. It makes the price of any conflict with a potential to escalate to the strategic level exorbitantly high. Another stabilizing factor is the availability of the nuclear potentials in China, France and Great Britain. Initially, the appearance of nukes in these countries by no means contributed to stability.

One can hardly conceive China’s skyrocketing economic upturn if there had been no Russian-U.S. nuclear parity in the world, which makes any full-blown war inadmissible due to the possibility of its escalation. I will remind that big-time players have been suppressing China’s development militarily for about 150 years. At present, this kind of policy appears unthinkable.

Now to the essence of the problem.

Obviously, nuclear weapons are immoral. An A-bomb is millions of times more immoral than a spear or sword, hundreds of thousands of times than a rifle, thousands of times than a machine gun, and hundreds of times than salvo systems or cluster bombs.

Yet nuclear weapons have a significant difference. Unlike other kinds of armaments, they are an effective means of preventing large-scale wars and mass destruction of people – something the humanity has engaged throughout its history with surprising perseverance, destroying peoples, countries and cultures.

I will cite a philosophical and moral argument in the face of the military and political considerations for keeping nuclear weapons. People used to destroy each other, entire nations and cultures with conventional weapons, when they still believed in God and feared Hell, which were basic concepts in every religion. There are far fewer believers now and still fewer fear Hell, but there have been no major conflicts in the world in the past sixty years. Europe has lived in peace – despite the Cold War, the hardest ideological, military and geopolitical competition in its history. All previous confrontations ended up in wars. The relative peace in Europe and a majority of the regions has endured for sixty years not because humanity has become better. And not because the leading states have created a “concert of nations” as they did in the early 19th century. There has been no “concert.” On the contrary, there has been the hardest confrontation, offset only by the fear of a nuclear war, that is, total annihilation. The world has survived only thanks to the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over it. 

To reject nuclear weapons and strive towards their elimination is a moral thing. But one has to realize that this goal can and should be reached only if the man and humanity changes. Apparently, the “nuclear zero” advocates believe that such a change is possible. But I still think otherwise.

I spent many days studying declassified documents of the U.S. leadership of the 1940s-1960s. Then I talked with many former Soviet leaders. I dare claim and am ready to prove that nuclear weapons were the greatest “civilizing tool” for these elites. They cleansed their ranks of all radicals and ideologists, and strengthened the pragmatists who saw their main goal in averting a nuclear war or the clashes which had the potential to escalate to a nuclear conflict.

Admittedly, the Caribbean crisis was the last episode when the U.S. and the Soviet Union could clash and de-facto threatened each other with nuclear weapons. When the U.S. army, including its strategic forces, went on alert during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Nixon administration did everything to set the Moscow leaders at ease. They offered them firsthand assurances that the condition of alert was for domestic needs.

Of course, the emergence of new states possessing nuclear weapons, especially such unstable ones as Pakistan, increases the possibility of a nuclear conflict. But this problem cannot be resolved by disarming the established nuclear powers.

Theoretically, disarmament can lower the risk of nuclear weapons getting into terrorists’ hands or of an unauthorized nuclear war. Both these risks are infinitesimal and continue to diminish, especially in the established nuclear weapon states. They can only increase if uncontrolled proliferation continues as new nuclear weapon states appear.

Nuclear deterrence, a threat to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions, is a concept that does not fit into traditional morals. Yet it has worked, preventing wars and the murder of thousands and millions, while making people more civilized and cautious. When nuclear deterrence weakened due to Russia’s political decline – which very nearly came to collapse – NATO, a defensive union of democratic and peaceful states, committed an aggression against Yugoslavia. Now that Russia has restored its capability such a move would be unthinkable. 


As for nuclear disarmament myths, a popular assumption is that if large states do not show an example of their own – as the non-proliferation treaty requires – they have no moral right to demand non-proliferation from other countries. This argument is a challenge both to history and common sense. The largest proliferation occurred when the Soviet Union (Russia) and the U.S. were cutting their armaments at a fast rate in the 1970s throughout the 1990s. At that time Israel, India and Pakistan came in possession of nuclear weapons. Also, one can hardly claim that North Korea acquired nuclear weapons because of a pause  in Russian-U.S. nuclear disarmament.

Countries are seeking to possess nuclear weapons not because others do not disarm in line with the non-proliferation treaty, but because they wish to strengthen their security, ensure the survival of the regime (as in North Korea), and bolster their international status. After the attacks on non-nuclear Yugoslavia and Iraq, which went unpunished, it became plain hypocrisy to argue that it would be best for the states that feel endangered not to acquire nuclear weapons. (The often-cited example of Libya, which gave up its alleged nuclear weapons after the Iraqi campaign, proves nothing because it remains unclear what really happened at that time.) The only thing that can help is a set of reliable security guarantees and the guaranteed and complete renouncement of any offensive actions by all large states. Would an effective international treaty on collective security be possible?

Another myth is that a nuclear arms race provokes a race of conventional armaments. Indeed, this was the case during the first Cold War years, especially with the thoughtless and uncontrolled Soviet leadership. But then nuclear armaments became a formidable factor curbing this race. The West’s nuclear weapons compensated for the Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe. At present, the Russian nuclear weapons in Europe compensate for the formal numerical superiority of NATO forces.

Were it not for the powerful nuclear (especially tactical) armaments, many in Russia would be alarmed over the growing potential of the Chinese general-purpose armed forces, and the specifics of certain military exercises whose scenarios include offensives stretching to hundreds and even more than one thousand kilometers.

Nuclear weapons, which defy any superiority to conventional armaments, curb the race towards achieving this superiority, or make it politically senseless. They decrease the role of the military factor in international relations. This is what the U.S. encountered in the recent years, facing its inability to convert its tremendous non-nuclear superiority over the entire world into political influence.

The idea of cutting nuclear arsenals to minimal levels is also questionable. In a nearly perfect world, Russia and the U.S. would hardly need large nuclear stockpiles. But cutting nuclear weapons to a bare minimum in the present conditions would give a considerable advantage for small countries that would have their nuclear potentials on a par with larger states. This would give a stimulus for a world-wide destabilizing nuclear arms race.

Giving nuclear guarantees to other states, the so-called “extended nuclear deterrence,” would curb the arms race, ease the reciprocal fears of many states (above all in Europe), and decrease the role of force in politics. Therefore, cutting the nuclear stockpiles in large states even to minimal levels can only bring back the old fears and add to the existing instability. Some noted European and Russian political analysts suggest eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe or reduce them to a minimum. In actual fact, these weapons do not give the reason for concern to anyone. But if we begin talks, we’ll open another Pandora’s Box.

Since Russia has many more such armaments than the U.S., though far fewer than before, it is Russia that will need to pledge bigger cuts. Perhaps, Russia does need to reduce these arsenals. But if it does it under pressure, it will certainly come into the open that nuclear weapons psychologically compensate for NATO’s non-nuclear superiority in Europe (which is fictitious because NATO is not a combat-capable alliance). But NATO, too, used to be scared and tried to compensate with its nuclear armaments for the superiority of a not very battleworthy Warsaw Pact.

If it comes to the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons, the opponents to the ongoing military reform in Russia will have more reasons to argue against re-orienting the conventional armed forces from confrontation with NATO to flexible response to any potential threats.

And if the U.S. pulls out its symbolic tactical nukes from Europe, the strategic U.S.-European liaison will weaken. Many Europeans, above all in new EU member-states, will be demanding more protection from the mythical Russian Leviathan.

After the U.S. gave up the absolutely senseless but provocative missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, part of the elites of those countries resented the move, assuming they had been sidelined. Then the Americans installed several air and missile defense systems of the previous generation in Poland. Now it was Russia’s turn to challenge the expediency of the move. Thus, remilitarization of thinking and confusion are gaining momentum.

In theory, reducing nuclear weapons to the minimum may enhance the usefulness of missile defense systems and their destabilizing role. Even the non-strategic missile defense systems whose deployment could be tentatively useful will be questioned.

Conventional weaponry may be another Pandora’s Box. This is what ageing arms control specialists in the U.S., Russia and Europe are calling for, in a bid to return Europe to the times of their youth.

Reducing conventional armaments was a challenge to common sense. It created an artificial and anti-historical idea about a balance of forces in Europe, where 300 Spartans held off a 100,000-strong Persian army, and Napoleon smashed the larger armies with surprising consistency. Previous talks militarized the European policy for years. Do we wish a repeat scenario? Not even as a farce, but as a caricature of farce?

Instead of addressing a real problem, namely the increasingly unstable international situation, including in the military-political field, the world community, having lost the strategic reference points, is trying to apply the old instruments of the Cold War era to the new situation. At best, they are marginally useful or even useless, and at worst, they are simply harmful.

For example, the Obama administration, in an attempt to normalize U.S.-Russian relations and win Russia’s support of its policy in Iran and Afghanistan, offered Moscow to “reset” their relations by preparing a new treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive armaments – which had not been of much concern to either party for a long time. The real irritant of Russian-U.S. relations is America’s unwillingness to acknowledge Russia’s right to a zone of its own security interests. It nearly resulted in direct confrontation in August 2008, when Georgia attacked South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers, and Moscow gave a tough response, aiming at the logic of NATO’s endless expansion. This occurred amidst the constant expansion of the U.S. zone of not so much security interests as of influence – if not domination – in the military-political field, the most sensitive to Russia.

Russia agreed to the “resetting” by means of a new treaty. The parties have signed, and, hopefully, will ratify it. But in general, the document will not resolve any major problem these countries or the international community are facing.


One can continue to cite examples of this “strategic turmoil” and the inability to offer adequate answers to the questions which the modern world and the future are raising.

What can be done to give an adequate response to these challenges? Obviously, we should not clutch at old recipes and institutions as we have been doing so far. Anticipating future trends, we should build new institutions to fit into the new reality.

In the field of political governance, the UN should be supplemented not so much by the increasingly ineffective G8, as close cooperation between the real future leaders – the U.S. and China. New great powers, including Russia, too (provided it proves its capability to remain the third largest player, possibly by uniting with Europe into a political union) may find themselves among the leaders.

In the trade and economic sphere, there is no need to stick to the old WTO, no matter how useful it might be. Instead, we have to try to regulate the situation with mushrooming regional trade-economic associations. We should not swim against the current, but channel it.

In the military-strategic field, we have to think about how to live in the world with an expanding club of nuclear states, while keeping it relatively stable. To this end, the two great nuclear powers need a coordinated joint policy of deterrence with regard to new nuclear states. Simultaneously, they should offer guarantees to non-nuclear states that might feel insecure. In the first place, it is necessary to fill in the increasing security gaps in the Middle East. China, the world’s second strategic player, might join this policy, although at present it ranks third in the military-strategic terms.

Lastly, it is necessary to determine the role of nuclear weapons and put an end to the beautiful and very pleasant myths as to how well everybody will be faring in a nuclear-free world.

I have elaborated on the above arguments from the position of a “supra-national” specialist – as far as I conceive it.

Now, I will tell my opinion as a Russian. My country is in a very difficult geopolitical situation. Its modernization is thwarted by ubiquitous corruption and the wish of the population and the elite to “relax” from the burden of Communism and the ensuing revolution. The country lacks “soft power.” In the present situation, it would be a suicide to renounce the support of a powerful nuclear – including tactical – potential, which is the main guarantor of its security and the crucial source of its political and even economic positions in world competition.

Of course, Russians are superb idealists: twice did they things that were nothing short of suicide – in 1917, when they tried to realize one of Europe’s worst utopias, Communism, and paid for the attempt with dozens of millions of lives. Another suicidal move occurred in 1991, when they decided to put an end to Communism and become a democratic and capitalist country overnight. They readily paid for it with the breakup of the country which earlier was called the Russian Empire, and very nearly broke up Russia itself by the end of the 1990s.

At present, I can see no such idealism among my fellow citizens.

One might go on with wonderful tales of the “nuclear zero” while keeping it in mind that Russians will never let it happen. But these talks are distracting us from a creative joint search for a useful place for ineluctable nuclear weapons in a future dangerous world, which holds much new and unpredictable in store.

Arms control talks are mostly needed to make the situation in this field more transparent, and also to build confidence between the great powers and their ability to work together. Yet most importantly, it is necessary to launch an international discussion about the role of military force, including nuclear weapons, in the contemporary world. This world differs dramatically from the world of last centuries which we got accustomed to and which created nuclear weapons and the basic concepts to control or limit them. Such a discussion might end with an understanding that “nuclear zero” is not just a myth, but a harmful myth, and that nuclear weapons are a good asset designed to save the humanity from itself.