Reykjavik: The Vision Not Realized

The following is the second in a series of guest posts from graduate students reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Rekyavik.

In Reykjavik, Iceland, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev held the first serious international talks to eliminate nuclear weapons. Unable to reach an agreement in Reykjavik, a year later Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev signed the INF treaty eliminating all mid-range nuclear missiles.

In the 25 years since the Reykjavik Summit, the U.S. and Russia have eliminated 75% of their nuclear arsenals; still a frightening 17,000 warheads from zero. More frighteningly, according to President Obama, “The risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”

A nuclear terrorist attack is the single greatest threat to the American homeland. The inability to “return to sender” of non-state actors negates the traditional means of nuclear deterrence. The martyr mentality of religious extremism compounds the difficulty. If the intelligence community can attribute responsibility with actionable certainty, covert or military action to avenge the attack will lionize the perpetrator and justify the fight against the evil Americans.

In 40 countries, “Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound.” Several nuclear governments are instable or provide questionable security for nuclear materials. All factors increasing the likelihood of a nuclear terror attack. Antiterrorism and counterproliferation are not the same; they are separate issues with separate strategies. However, the simple fact is: terrorists without nuclear weapons cannot conduct nuclear attacks. That’s why the best defense against nuclear terrorism is the elimination of the weapons terrorists would use.

Critics argue that global zero opens the door for the Irans and North Koreas of the world to become the only nuclear power. Certainly. But nuclear weapons are no longer the supreme realization of military power. Many states, including the U.S., can employ massive conventional capability to a wide range of security challenges. The overwhelming U.S. conventional force can act as a nuclear deterrent and continue to provide positive security assurance to NATO and Israel, without a nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, the U.S. can better maintain and upgrade its conventional military superiority without the crushing financial burden of maintaining a decaying nuclear stockpile.

In the 25 years since the Reykjavik Summit, the global stockpile has reduced 74%. But nuclear security remains a problem, with three volatile or unstable nuclear states: India, Pakistan and North Korea. One more, Iran is closing in on the bomb

Alan R. Fowler, a 12-year military veteran, is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.