5,113 Nuclear Weapons — No Downside To Disclosing

The Obama administration yesterday at the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference announced for the first time the number of bombs in the US nuclear arsenal. As of September last year, the US possesses 5,113 nuclear weapons. This is a 75 percent reduction since the Berlin Wall fell. But why disclose? Frankly, because there was no downside.

Some conservatives are predictably going to complain that this further eliminates “nuclear ambiguity” and no longer keeps our adversaries from guessing. This is absurd. An NGO, the Federation of American Scientists, estimated that the US had 5,200 nuclear weapons — they were off by 87! The fact is that there was both little reason to keep this number classified and that any intelligence agency worth its salt basically knew the size our nuclear number.

So why disclose? Because (as the chart shows) the United States has been dramatically reducing its nuclear stockpile — and thereby living up to its nuclear disarmament commitments under the NPT — without getting any credit for doing so. Furthermore, the announcement by Secretary Clinton effectively knee-capped one of the main arguments that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made in his speech yesterday that the US was not living up to its disarmament commitments. Well, that is simply not true.

Not only is the United States under the Obama administration taking steps to make nuclear reductions — as seen by the New START agreement, the reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in US defense strategy, as well as its desire to enter an even more far reaching discussions with Russia — but this disclosure confirms that President Bush, despite initial efforts to build more usable nukes, was a significant nuclear arms cutter. The US nuclear arsenal was cut in more than half from 10,526 in 2001 to 5,273 in 2008. The problem, however, was that the Bush administration did not get any credit internationally for making these cuts. In fact, the last NPT review conference was effectively torpedoed by the neglect and disdain of the Bush administration.


But at this review conference (they happen once every five years), the Obama administration is actually trying to strengthen the NPT. So by declassifying the number, the US has just demonstrated that both Republican and Democratic administrations have lessened America’s reliance on nuclear weapons and have largely lived up to its NPT commitments. Marc Ambinder points out that:

It is more than a symbolic gesture because the U.S.’s refusal to acknowledge the number of weapons it has has been regularly given as an excuse for why other countries aren’t fulfilling their international obligations. The reality is that the U.S. stockpile now is smaller than its been since the Eisenhower administration. … Problem is, the U.S. has claimed to be reducing its stockpile since the end of the Cold War, but it hasn’t been able to back up its claims because the intelligence community refused to declassify details about the stockpile.

By demonstrating our commitment to the treaty, we are now better placed to push for stronger verification and enforcement measures — such as giving the International Atomic Energy Agency’s nuclear inspectors greater authority and access when conducting inspections and increased penalties for countries that pull out of the treaty, which would be useful against Iran and other potential proliferators.

Yet conservatives, like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens live in some sort of incoherent fantasy world, in which the US should just dismiss multilateral institutions, tear up the NPT, and idly accept the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the formation of a new “nuclear age.” The fact is that conservatives have no idea how to stop the nuclear proliferation dam from breaking, because this can’t be done unilaterally.

Instead, it requires fortifying the existing multilateral non-proliferation regime. Now the NPT has its problems — as all institutions do. But it is widely credited with reducing the incentives for countries to go nuclear and has helped stave off the flood of nuclear proliferation. As the Arms Control Association notes:

Rather than the dozens of nuclear-armed states that were forecast before the NPT entered into force in 1970, only four additional countries (India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea) have nuclear weapons today, and taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has grown stronger.

The existence of the NPT has also enabled the world to almost fully isolate North Korea. Contrary to much of the chatter on the right, almost no country wants to be like North Korea — nuclear armed and starving. Instead of insanely letting the nuclear dam break, we should do everything possible to reinforce it.