Ivo Daalder on Press the Button

The One Reason to Have Nukes

The former ambassador to NATO on how to think about nuclear weapons


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Ivo Daalder knows one step the United States can take on its march towards a nuclear-free world. 

It’s stunningly simple: “You need to decide what you want for deterrence.” 

Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama. He sat down with Joe Cirincione to talk about how the next US president should think about nuclear weapons policy. 

Removing the obsession with parity —or matching the Russians warhead for warhead  — is a good start. “Parity may matter from a political perspective, but it shouldn’t be the driving force,” said Daalder. “What we really needed in 2009 [when the New START Treaty was under negotiation] was to maintain the verification, data exchange, and transparency regime which was about to expire. And rather than focusing on the 1,550 [warheads], how do we maintain that edifice?” 

It all ties back into how you envision progress on nuclear weapons. Obama was different, said Daalder, not because he was the first president to believe in a world without nuclear weapons, but because his approach was aspirational and operational. Indeed, his first major foreign policy speech in April 2009 in Prague was about this idea of global zero. 

“So, part of what we tried to do is put meat on the bones of that statement,” said Daalder. “What does that really mean? How do you get to it? What are the issues? Why is this important?”

This line of thinking brought Obama’s team to their big idea — “sole purpose.” 

“The ‘sole purpose’ of possessing nuclear weapons is to prevent their use by others. If there's another purpose - if it's to prevent conventional or, or weapons-of-mass-destruction use, for example - then a world without nuclear weapons might still be one where you want to keep them, even if others don't,” explained Daalder. “But if the only purpose, the sole purpose is to prevent their use by others, if others don't have them, then you don't need them either.”

The implementation of sole purpose would have dramatically reshaped US nuclear policy. “It means you can have much more limited forces,” said Daalder. “You can think about your operational status in a different way. It might include a no-first-use policy… and probably eliminates the triad.” 

And, perhaps most importantly, it can be done unilaterallly. A president could enact it with a swipe of their pen. Obama didn’t get to sole purpose, Daalder explained, in part because he wanted a new arms control agreement with the Russians more. 

This was the Obama team's big mistake: starting with an arms control treaty and not disarmament. 

They’re different, said Daalder. “Arms control is about managing a conflictual relationship between two entities… and stabilizing the relationship between the two. That is not the right framework if you want to get rid of nuclear weapons.”

And Russia was not the right target, either.  When he wrote the article “The Logic of Zero” with Jan Lodal, “We explicitly said, ‘Do not start with Russia because they need to maintain nuclear weapons. They’re going to be the most difficult to convince to give them up because it’s the only thing that makes them a power. And what did we do? We start with Russia.” 

The key benefit of arms control isn’t that it locks you into parity with a nuclear adversary, argued Daalder. To focus on simply counting warheads misses the point. 

“New START is extremely important frankly less because of the limits and more because of the inspection and verification regimes. It gives you insight and confidence,” said Daalder. “You want confidence building. You want the confidence that comes from knowing what the other side might do.” 

But some of that confidence needs to come from the president, including the conviction to lead in cutting excess nuclear forces. “You make that declaration. You then give real guidance to both the Defense Department, on the military side and the civilian side,” said Daalder. 

“The going-in position is not whether we should have sole purpose, which was what it was in the Obama administration,” he continued, “but now that we have sole purpose as the reason for our nuclear weapons, what does that mean operationally?”

Daalder has key recommendations on timing, on nuclear posture, on staffing and more. Listen to the rest of the interview here.

About Press the Button: in addition to "The Interview" in which Joe Cirincione sits down with prominent thinkers, legislators, activists, and grantees working on nuclear weapons issues for a short, illuminating conversation, episodes have two other segments: "Early Warning" — a round-up of the most pressing nuclear news in 7 minutes, roughly the same amount of time the US president has to authorize a nuclear weapons launch in the event of an incoming attack on the United States; and "In the Silo" — a monthly, close-up look at key nuclear issues and events around the world, utilizing field recordings, media clips, interviews, and extensive narration.



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