The successful negotiation of the TPNW increased the polarization within the international community between supporters and opponents of the campaign to prohibit nuclear weapons. Against this worrisome background, Lewis Dunn's excellent essay seeks to identify a practical way forward to address the gap between nuclear-dependent countries and NNWS and to find a commonly acceptable middle ground to promote nuclear disarmament.1

The proposal to achieve strategic elimination of nuclear weapons by 2045 is a logical step toward accomplishing the ultimate goal of the complete physical abolition of nuclear weapons.

Tong Zhao
Tong Zhao is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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A long-term vision

For the NPT NWS, one potential obstacle to committing to the goal of strategic elimination by 2045 is that they still have doubts about the desirability of the ultimate goal of complete physical abolition. From the perspective of safeguarding security, the NWS remain concerned that the complete physical abolition of nuclear weapons by all nuclear-armed countries will undermine their national-security interests and those of their allies and will negatively affect regional or global stability. There are concerns that, without nuclear weapons, conventional wars would be more likely to break out. It would be more difficult for small countries with inferior military capabilities to deter and defend against aggression and for major powers to maintain stability among themselves. Major powers such as Russia and China, whose conventional capabilities are among the very best in the world but are inferior to those of the United States, worry that they would be disadvantaged in a nuclear-weapon-free world.

In terms of the efforts required, as Dunn points out, the cost of achieving strategic elimination would be lower than achieving physical abolition. But he also acknowledges that “[v]irtually all of the same conditions that are lacking for complete physical abolition would need to be put in place to realize strategic elimination.” Achieving strategic elimination would require the NWS to make fundamental changes to the existing security paradigm with regard to how they would defend their (and their allies') security in the future and how they would manage their security relations with other countries. This would likely entail enormous costs in terms of developing new security strategies, shifting the focus of military hardware procurement, restructuring their defense industries, and reforming regional and international security institutions to adapt to a world that no longer relied on responsive nuclear forces to maintain peace and stability. Moreover, this process, once started, would be highly costly to reverse, given all the required changes in security policy, military operation, size of nuclear arsenals, alliance planning, and infrastructure and institutions.

Realistically speaking, the NWS need to be convinced of the desirability of the end goal of physical abolition before they can even agree to take on the enormous difficulties of creating conditions for achieving the less demanding goal of strategic elimination. So far, there is little evidence that the NWS share this goal. President Barack Obama's “Prague agenda” has been thrown into doubt by the Donald J. Trump administration and was never fully embraced by other NWS or their security allies.

One positive effect of the TPNW is that it has added a sense of urgency and may press the NWS to think seriously about these issues, including the desirability of the goal of physical abolition. There are already positive results in this respect, and experts are now calling for serious discussions on creating a practical disarmament blueprint.2

Without the pressure created by the TPNW, such initial steps might not have happened.

The TPNW, however, does not include a timeline for its states parties to engage with the NWS. Thus, the 2045 deadline for achieving an interim milestone, as proposed by Dunn, serves the purpose of introducing some time pressure on the NWS to face up to and seriously think about these deep issues. Such pressure is necessary to overcome bureaucratic inertia and to challenge deeply embedded groupthink within the security establishment within each of the NWS.

There are important arguments that can prove the desirability of a nuclear-free world but have not been sufficiently understood. For example, people tend to separate the possession of nuclear weapons from the existence of major security problems among countries. They believe that there exist in the world bad regimes and serious security problems, and that nuclear weapons are needed to contain and manage them. However, they seem to underestimate that, in many cases, efforts to maintain nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence have themselves created serious international-security problems. The constant offense–defense competition around nuclear weapons generates much fear and distrust. To some extent, the possession of nuclear weapons creates the greatest threat perception and hostility between countries.

In the long run, as economies have developed and the average standard of living has dramatically increased in most countries since World War II, people's tolerance of suffering major losses of life and damage to their property and environment appears to have dropped considerably. This increasing appreciation of the value of life is an indicator of a more civilized society. At the same time, it means there is less need to rely on the threat to kill hundreds of thousands of people to maintain peace. If this trend continues, the consequences of even a conventional war that would cost many fewer human lives may become unacceptable to most societies. In that case, using nuclear weapons as weapons of deterrence would be overkill, and conventional weapons may be increasingly capable of replacing nuclear weapons in this role.

Some societies may already be moving in this direction. But the continued retention of nuclear deterrence and the lingering threat of potentially killing hundreds of thousands of people make the potential loss of fewer lives in a conventional war look comparatively acceptable. In this sense, the retention of nuclear weapons is delaying a progressive transformation toward a more advanced and civilized state of international relations in which countries no longer need to rely on nuclear weapons to maintain peace and stability. Furthermore, as the stability–instability paradox illustrates, mutual nuclear deterrence assures both parties that neither will launch a nuclear war and therefore they don’t need to worry too much about the risk of nuclear wars.3

This could actually encourage countries to behave more assertively at the conventional military level and thus increase the chances of conventional wars breaking out. In contrast, in a society where nuclear weapons were no longer present and the general public had become more appreciative of human lives, governments would be more cautious about initiating a conventional conflict.

For the NWS, the greatest obstacle to self-restraint in maintaining and modernizing their nuclear arsenals and to the implementation of a program of true disarmament is the tendency to conduct worst-case-scenario thinking. There are always extreme military scenarios in which even the most conventionally powerful country could find the use of nuclear weapons helpful, let alone those countries with much weaker and smaller conventional forces. When it comes to national-security matters, worst-case-scenario thinking prevents security strategists from taking any risk in preparing for extreme scenarios under which they think the use of nuclear weapons would be necessary, however unlikely such scenarios might be in practice. On the other hand, people tend to ignore the fact that the peace and stability provided by nuclear deterrence is not risk-free. The risk of nuclear deterrence failing to work always exists, and the consequences of such a failure would be catastrophic. In addition, there are risks of accidental nuclear launches due to technical or human errors. Close calls of this type have happened more than once in history.

Ultimately, the decision to abolish nuclear weapons cannot be absolutely risk-free in terms of its potential implications for national security. If there is no willingness to take any risk in this process, nuclear disarmament will never be achieved. But, given the inherent security risks of using nuclear weapons to maintain peace and stability, there may be a strong argument for taking some risks to achieve the abolition of those weapons. This argument would have to overcome bureaucratic inertia and the tendency to preserve the status quo. Without some serious external pressure, particularly from a clearly stipulated deadline, the NWS will never willingly embrace the necessary risks or even conduct the necessary deep thinking about such fundamental issues. The Prohibition Treaty and Dunn's proposal for achieving strategic elimination in the medium-term future introduce such needed pressure.

In addition, nuclear disarmament is not only a security argument; it is a moral argument, too. The reason China adopted an unconditional no-first-use (NFU) policy as early as 1964 was not that NFU offered the maximum security benefits for China. Given the inferiority of China's conventional military forces at that time and the serious conventional military threat it faced, China had every reason to maintain the option of using nuclear weapons to deter not only nuclear attacks but also conventional attacks. But, in addition to wanting to create a positive international image of their country and to reduce international criticism, the Chinese top leaders' adoption of unconditional NFU at that time was also motivated by a sense of moral responsibility to use nuclear weapons only for retaliating against nuclear attacks. Research shows that moral considerations did play an important role in China's nuclear decision making during the Cold War.4

There is no reason to argue that moral considerations should not continue to be part of nuclear decision making in the future.

Countries have moral obligations to look beyond narrow military and security interests. This moral obligation only increases as human society advances. The TPNW highlights the moral argument over nuclear weapons. Dunn's essay reinforces that long-term vision and seeks to provide a practical pathway to fulfill our collective moral obligation.

International challenges

Dunn mentions that the “development of shared concepts of strategic stability” would be an important enabler of strategic elimination. There has been some progress in this regard among the major nuclear powers. For example, the Obama administration undertook such an initiative to promote strategic stability with China, and the two countries conducted regular bilateral dialogues at various official and unofficial levels to pursue this goal. The United States and Russia, despite their political disputes, have recently kicked off a series of “strategic stability talks.”5

 But, in general, the progress is still limited and major challenges remain. Deep and long-standing strategic distrust, which has seriously obstructed efforts to enhance strategic stability and contain strategic competition, presents the greatest and most fundamental challenge to the far more ambitious objective of achieving strategic elimination.

There is lack of trust among the NPT NWS, and especially among the United States, Russia, and China; none of them believes that that the others are serious about pursuing nuclear disarmament. President Obama's commendable commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons and his subsequent efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons inspired many people. But he also pursued a massive nuclear modernization program in tandem with the disarmament agenda; his administration continued to invest in non-nuclear military technologies that would secure the US military advantage in a nuclear-free world. As a result, most decision makers and security strategists in Moscow and Beijing appear to have dismissed Obama's disarmament initiative as insincere, empty, unrealistic, and even deliberately deceptive.6

With Obama's presidency ended, even that limited accomplishment quickly got lost with a new administration in the White House.

Russia and China have always suspected that the United States has a persistent interest in—and even policy of—pursuing and ultimately obtaining a capability to achieve nuclear primacy. American scholars who argue that the United States indeed may be technically capable of denying its adversaries a credible nuclear-retaliation capability further reinforce the Russian and Chinese suspicions.7

Such deep distrust, coupled with the growing impact of new non-nuclear technologies, makes it almost impossible to prevent strategic competition. As Dunn suggests, to achieve strategic elimination, “missile defenses and long-range conventional-strike missile systems would be regulated and, as required, limited or eliminated.” I find this an extremely challenging mission. The serious dispute over the deployment of one missile defense battery, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in South Korea demonstrates how the political distrust among the relevant parties—in this case, China and the United States—can lead to fundamentally divergent understandings of technical issues, which then contribute to greater political distrust. THAAD does not even count as a strategic missile-defense system. Imagine what greater disputes will emerge as the ground-based interceptors and Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIA systems are deployed in increasing numbers and with greater capabilities to threaten intercontinental ballistic missiles. Beyond that, one must take into consideration the possibility of major technology breakthroughs, such as the multi-object kill vehicle and laser interceptors, which may fundamentally challenge the existing offense–defense balance.8

Admittedly, these technologies and capabilities have not materialized—and may never materialize—but they already create major threat perceptions as a result of deep distrust. Repeated efforts by Washington and Moscow to address concerns about missile defense have failed to produce tangible results. It is hard to imagine that similar dialogue between Washington and Beijing—if there is mutual interest in starting such dialogue—could mitigate the concerns and the distrust in the near term.

If the deep distrust persists—as it likely will—it is difficult to see how the United States, Russia, and China could agree to set of unilateral or cooperative transparency and verification measures that would effectively remove their concerns about one another. The emergence of new and more advanced non-nuclear technologies that can threaten nuclear weapons or their related systems is exacerbating the challenge. Some non-nuclear technologies—such as the cyber technologies that the US government has reportedly used against North Korea's missile command-and-control systems and in theory also could use against Russia and China—are technically difficult to verify.9

The potential threat from such technologies also dissuades NWS from being sufficiently transparent about the operation of their nuclear forces to achieve strategic elimination. The question of how to provide confidence to both NWS and NNWS that nuclear weapons had been strategically, operationally, and institutionally eliminated remains to be answered.

Operationally, the strategic-elimination proposal may have an asymmetric impact on different countries. Dunn proposes, for example, that “Most missile and aircraft systems dedicated to the delivery of nuclear weapons would have been eliminated or transformed for non-nuclear missions; the remaining systems once so dedicated would be taken off alert if not retained only in a semi-mothballed status.” Although many nuclear-delivery systems are dedicated to nuclear strike missions, there are also dual-use systems. China, in particular, has deployed more than one type of dual-use road-mobile ballistic missile. The Dongfeng-26 (DF-26) intermediate-range ballistic missiles, for instance, can deliver both nuclear and various conventional warheads; the nuclear and conventional warheads reportedly have exactly “the same missile body.”10

Therefore, the missile can change between nuclear and conventional warheads quickly, depending on the specific battlefield requirement. Under the strategic-elimination concept, this could present a difficult problem for the other NWS. If China continued to deploy conventionally armed dual-use missiles, the other NWS might worry that Beijing would have a significant advantage in regaining a nuclear-strike capability quickly and easily. But should China completely mothball its dual-use missiles and their transporter-erector-launchers, its conventional military-strike capability would be considerably affected, which is not the intention of Dunn's proposal.11

Operational issues such as these could create additional difficulties for countries as they sought to agree on how to implement the proposal and satisfactorily address all parties' security concerns.

Bilateral dialogue and exchanges may, in the long run, slowly and incrementally reduce some of these concerns. However, my research about such dialogue—especially at the unofficial level where most of the exchange takes place—makes me less optimistic than many about the impact of such dialogue on substantially enhancing mutual trust in the near to medium term.12

Without greatly increased trust, it may be extremely challenging to achieve strategic elimination by 2045.

Moreover, achieving strategic elimination also requires much-enhanced trust among other players. For instance, greater trust is needed between the United States and its allies for them to jointly agree to abandon extended nuclear deterrence without undermining their alliance relationship. Greater trust also is needed between Japan and China for Japan to feel comfortable living with China, which has an increasingly superior conventional military capability and is becoming less reluctant to use this power to defend its territorial claims. If one looks beyond the NPT's NWS, greater trust is certainly required between India and its archrival, Pakistan, which now depends on a rapidly responsive nuclear force to deter conventional invasion. And there is the North Korean nuclear problem, without the resolution of which it is hard to imagine Washington agreeing to strategically eliminate its nuclear weapons or that Seoul and Tokyo would agree that Washington should do so.

Domestic challenges

Domestic factors within the major NWS also make a significant difference for the prospects of promoting disarmament. During his presidency, Obama played a critical role in promoting self-restraint in the US nuclear posture and in helping revitalize the international disarmament agenda. In contrast, the “peace through strength” doctrine of President Trump sets an example for all countries to strengthen their own military capabilities to achieve their own versions of “peace.” The spirit of empathy, self-restraint, and cooperative security has been thoroughly abandoned. This has international repercussions far beyond US borders.

China, for example, has long suspected that the United States has never really been interested in promoting nuclear disarmament. Trump's peace-through-strength doctrine and casual statements about “greatly strengthen[ing] and expand[ing]” US nuclear capabilities reinforce China's growing domestic sentiment that international politics is power politics and that nuclear disarmament is not the trend.13

This declining interest in disarmament issues has deepened in response to the new US administration, reflecting a shift in Chinese doctrine from Tao Guang Yang Hui (Keep a Low Profile) to Fen Fa You Wei (Strive for Achievement). And, as attention to disarmament wanes at the top, operational-level officials are, consequently, decreasingly motivated to promote disarmament agendas. At the same time, after decades of investment in programs to develop and build nuclear weapons and delivery systems, vested bureaucratic interests start to kick in. Given what China has achieved and continues to achieve, it is ever harder to imagine that the military, the defense-scientific industry, and other domestic stakeholders will be enthusiastic about promoting disarmament. If there is no serious and influential internal promoter of disarmament, disarmament will not happen.

In addition, in recent years and decades, China's thinking on nuclear posture has been increasingly influenced by Western—and especially US—nuclear thinking. Traditional Chinese postures and practices that are more moderate and self-restrained are under increasing challenge from some military experts, who would like to see China follow the US example in developing a more operationally responsive nuclear force based on a strong nuclear triad. The construction of a strategic early-warning system and a possible shift to a “launch-on-warning” posture appear to be moving in the opposite direction of the de-operationalization and strategic elimination of nuclear weapons. Some Chinese nuclear-modernization programs—such as the new long-range strategic bomber program—seem increasingly driven by resources and technology, rather than strategic necessity.

With Beijing's 2015 decision to officially upgrade the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Second Artillery—which operates China's nuclear missiles—to a full military service (renaming it the PLA Rocket Force), it is hard to argue that the role of nuclear weapons is decreasing. In recent years, some nationalist Chinese media outlets have openly called for China not to “hesitate to strengthen strategic nuclear capabilities” and to gradually match the nuclear capabilities of the United States.14

Such calls reveal an underlying belief within at least some corners of the Chinese general public that China needs more-powerful nuclear forces, not because of specific security considerations but because such capabilities would win China international “respect” and contribute to strategic stability by making others less likely to pick a fight with China.15

Such sentiments and developments present little evidence that the domestic environment in some key NWS is conducive to moving toward the strategic elimination of nuclear weapons in the near- to medium-term future.

A similar dynamic seems to be happening in Russia as well. The role of its nuclear weapons appears to be increasing, as Russia invests in new modernization programs, resumes the patrols of strategic bombers and nuclear strategic submarines to near Cold War level, and conducts frequent military exercises simulating the employment of nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom and France—the other two important NWS—also appear uninterested in taking a leadership role in advancing disarmament. The United Kingdom has committed to important reductions to its nuclear stockpile in recent years but is also determined to continue modernizing its nuclear strategic submarine fleet. France has always been relatively indifferent to disarmament calls. Such trends leave people less hopeful that these NWS will move to achieve strategic elimination in the near future.

Practical values

Dunn's efforts to envision and explore a global nuclear-disarmament agenda that “both NPT NWS and NNWS should be able to embrace” are highly important and laudable. To achieve the ultimate goal of the complete physical abolition of nuclear weapons, strategically eliminating nuclear weapons—as defined by Dunn—is a logical and significant preparatory step.

By contrast, the NWS have so far not shown a clear commitment to effectively bridging the gap between themselves and the vast numbers of nuclear-disarmament supporters. The failure to achieve adequate progress on disarmament so far is a collective sin shared by all NWS. No single NWS appears to have felt sufficiently strong pressure to take radical measures to establish a new path. The TPNW and Dunn's proposal to achieve strategic elimination by 2045 may put real additional pressure on the NWS and, hopefully, force them to think seriously about some fundamental issues concerning the future of the global nuclear agenda. To have real incentives to take the necessary steps toward achieving disarmament, the NWS need to recognize that a nuclear-weapon-free world is more desirable than the status quo. So far, they have not done so.

Due to a range of international and domestic challenges, the goal of strategically eliminating nuclear weapons by 2045 would be difficult to accomplish. If the top officials in key NWS start to show an internationally oriented vision and a willingness to provide leadership in implementing that vision, the chances for success will increase. But the signs so far have been the opposite.

But that does not diminish the values of Dunn's proposal. The practical steps he proposes would be very useful to contain the strategic rivalry and competition among the United States, Russia, and China and need to be seriously pursued. Helping to stabilize strategic relations among these major NWS is critically important, even if that is all that can be achieved in the end. As Dunn puts it, “even if despite best efforts, strategic elimination of nuclear weapons cannot be realized fully, whatever advances are made toward this goal will be valuable in reducing nuclear dangers.”


1 “Nuclear-dependent countries” are states that have nuclear weapons or rely on the extended nuclear deterrence provided by nuclear-armed countries.

2 George Perkovich, “The Nuclear Ban Treaty: What Would Follow?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017, <>.

3 The “stability–instability paradox” refers to the possibility that a stable mutual deterrence relationship at the nuclear level could lead to instability at the conventional military level.

4 Liu Yi and Liu Zhenjiang, “Lun Maozedong Helunli Sixiang Jiqi Shidai Jiazhi” [Mao Zedong’s nuclear ethical thought and its epochal value], Nanhua Daxue Xuebao (Shehuikexue Ban) [Journal of University of South China (Social Science Edition)], Vol. 10, No. 5 (2009), pp. 17–20; Zhang Jiayu, “Shilun Maozedong, Zhouenlai De Hezhanlue Sixiang” [An analysis of the nuclear strategic thinking of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai], Junshi Lishi Yanjiu [Military History Research], No. 2 (1989), pp. 1–7.

5 Arms Control Association, “U.S. Russian Strategic Stability Talks Begin,” October 1, 2017, <>.

6 Zhao Jian, “Meiguo Hezhanlue De ‘Bian’ Yu ‘Bubian’ —Dui Aobama Zhengfu <Hetaishi Pinggu Baogao> De Fenxi” [The changed and unchanged of the US nuclear strategy: assessment of Obama administration’s nuclear-posture review report], Heping Yu Fazhan [Peace and Development], No. 4 (2010), pp. 46–50; Liu Zikui, “Aobama Wuhe Wuqi Shijie Zhanlue Pingxi” [Analysis of Obama’s nuclear-free-world strategy], Meiguo Yanjiu [American Studies], No. 3 (2009), pp. 58–72; Wang Zhijun, “Lun Meiguo ‘Juedui Anquan’ Shenxue Zhengzhi Yu Aobama ‘Wuhe Shijie Sixiang’” [On the United States’ political theology of “absolute security” and Obama’s “nuclear-free world”], Guoji Luntan [International Forum], Vol. 12, No. 1 (2010), pp. 14–20.

7 Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 4 (2017), pp. 9–49; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 2 (2006), pp. 42–53; Austin Long and Brendan Rittenhouse Green, “Stalking the Secure Second Strike: Intelligence, Counterforce, and Nuclear Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 38, Nos. 1–2 (2015), pp. 38–73.

8 Tamir Eshel, “Multi-object Kill Vehicle (Mokv) Begins to Take Shape,” Defense Update, <>.

9 Andrew Futter, “Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons: New Questions for Command and Control, Security and Strategy,” Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, 2016, p. 33, <>.

10 Wang Changqin and Fang Guangming, “Women Weishenme Yao Fazhan Dongfeng-26 Dandao Daodan” [Why we need to develop DF-26 ballistic missiles], Zhongguo Qingnianbao [China Youth Daily], November 23, 2015.

11 I would like to thank Raymond Wang from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey for raising this point.

12 Tong Zhao, “Trust-Building in the U.S.–Chinese Nuclear Relationship: Impact of Operational-Level Engagement,” PhD diss. Georgia Institute of Technology, 2014, pp. 300–16.

13 Donald Trump, Twitter post, December 22, 2016, <>.

14 “Jiaqiang Zhanlue Heliliang, Zhongguo Buke Huandehuanshi” [Strengthen strategic nuclear capability: China must not hesitate], Huanqiu Shibao [Global Times], December 23, 2016; “Zhongguo De Junfei He Zhanlue Heliliang Douhai Bugou” [Both China’s defense spending and strategic nuclear capablities are not enough],” Huanqiu Shibao [Global Times], December 14, 2016.

15 “Zhongguo Ying Jinzao Liezhuang Dongfeng 41 Daodan, Xueruo Mei Tiaoxin Qishi” [China should deploy DF-41 missile as soon as possible to counter US provocation], Huanqiu Shibao [Global Times], December 5, 2016.

This article was originally published in the Nonproliferation Review.