The Gang of Four on Nuclear Deterrence

Having written several times in support of efforts toward a world without nuclear weapons, four once prominent leaders in US security affairs – George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn – have now turned their attention to deterrence.

This “gang of four,” as they’ve become known, first appeared together in the pages of the Wall Street Journal in January 2007, where they shocked the world, but in a good way, with a strong message in support of the basic goal of a world without nuclear weapons: 

“Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations. Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”[i]

Over the years they have repeated and elaborated on that message, and this week they focused in on the need to maintain nuclear deterrence while the international community reshapes security relationships and paradigms and while it pursues the final elimination of nuclear weapons:

“[A]s long as nuclear weapons exist, America must retain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile primarily to deter a nuclear attack and to reassure our allies through extended deterrence. There is an inherent limit to U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions if other nuclear weapon states build up their inventories or if new nuclear powers emerge.”[ii]

This straightforward affirmation of deterrence is a serious disappointment to many who had celebrated the conversion of these four security potentates into nuclear abolitionists, and rightly so. It surely is an acute form of political and imaginative bankruptcy when, having concluded that absolutely no use of a nuclear weapon could ever be justified, we still find it necessary to assert that global stability requires us to threaten to do what must never be done.

Furthermore, the term “reliable nuclear stockpile” is now the preferred euphemism in American security discourse for the “modernization” of nuclear weapons – so it seems as if Messers Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn have taken rather a giant step backwards.

But that is not an entirely fair charge. Their assertion that as long as anyone else has nuclear weapons the US is likely to retain them is, like it or not, a basic reality – and will so unless there is a rather dramatic change in the US political/security environment. Some Republicans already descry President Obama’s current nuclear disarmament initiatives as the emasculation of America. If other states, like India and Pakistan, continue to increase their arsenals, or if new nuclear weapon powers emerge, say Iran, we can expect that virtually all mainstream political support for continued reductions to the American arsenal, never mind its elimination, will disappear.

 Nuclear deterrence, in all its contradictions and absurdities, will finally disappear as a policy when nuclear weapons disappear. That is a tough reality, and to their credit, Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn continue to press for the latter. In their latest missive they call for more effective measures to prevent both the spread of nuclear materials and the accidental use of nuclear weapons. They acknowledge once again that the continued reliance on nuclear weapons creates proliferation pressures, and they call for redoubled efforts to resolve regional conflicts where nuclear weapons have become part of the dynamic.

They also call for the development of positive security assurances among states:

“Progress must be made through a joint enterprise among nations, recognizing the need for greater cooperation, transparency and verification to create the global political environment for stability and enhanced mutual security.”

In fact, the transformation of the international security order is a powerful theme for them: “A world without nuclear weapons will not simply be today’s world minus nuclear weapons.” Nuclear deterrence thus will remain, not a necessary presence, but an unfortunate and likely presence until that transformation becomes into clearer focus.


[i] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.

[ii] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, “Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation: The doctrine of mutual assured destruction is obsolete in the post-Cold War era..,” the Wall Street Journal, 7 March 2011.

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