Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is a Nuclear Weapons-Free World Possible?

November 2013

The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) (UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2013) recognises only five ‘nuclear states’—the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China. Since 1967, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have also developed nuclear weapons, almost doubling the size of the group. South Africa stands alone as the only country to develop atomic weapons and give them up (Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2013). There has been a slow, steady reduction of the number of nuclear warheads in the world to between 10,000 (Kristensen & Norris, 2013) and 25,000 (Daalder & Lodal, 2008: 82), with, according to some, 90% of nuclear warheads produced since 1945 now out of service (Kristensen & Norris, 2013). However, there are still more than enough warheads to destroy civilisation as we know it.

We live in a world today with an increasing number of nuclear states, not decreasing. Nonetheless, the picture is not as bleak as it may seem. President John F. Kennedy predicted that by 1964 the world would see as many as 10-20 nuclear powers (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, quoting Kennedy, 2003). There are not even that many today, 50 years later. Since 2007 world leaders have shown renewed interest in nuclear disarmament. With a practical view of nuclear disarmament, an agreement with proper control, verification and enforcement mechanisms, and the necessary political will, it is possible to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world.

‘Abolition’ v. ‘Disarmament’
O’Hanlon (2010) correctly points out an important difference in vocabulary in what one means by ‘a world without nuclear weapons’. ‘Abolishing’ nuclear weapons means not only dismantling all existing weapons, but outlawing their testing, use, reconstruction, development, proliferation and make them wholly illegal in all circumstances. This differs from dismantling or demilitarising all currently existing nuclear arsenals in the world and agreeing an international framework to monitor progress and fissile materials, verify disarmament and mediate disputes, but not totally outlawing them forever in all circumstances. It would also eliminate all current atomic weapons. Both would constitute a ‘nuclear weapons-free world’, but disarmament is more realistic and achievable.

The NPT attempts to prevent nuclear proliferation and elicits an agreement in Article VI (UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2013) from nuclear states to cease the nuclear arms race, dismantle their nuclear weapons and agree a treaty leading to ‘general and complete disarmament’ under international control, something they have yet to do. Article I (ibid.) stops ‘nuclear states’ from transferring nuclear weapons technology to non-nuclear states while Article II (ibid.) prevents signatories which did not already possess nuclear weapons from obtaining them. States which have developed atomic weapons after the NPT have done so as non-members of the treaty. The NPT does not seek to ‘abolish’ nuclear technology in the world. It recognises, at Article I (ibid.), the right of ‘nuclear states’—America, Britain, France, China and Russia—to possess them. NPT Article IV (ibid.) in fact recognises and encourages the development and sharing of the ‘inalienable right’ to peaceful nuclear technology among nuclear and non-nuclear states. NPT Article X (ibid.) gives members the right to leave the treaty in circumstances where they believe it is contrary to their national interest.

Individuals and groups who call for the ‘abolition’ or banishment of nuclear weapons stand on firm moral ground. However, groups such as Greenpeace (2013) and iCan (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, 2013) focus on campaigning to motivate individuals at ‘grassroots’ level to apply pressure on officials to abolish atomic weapons, which, while also an important part of the effort, does not address the perennial underlying political and security issues which cause states to cling to or seek to acquire nuclear weapons. These groups have been critical of the 1970 NPT (UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2013) as legitimising a system of nuclear ‘haves and have-nots’ by giving special recognition to the 5 original nuclear states, charge it has been ineffective in applying pressure to disarm (Brehm et al., 2013: 12-16), and point to a complete ban on nuclear weapons along the same path as treaties for landmines and biological weapons as a better goal. Nonetheless, even some critical of the NPT and piece-meal bilateral agreements acknowledge that forever ‘dis-inventing’ nuclear weapons is not possible and that if one state reconstitutes a nuclear programme, there may be no alternative but for others to do so to confront that threat (Blechmann & Bollfrass, 2010; 583).

The distinction between disarmament and abolition of nuclear weapons is not clearly articulated, even by those familiar with nuclear issues. Abolition involves what some have called ‘putting the genie back in the bottle’—(Gusterson, 2008) requiring all states to simultaneously disclaim and disown nuclear weapons for good, an idea that becomes difficult to achieve if even one state refuses to agree or comply, thus causing all others to consider doing so as well. It is unrealistic because it does not take into account the underlying (in)security conditions, discussed by countless security scholars over the last several decades (e.g., Sagan & Waltz, 2013), which lead states to acquire atomic weapons to begin with. If these are not addressed, even incremental steps toward disarmament become difficult and a comprehensive agreement becomes impossible. This differs from nuclear disarmament built on the back of the trust, agreements and institutions of the existing NPT, specifically the Article VI (UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2013) agreement to pursue a treaty leading to ‘general and complete disarmament’. NPT Article VII (ibid.) also allows states to conclude bi- or multi-lateral agreements relating to nuclear disarmament, something the U.S., Russia/USSR and other members have used to positive effect to agree nuclear reduction treaties, such as SALT, START, SORT, and New START. Nuclear disarmament under the NPT means states continuing (finally) to seriously pursue something they have already agreed to do, making nuclear disarmament more possible than nuclear abolition. Though progress has been slow under the NPT, it still has made progress.

Control, Verification and ‘Virtual Deterrence’
In considering whether a nuclear weapons-free world is possible it must also be considered how any nuclear disarmament agreement, once reached, would be verified, how fissile materials would be controlled and how noncompliance would be confronted. An agreement without such ‘teeth’ would be doomed from the start.

Tracking and controlling nuclear material is the only way to ensure new atomic weapons cannot be developed (Daalder & Lodal, 2008: 87). However, environmental, market and economic pressures have brought about the need for energy from a clean, reliable source such as nuclear power. The IAEA itself has called for 1,400 new nuclear reactors to be built worldwide by 2050 to meet world energy demand (ibid.: 88). NPT Article IV upholds the ‘inalienable right’ of states to pursue peaceful nuclear technology (UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2013). Even if a comprehensive international nuclear disarmament agreement is reached, fissile material will still be available and remain a growing issue. To simultaneously meet the growing international demand for energy and confront the issue of controlling fissile materials, multi-national nuclear power facilities could be built. No single nation would ‘own’ the plant or materials and the facility and nuclear fuel could be easily inspected by an organisation such as the IAEA (Drell & Goodby, 2008: 26-7). A similar solution has been put forward to settle the controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme (Forden & Thompson, 2009: 11).

Counterintuitively, none of the nine states known to possess nuclear weapons is currently subject to IAEA inspections. The five NPT ‘nuclear states’ are exempt and the four non-NPT states—India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea—are not subject to them (Daalder & Lodal, 2008: 88). This means the overwhelming bulk of nuclear weapons and material in the world is only tracked by these governments. We have to take their word for it. Any comprehensive treaty would have to include control, verification and inspection measures by an organisation, such as the IAEA, which apply to all countries equally. The IAEA, “should be given the authority to inspect any facility, at any time, and anywhere on the territory of every signature state” (Blechmann & Bollfrass, 2010: 571).

Even if all nuclear weapons are demilitarised, fissile material closely controlled and an inspection regime instituted, there will always be the chance that one or more states will reconstitute nuclear weapons at some point in the future. The first steps could be similar to those taken today against states such as North Korea and Iran—sanctions, negotiations and possible military action. However, such a process may take too long to stop the reconstitution of nuclear weapons and allowing it to be subject to a UN Security Council veto could further complicate matters (ibid.: 573). The fear a foe would secretly maintain nuclear weapons or rebuild them is an obstacle to convincing current nuclear-armed states to agree to give them up.

The concept of ‘virtual deterrence’ has been put forward both to calm the security fears of current nuclear states regarding disarmament and as an enforcement and deterrence mechanism against rogue states that would start or reconstitute a nuclear weapons programme after achieving nuclear disarmament (Paloczi-Horvath, 1998). Briefly, the idea is that current nuclear states, such as the P5, could maintain the threshold ability to reconstitute their nuclear programmes in a matter of months in such circumstances in order to confront the threat (ibid.: 3). Nuclear ‘abolitionists’ would object, however nuclear weapons technology cannot be ‘dis-invented’ and the threat will always exist. Nuclear disarmament is possible; abolition of nuclear weapons forever is not.

Political Will
One of the most important factors, if not the most important, in arriving at a world without nuclear weapons is political will. In 2007, U.S. senior policy leaders Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz breathed new life into the movement toward ‘Global Zero’ beginning with a series of opinion pieces in major American newspapers (Kissinger et al., 2007; 2008; 2010; 2011) as part of the Nuclear Security Project. They succeeded in making nuclear disarmament an issue in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, supported by both then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain (Daalder & Lodal, 2008: 81; Ferguson, 2010: 88).

As President, Barack Obama named nuclear disarmament one of the priorities of his administration and promised in his 2009 Prague Speech that America would take ‘concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons’ (White House Press Office, 2009). In October 2009, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons (Nobel Prize, 2009). In April 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense released a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in which it reiterated America’s commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons, committed to ‘reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy’ and to ‘maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels’ as key priorities (U.S. Department of Defense, 2010: iii). In April 2010, President Obama also signed New START with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, reducing and limiting both nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads and between 700-800 delivery platforms (U.S. Department of State, 2010). In May 2010 the 5-yearly NPT review conference was held in New York. The final document included recommitment of members to the NPT, specific action-plans regarding nuclear disarmament and proposed steps for creating a ‘WMD-free’ zone in the Middle East (Choubey, 2010). The U.S. National Security Strategy, released in May 2010, also reiterated U.S. commitment to ‘pursue the goal of a world without nuclear weapons’ and strengthening the NPT (White House, 2010: 23).

Senior UK policymakers also got behind the renewed push. In June 2007 Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett spoke in support of the effort by Kissinger, Nunn, Perry and Schultz (Beckett, 2007), as did Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson in 2008, calling for support of New START, a strengthening of the NPT and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (Hurd et al., 2008). Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Brown, 2008) and Defence Minister Des Browne shifted UK policy from that under Tony Blair where non-proliferation was the sole focus as opposed to now pursuing both non-proliferation and disarmament (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 2008). The United States and United Kingdom have both continued to engage with North Korea and Iran on their nuclear programmes, strengthening sanctions and leading talks alongside allies, culminating in the recent multilateral agreement between the ‘P5 + 1’ nations and Iran to slow development of their nuclear programme (Borgher & Dehghan, 2013).

These events of the past seven years have shown a renewed commitment on behalf of most of the major nuclear states to nuclear disarmament, but it hasn’t all been easy or good news. The U.S. and Russia did sign New START in 2010, though it was only just barely ratified by Congress in 2011 over objections by hawkish Republican Senators (Oliphant, 2010), such as Sen. John McCain, who had had claimed to support nuclear disarmament in his 2008 presidential campaign (Daalder & Lodal, 2008: 81; Ferguson, 2010: 88). After agreeing a 2008 deal with the P5+1 to end its nuclear programme, North Korea destroyed the cooling tower of its nuclear facility at Yongbyon. However the IAEA claims it has restarted work at the facility in recent days (Reuters, 2013).

However, the renewed push for nuclear disarmament since 2007 has been overtaken by other domestic and international events in key states. The 2008 economic downturn, economic crises in EU states, government ‘austerity’ policies in the UK and political fights over tax and fiscal policies and domestic political issues such as ‘Obamacare’ and the ‘debt ceiling’ in the United States continue to absorb much of the world’s political energy and capital. Since 2008 there have been changes in national leadership in the U.S., UK, France, Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel—every nuclear state. The 2012 conference called for in the 2010 NPT review to devise a ‘WMD-free zone’ in the Middle East was cancelled as it was unclear whether Israel, having just begun a military incursion into Gaza (Gladstone & Kershner, 2012), or Iran would fully participate and Arab states were angered by further delays in a discussion which began 15 years before at the 1995 NPT review (Malin & Miller, 2013: 1-2). The 2010 Arab Spring uprisings have caused political and national security concerns for the P5 states and others. The U.S., UK and France have clashed with Russia and China in their response to the Syria conflict. The use of chemical weapons in Damascus on 21 August, most-probably by the Assad regime (Gladstone & Chivers, 2013), has focused the world’s attention on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and a different ‘weapon of mass destruction’.

The reinvigorated campaign for nuclear disarmament shows that the political will to push forward the agenda for a nuclear-free world exists, however it is also constantly being stretched to the limit and attention is divided by other world events. O’Hanlon (2010) points out that timing is also crucial on this issue and real progress may not be possible until some of the world’s other major problems which often cause security concerns which complicate the nuclear disarmament issue—Taiwan, Kashmir, Russia and its neighbours, Israel-Palestine—are resolved first. As President Obama acknowledged in his 2009 Prague Speech, “This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us the world cannot change” (White House, 2009). The political will is there, but the attention and timing must also be right and they all must coincide in order for there to be any realistic chance of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

Do We Really Want a World Free of Nuclear Weapons?
Though the accepted dilemma seems to be how to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons and whether it is possible, there is not much in-depth discussion as to whether a nuclear weapons-free world would provide security and peace as asserted. Arguably the most famous analysis of this question is the debate in book form between Scott Sagan and the late Ken Waltz (2013).

Briefly, as a Realist, Waltz believes that the world consists of states in global anarchy which must find ways to create security for themselves through the two separate ideas of ‘defence’, the ability to repel an attack, and ‘deterrence’, the ability to inflict enough punishment on an opponent to create a disincentive for them to attack (ibid.: 5). Simply put, possession of nuclear weapons greatly bolsters a state’s ability to defend and deter and when two nuclear states stand opposed to one another, these weapons have an equalising effect which causes them to proceed in a much more considered manner because of what they risk in a nuclear exchange and the knowledge that the other side, rationally, must be proceeding in the same manner creates a more secure condition (ibid.: 5-8). He asserts nuclear weapons allow states to meet the need to provide their own security and secure states do not fight wars (ibid.: 37). When confronted with the question if ‘global zero’ would be better Waltz answers that, “Abolishing the weapons that have caused sixty-seven years of peace would certainly have effects. Such an action would, among other things, make the world safe for the fighting of World War III” (ibid.: 221).

Also briefly, Sagan responds by arguing that nuclear weapons make the world less secure because they are military objects and, institutionally, military organisations are concerned with achieving ‘military victory’ by defeating opponents in war and because nuclear weapons provide unmatched potential to do that, military organisations will always seek to obtain advantage by building more nuclear weapons and will, as all institutions do, seek ever more resources to do so. Many states do not have sufficient civilian control over their military apparatus to counter these tendencies. More states will seek nuclear weapons and states that already possess them will build more, the end state being that they will not provide security for anyone, just more nuclear weapons. He also shows empirically that political and military leaders cannot always be counted on to act rationally in the severe emotional circumstances high-level conflict creates (ibid.: 41-3). On the question of global zero, Sagan answers that the need for nuclear deterrence ended with the Cold War and the threat of loose nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organisations is greater because they do not fear nuclear retaliation, making the need to reach zero a pressing issue (ibid.: 215-19).

As the title of the book suggests, this is An Enduring Debate. The world was a violent place before nuclear weapons and will still be one if ever we are without them, as Sagan recognises (ibid.: 219), and still be fraught with conflict and the state quest for security, as Waltz asserts (ibid.: 5-7). Unless and until the world arrives at that point, there can be no answer.

It is possible to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. It must be recognised that nuclear weapons cannot be ‘dis-invented’ and the knowledge and technology will always exist even if global zero is achieved. Nuclear disarmament is achievable; nuclear ‘abolition’ is not. The political will to pursue disarmament must be there and there is good evidence it has been renewed since 2007. However, political will must coincide with the right time, when international attention and political capital is not being focused elsewhere on other problems. To succeed, any comprehensive international nuclear disarmament agreement would have to address issues of verification, control of fissile material and mechanisms to confront states in noncompliance. If all of these concerns are addressed, it is indeed possible to reach a nuclear weapons-free world. The question if that world will actually be the one we have envisioned is one that will have to be answered when we get there.

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