Nuclear sword of Damocles

by Brad Glosserman

NAGASAKI — The end of the Cold War didn’t end the threat of nuclear annihilation. An increasing number of experts worry that the dangers posed by those weapons of mass destruction are increasing as the nuclear nonproliferation regime is increasingly stretched and frayed. The 2005 Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) provides an opportunity to rethink strategies to counter nuclear proliferation and to rejuvenate efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide.

That task is both daunting and pressing. Last week I attended the Second United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and the mood there was grim. Tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and hundreds of tons of weapon-grade material (both highly enriched uranium and plutonium) are tempting targets for terrorists, yet officials in the United States and Russia don’t seem to take that threat seriously. The technical know-how and the technology needed to make a bomb are now widespread.

In Sapporo, one speaker after another detailed the failures of the NPT. It’s a long list:

* Three states — India, Israel and Pakistan — remain outside the NPT system despite possessing nuclear weapons, demonstrating that noncompliance has benefits.

* North Korea has threatened to withdraw from the NPT with a nuclear arsenal.

* Iran appears to be developing a clandestine nuclear program while professing to abide by IAEA protocols.

* Iraq and Libya developed nuclear programs without being detected by the international community (In Iraq’s case, I refer to efforts uncovered after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, not the more recent allegations leveled against the regime).

* Nonstate actors remain outside the purview of a treaty designed to deal with states.

* Nuclear-weapons states have made precious little progress toward disarmament and eliminating their arsenals, as they promised in the treaty. Their failure to honor that obligation is eroding the willingness of nonnuclear-weapons states to hold up their end of the NPT bargain — namely, to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions.

One U.S. expert, William Potter of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, warned that the world is at a crucial juncture: Decisions made in the next few months could determine whether nuclear weapons are used in his — and our — lifetime.

These flaws have not gone unnoticed. In response, governments have embraced a number of initiatives to plug the holes. They range from the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which created a “coalition of the willing” to halt the illicit transfers of nuclear weapons and materials, to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which calls on all member states to take action to halt the trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. Efforts have been made to secure nuclear materials and to find jobs for scientists who formerly worked in nuclear-weapons programs and who might be tempted to sell their services to the highest bidder.

All those programs have shortcomings of their own. Tighter controls on the trade in nuclear components and materials require the skills, know-how and technology that allows officials to identify suspect transactions. In many cases, they are lacking. Many states are unwilling to join programs that reinforce the “nuclear apartheid” that currently exists. As Sergio Duarte, the Brazilian diplomat who is the president designate of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, explained in Sapporo, “for many the crux of the question is the acceptability of further mandatory restrictions, with intrusive verification, in the absence of corresponding deeper commitments and further steps toward nuclear disarmament which are irreversible and verifiable.”

This division exacerbates another problem: governments don’t agree that nuclear proliferation is a shared concern. For most developing nations, nuclear proliferation is a problem for the developed world — forgetting that they too can be threatened with such weapons and indeed, historically, terrorists have targeted the weak and made no distinction among their victims. Most nonnuclear states see their primary security challenge as related to problems of development and internal instability. When they think about nuclear weapons, their chief concern is disarmament, not proliferation: They argue that getting rid of all nuclear weapons is the most effective way to eliminate the threat of nuclear destruction.

That last charge underlines a final obstacle to efforts to counter nuclear proliferation: We still don’t know why governments proliferate nuclear weapons. Several explanations have been offered — to provide security, to establish international status, or as a result of internal political and bureaucratic dynamics — but no single explanation convinces. Until we know why governments acquire nuclear weapons, it will be difficult to stop them from doing so.

That doesn’t mean abandoning efforts to achieve disarmament. Divisions among governments make actions by nongovernmental organizations and other disarmament supporters (including governments) even more important. Efforts should focus on delegitimizing nuclear weapons, which would deny them the political and military utility that makes them part of security calculations, as well as the status that inspires governments to procure them. Make nuclear weapons unusable and governments won’t try to acquire them.

To delegitimize nuclear weapons, disarmament advocates must make their case with unflagging energy, taking every opportunity to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Every meeting with security on the agenda, from the NPT Review Conference to the ASEAN-Plus-Three summits, should reiterate the call for a nuclear-weapons-free world. The failure to reach agreement on the best way to reach that goal doesn’t mean the goal itself should be set aside. Each time the objective is repeated in an official context — a statement, a declaration, a communique — the norm is strengthened and advocates are reinforced as they push for a nuclear-weapons-free world.

The goal is to transform the prohibition against nuclear weapons from a treaty-based rule to a preemptory norm of international relations. Most of us instinctively recoil from the idea of using such weapons of mass destruction, but the emotional appreciation of those horrors is balanced by an intellectual understanding of the security context in which those weapons are deployed. (Every participant in security discussions in Japan, and especially those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, feels that tremendous gap.)

There is no such divide when it comes, say, to slavery, even though pragmatic arguments were made on behalf of that heinous practice in the past. That is the goal for advocates of a nuclear-weapons-free world. The emotional and intellectual contexts should be reconciled. Pragmatic concerns should not mitigate the horror of nuclear weapons. The 2005 NPT Review Conference will be a key battleground in that effort and disarmament advocates should be redoubling their efforts as it approaches.