Realities of disarmament

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Canada — The international commission on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, chaired by former foreign ministers Gareth Evans of Australia and Yoriko Kawaguchi of Japan, faced two hurdles even before its work was completed.

First, both countries are long-standing allies that have sheltered under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Second, between the setting up of the commission in mid-2008 and the publication of its report this week, the nuclear agenda has been dramatically transformed with President Barack Obama’s commitment to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

The first risk was one of credibility, the second of irrelevance as the commission’s deliberations were overtaken by events in the real world. The commission’s report, titled “Eliminating Nuclear Threats,” responds to both. There is a good discussion of extended deterrence and the need to reassure allies that their security needs will not be compromised en route.

Evans was co-chair of the international commission that produced the “Responsibility to Protect” report. He seems to have modeled this commission on the earlier one with respect to a broad-based composition, outreach and consultations through regional meetings around the world — an effort to reconcile seemingly contradictory positions, the format of the report itself and even the idea of an global advocacy center as a focal point and clearinghouse on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament issues.

The major strength of the report is that it tackles four critical policy choices and helps us navigate our way through them to sensible decisions between the world as it is and what it should be like. It marries realism to idealism and combines the nonproliferation and disarmament agenda by integrating minimization in the short and medium term with elimination in the long but not indefinite term.

The case for elimination is updated from the report of the Canberra Commission, which Evans had set up in the mid-1990s. As long as any country has nuclear arms, others will want them. As long as they exist, they will be used again one day, by design, accident or miscalculation.

The minimization agenda seeks to halt and reverse the nuclear weapons tide as a prelude to abolishing them through a binding, verifiable and enforceable international convention. The task is to:

• Delegitimize their possession, deployment and use.

• Reduce their numbers to about 10 percent of present numbers for a global total of 2,000 warheads (500 each for Russia and the United States and a total of 1,000 among the rest) by 2025.

• Reduce reliance on them and their inherent risks by introducing further degrees of separation between their possession, deployment and use — for example, physically separating warheads from delivery systems and lengthening the “decision-making fuse” for the launch of nuclear weapons.

• Bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a new fissile materials cutoff treaty.

• Strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency’s authority and capacity.

• Establish a multilateral fuel cycle.

• Toughen up supply side restrictions.

The minimization-elimination distinction allows the commission to bridge the gap between the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and post-NPT worlds.

The report argues for nuclear abolition to be enshrined in a universal, comprehensive and legally binding nuclear weapons convention (NWC). It notes that model NWCs already exist, but they fall into the trap of requiring different steps and time scales from the NPT-licit and other nuclear-armed states. It tries to convince “realist” skeptics of why and how security needs can be met by the transitional approach. It tries to persuade “idealist” advocates that an incremental approach is more likely to get us to the desired destination than rhetorical demands and declarations.

It argues that serious discussions and negotiations on a NWC must begin now and not be deferred indefinitely.

This is the first major international report that departs from the unrealistic belief that the non-NPT nuclear-armed states (India, Israel, Pakistan) can be forced to sign the NPT as nonnuclear states. Instead, it argues that for all practical purposes, all the nuclear-armed states, whether licit or illicit under the NPT, belong in the same policy basket.

The report attempts to strike a balance between the desirability and inevitability of a move toward greater reliance on nuclear energy, on the one hand, and the safety, security and proliferation risks posed by increased nuclear power generation, on the other.

Those strongly opposed to nuclear power as a solution to the world’s energy-cum-environmental crisis will be disappointed; the cynics may even detect an attempt to advance Japan’s and Australia’s commercial interests in selling uranium and nuclear technology. The open-minded should welcome a pragmatic and flexible stance and agenda. After all, the balance between the three agendas of nonproliferation, disarmament and power is integral to the NPT.

The report is comprehensive in covering the full spectrum of the nuclear power and weapons agenda on both energy and security fronts, including the threat of nuclear terrorism. Its up-to-date and state-of-the-art analytical chapters will be of immense value to lay people, students and professors, though specialists may well quibble with some technical descriptions and conclusions.

The writing is modulated, blending passion for the cause with the need not to lose either the realists or the idealists. The conclusions are sober but never discouraging. The commission’s blend of military and highest-level policy officials from around the world should increase the prospects of the report being taken seriously in national capitals.

Initial tests of whether the recommendations can be implemented will come with the nuclear summit in Washington in April followed by the NPT review conference in May 2010. As the report argues, nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, but they can and should be controlled, regulated, restricted and, in our lifetime, outlawed.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.