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Nuclear agenda out of play

by Ramesh Thakur

On April 5, 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in Prague’s historic Hradcany Square, he was addressing a crowd of Czechs, but his audience was global. There was palpable excitement as the young new president outlined a vision of a world freed, at last, of the threat of nuclear weapons.

Hopes were raised for a serious movement toward nuclear disarmament, which in turn would drive a reinvigorated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear security.

There were additional grounds for optimism over the following months: Russia and the U.S. resumed negotiations on cutting their nuclear stockpiles; the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) — cosponsored by the Australian and Japanese governments — outlined a comprehensive but sharply practical agenda for further progress on the full nuclear weapons agenda in 2009; Washington hosted a successful nuclear security summit in April 2010; and in May the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference came to some critical agreements that had eluded its failed predecessor five years earlier.

But by the end of 2012, much of this sense of optimism had evaporated. “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play” helps to explain why. The first in a proposed series, the report assesses the progress as of yearend 2012 made on the more than 200 commitments and recommendations of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the 2010 and 2012 Nuclear Security Summits, and the 2009 ICNND report.

The state-of-play report documents pockets of progress in each of the four categories it addresses chapter by chapter (nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear security, and the security risks associated with peaceful uses of nuclear energy). However, this is not occurring on the scale and at the speed necessary to walk us back to safety from the nuclear precipice on which the world is presently poised rather precariously.

The weakest of the four areas has been nuclear disarmament. Almost 18,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states with a combined destructive capacity of around 120,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. About 94 percent of the weapons are in Russian and U.S. arsenals, while at the other end North Korea may have up to 10 nuclear weapons and the rest between 80 to 300. This is why the primary responsibility for leading the world away from the nuclear cliff rests with Moscow and Washington.

In addition, efforts are under way or planned in all of them to upgrade and modernize their nuclear stockpiles, and deployment strategies, with little enthusiasm evident for modifying the doctrines underpinning their use, or reducing their often dangerously high alert status. Some 2,000 nuclear weapons are maintained at a level of readiness enabling them to be launched within minutes, maximizing the chances of human error or system malfunction.

New START left both U.S. and Russian stockpiles intact, their high-alert status undisturbed, weapons-modernization programs in place, disagreements about missile defense and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved — and talks on further draw-downs going nowhere. Nuclear weapons numbers have decreased overall, as a result of U.S. and Russian actions in particular, but there has been an actual acceleration of nuclear-weapons programs in India, Pakistan and China.

The unavoidable conclusion, therefore, is that while nuclear disarmament continues to be very strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries (and, going by public opinion polls, the clear majority of the world’s people as well), it remains for every nuclear-armed state at best an open-ended, incremental process with broad indeterminate links to global and regional stability.

There appears to be no appetite for a multilateral disarmament process or discussion of disarmament timelines.

In sum, on the evidence of the size of their weapons arsenals, fissile material stocks, force modernization plans, stated doctrine and known deployment practices, all nine nuclear-armed states foresee indefinite retention of nuclear weapons and a role for them in their security policies.

The NPT’s five recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.) place greater emphasis and a higher value on the prevention of nuclear proliferation than they do on nuclear disarmament.

Unfortunately, this is putting the nuclear nonproliferation regime under increasing strain, and reinforcing resistance to predominantly Western efforts to enforce new safeguards measures.

While the NPT’s record of containing proliferation has been very good thus far, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change rightly warned in December 2004 that “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the nonproliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.”

And the situation has significantly deteriorated in the years since then. A succession of new studies confirm the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of even a limited regional nuclear war.

Current U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s welcome calls to prioritize nuclear arms control and disarmament have so far fallen largely on deaf ears. Civil society organizations, however dedicated and active, have achieved little of the traction needed to put relevant governments under serious political pressure.

There has been insignificant progress on calls for additional nuclear-weapons-free zones to deepen and consolidate the NPT or on the nuclear powers ratifying protocols to the existing regimes. The Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone conference mandated by the NPT Review Conference for 2012 has been postponed indefinitely.

The voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing is flouted by North Korea, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is not likely to enter into force anytime soon.

There has been no progress in beginning negotiations on a global ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes, a central nonproliferation policy objective.

All this helps to explain why the nuclear arms control and disarmament agenda is still stuck firmly in the zone of vulnerability. Yet authoritative road maps have been provided by the NPT Review Conference, the Nuclear Security Summits and by the ICNND to walk us back to zones of safety and comfort.

The goal of “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play” is not to criticize and castigate, but to advance helpfully the global nuclear policy debate by encouraging the relevant states to be guided by those road maps.

Ramesh Thakur, a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. The report “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play” may be downloaded from cnnd.anu.edu.au

  • gndz

    It is impossible to analyse the state of play in nuclear disarmament and proliferation accurately without taking into account other military tensions and available options. It suits heavily militarised nation-states such as the U.S. to reduce nuclear armaments. They have more than enough already. Others with much fewer, and less capable military capacities, may see it as useful to have a WMD or two.