No commitments for the powerful?

By Wael Al Assad, August 19, 2014

If each of the five recognized nuclear weapon states possessed just 30 nuclear warheads, would the world be a safer place? Yes, probably so. But it wouldn't be safe enough. Nor would these smaller stockpiles be consistent with "general and complete disarmament," something to which the nuclear weapon states committed themselves under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Reductions in the number of weapons cannot, and should not, be considered disarmament's ultimate goal—no matter how big the reductions might be. A focus on reductions would provide a false sense of security. It would divert attention from the objective of complete disarmament. In any event, some argue that when nuclear weapon states reduce their arsenals, they do so only out of economic necessity. What they really want, according to this argument, is to establish arsenals of optimal size—affordable, yet capable of conferring national power and prestige. So smaller arsenals would not change the essential nature of international power dynamics, according to which the nuclear weapon states maintain supremacy based on their possession of nuclear weapons.

No equivalence. In 2005, when Kofi Annan was secretary general of the United Nations, he said that "[p]rogress in both disarmament and nonproliferation [is] essential, and neither should be held hostage to the other." I am not sure that Annan's framing is correct, or that non-nuclear weapon states should act in accordance with it. Granted, disarmament and nonproliferation are linked. Incentives for proliferation will remain, and non-nuclear states will resist tighter nonproliferation controls, unless serious steps are taken toward disarmament. And nuclear weapon states will never seriously consider eliminating their weapons without tough nonproliferation measures in place. But all this obscures a central fact: that nuclear weapons are a threat to global peace and security no matter who possesses them, and the uniquely inhumane nature of these weapons confers unique responsibilities on the countries that do possess them. So, though nonproliferation and disarmament are linked, there can be no real equivalence between nuclear and non-nuclear nations.

One area in which nuclear and non-nuclear nations demonstrate little equivalence is in their adherence to treaty commitments. The non-nuclear weapon states, with very few exceptions, have kept their end of the NPT bargain—while nuclear weapon states have failed to keep theirs. Or perhaps a more cynical take is in order: The nuclear weapon states, in exchange for the treaty's nonproliferation commitments, made disarmament promises that they had no intention of honoring.

This pattern seems to have continued throughout the treaty's existence. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the nuclear weapon states agreed to additional disarmament commitments to secure the treaty's indefinite extension. (These commitments included, among other things, implementing the Resolution on the Middle East, which endorsed creating in that region a zone without weapons of mass destruction.) Now, because those commitments haven't been honored, some non-nuclear weapon states are questioning the extension's validity.

In 2000, the nuclear weapon states made another set of commitments, widely known as the "13 practical steps" toward nuclear disarmament. But in negotiations toward an agreement at the 2005 conference, the United States resisted including any reference to the 1995 and 2000 commitments—which is one reason that no substantive agreement could be reached.

It has become quite evident, then, that nuclear weapon states do not take their disarmament pledges seriously. Rather, they make audacious claims about their great strides in disarmament and their full compliance with their obligations. What's needed, they assert, is additional constraints on non-nuclear nations to ensure that they don't become proliferators!

New approach. Amid all this, the credibility of multilateral disarmament is seriously in question—and the nonproliferation regime may be unraveling. So what can non-nuclear states expect to occur at the 2015 review conference? Will nuclear weapon states make yet more commitments that they have no intention of honoring? Averting that outcome requires that drastic new measures be taken. Only drastic measures will prevent the powerful few from overwhelming the interests of the many.

A core group of non-nuclear states should forge a new alliance with like-minded nations from all regions. This alliance should launch a campaign emphasizing that the current state of affairs is neither sustainable nor acceptable, and should work to win both public opinion and the support of nongovernmental organizations. The alliance should create an annual forum where non-nuclear states coordinate their positions. Most crucially, the alliance should declare that it will accept no new nonproliferation commitments until four specific steps toward disarmament are taken.

The first step is to outline a framework for the disarmament negotiations that are required under the NPT's Article VI. As part of this, the legal, political, and technical requirements for eliminating nuclear weapons must be identified. (For example, specific verification mechanisms would need to be established.) The second step is to form a body, as part of the treaty review process, that would oversee implementation of the 13 practical steps toward nuclear disarmament. The third step is for nuclear weapon states, within a declared time frame, to cease nuclear sharing with non-nuclear states. (I am referring here to NATO's nuclear deterrence policy, according to which nuclear weapons are placed on the territory of non-nuclear states and these countries' militaries are contemplated in the weapons' delivery.) The fourth step is for weapon states to stop all nuclear cooperation with the de facto nuclear weapon states, and also to exert serious pressure on them to join the treaty process as non-nuclear weapon states.

Admittedly, this approach carries risk. If the nuclear weapon states decide that they have no use for a regime that limits their powers, the already fragile treaty regime could collapse entirely. This would leave a void in the international system that would be difficult to fill. Still, I believe that such an approach is necessary. The global security environment is power-based, and the powerful few feel no need to play by the same rules as others. Only a radically different approach can alter the status quo.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons