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Commentary | 5 July 2011

Assessing the State of Play on Nuclear Disarmament in 2011

Image of Hans Blix

Hans Blix |Former Foreign Minister and Director-General Emeritus of the IAEA

Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons WMDs Global Security

It is difficult to say something positive about the current state of nuclear disarmament or to be optimistic about the perspective for the immediate future. After the first half of 2010 we seem to be stuck:

  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will not be submitted to the ÚS Senate for approval during President Obama’s current mandate and the treaty therefore will remain in limbo.
  • The negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is blocked by Pakistan.
  • The Geneva Conference on Disarmament goes into its second decade of inability to agree on a work program.
  • A removal to the US of some 200 NATO tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Western Europe and a withdrawal of Russian tactical nuclear weapons deeper into Russia does not seem to be imminent despite pressures from several countries within NATO.
  • A NATO — Russia scheme of cooperation regarding intermediate range missiles seems desired in principle by all, but seems equally hard to attain in practice. Its absence is not only regrettable in itself. It could also negatively affect existing relations and agreements like START.
  • There seem to be no active discussions about how to reduce the risks of SPACE WAR and CYBER WAR.
  • There is no visible progress in the talks with DPRK and IRAN regarding their nuclear programs despite rather good cooperation among the big powers participating.
  • There seems to be no progress in implementing the decision of the 2010 NPT review conference to convoke a meeting in 2012 about a NWFZ in the Middle East.
  • The sad reality is that nuclear disarmament is currently below the political horizon in Washington and other capitals as well. The political world and media are focusing upon the world economy and unemployment.

How did we come to this sorry state and what is the outlook?

Let us first look back a few years.

The spring of 2009 was full of hope. Presidents Obama and Medvedev met in London and stressing that the Cold War was a thing of the past they declared that the US and Russia would cooperate on disarmament. They listed many issues on which they were ready to move.

Two years before the London meeting, the famous US quartet – George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn – had written in the Wall Street Journal not only that the Cold War had been over for nearly 20 years but also that nuclear deterrence had become obsolete between the US and Russia and obsolescent elsewhere. They identified proliferation as the greatest threat and argued that progress on that issue required that the nuclear weapon states took the lead in reducing the nuclear armaments.

In London the two presidents seemed to agree with the view of the quartet and endorsed the aim of eliminating all nuclear weapons. The position has since been echoed by a number of European groups of elder statesmen, not least here in the pages of the ELN. It also had an echo when a group of senior Russian statesmen – former prime minister Primakov, former foreign minister Ivanov, former chief of staff Moiseev and president of the Kurchatov Institute Velikhov –pleaded (in October 2010) for new global security thinking that would take the world beyond the Cold War-era logic centered on mutual deterrence and toward a new cooperative system in order to address the 21st century security threats effectively.

The 2009 London meeting of the US and Russian presidents was followed by President Obama’s speech in Prague, where he outlined an ambitious agenda for disarmament, while at the same time assuring US and world opinion that he was not naïve and did not stand for unilateral US disarmament.

Of immediate practical importance in the spring of 2009 was that the US and Russia began negotiations about a new START to follow up and replace the treaty of 1991 which was due to expire. Important were also signals that the US would seek to bring the Geneva Conference of Disarmament back into operation by being flexible as to items that could be placed before it. Mr. Obama also cut through a lot of ice by not making Iranian suspension of the enrichment of uranium a precondition for talks.

I think we must give the US and Russian presidents credit for their positive engagement in the negotiation of the new START. A crucial contribution was the US decision not to go through with the placement of links to the US global missile shield near Russia in Poland and the Czech Republic.

In the spring of 2010 a conference in Washington on nuclear security helped to reduce the risk of trafficking in nuclear material, equipment and technology. The new US nuclear posture review and new security doctrine both showed – modest — signs of restraint in the nuclear sphere.

The NPT review conference in May 2010 restored the dialogue between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states after the disastrous shape it had attained in 2005: the P 5 recognized their obligation and intention to negotiate nuclear disarmament and a conference about a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East was envisaged for 2012.

However, while at the non-governmental level the momentum in favour of nuclear disarmament continued it became clear in the second half of 2010 that many important players in the security field in Washington – and also in Moscow and elsewhere – did not share the aim for dynamic disarmament.

It was only with the greatest difficulty that at the end of 2010 Mr. Obama managed to get the 2/3 approval needed in the US Senate for the START agreement. For the relatively modest reductions in deployed nuclear weapons and weapons carriers that the treaty prescribed a hefty price had to be paid in budgetary promises for new industrial and research infrastructures to keep the US nuclear stocks ready and expandable.

Clearly, both in Washington and Moscow there were many who were not yet ready to conclude that nuclear deterrence is obsolete or obsolescent and who do not share the view that the threats that need to be countered in 2010 were mainly those that come from ‘rogue states’ and terrorists.

It might be a good thing for the international political climate that no persons responsible for security in any of the big military states identify another such state as a potential threat. However, it is hard to read the military budgets of the big powers without concluding that they watch each other’s armaments warily and that the effect of any weapons development in any one of the big states is taken into account in the defense planning of the others. For example, the development of US, Russian, Chinese navies can hardly be seen as simply responding to potential threats from North Korea or Iran. Indeed, global military expenditures currently at the level of more than 1.500 billion dollars a year cannot be seen simply as a response to these two states and to possible terrorist groups.

The non-spoken reality must be that the military planners who have prevailed in the big powers and many other states have never dropped other big powers or neighbors as potential threats that they have to cope with. The premise upon which the military planners act is more cautious than that of the senior statesmen cited above from the US, Russia and other countries. This prevailing skeptical attitude comes at a very high cost in state budgets that are in desperate need of slimming. Nevertheless, so long as the public does not feel that the price is extravagant in relation to the threat which it perceives, it does not protest the large military budgets.
It could be that the publics in the US, Russia, China and other states feel that armed conflicts are not excluded between them and that their countries must be prepared for the eventuality. Yet, it is striking and troubling that key elements in the assessment of risks are not really the subject of much public debate in the countries that foot the largest military bills. The discussion takes place between experts and politicians far above the heads of the public.
What, for instance, is today the rationale for a costly build-up of space fighting capability? Hardly the possible threats of rogue states and terrorists… More likely a wish to match the growing capability of other big states! If so, would it not be smart to seek an agreement or parallel action to refrain from further developing space fighting capability and to accept whatever verification is feasible? The same question could be asked regarding various other modern weaponry – like new aircraft carriers.
Recently (AP 24 May 2011) the US Secretary of Defense, Mr. Gates, is reported to have said that the US budgetary deficit must be taken seriously and that cuts must fall also on the military side. He mentioned specifically two big issues. First, he raised the question whether the US has to devise its military force in such a way that it can fight two wars at one and the same time? He only illustrated the question by asking whether a war instigated by the DPRK could possibly inspire Iran to open a second war. The second item he mentioned was the so-called triad – the delivery of nuclear weapons through missiles fired from land, from a bomber aircraft, or through missiles launched from submarines. He said that perhaps the US would have to limit itself to two launching options. Even though Secretary Gates does not join the senior US statesmen to question whether a nuclear deterrent is obsolete or obsolescent his comments point to a refreshing questioning of the dimension of the current US military budget – that forms about 45% of the world’s military expenses.

What would happen if the authors of the budgets in the big military powers were to conclude one day that they have to cope only with the threats that they explicitly mention, namely those from ‘rogue states’ and terrorists? Evidently radical reductions would become possible in the budgets. So far this conclusion has not been reached. Is our only hope for this to happen that the budgetary situations become so disastrous that the ministers of finance will raise the searching questions?

One cannot help but question whether present or potential relations between the three big powers – US, Russia and China – justify the close attention now paid by them to any shift in any segment of their military balance and ensuring that measures are taken to maintain the balance as it stands..

Has an important difference in outlook arisen between the security analysis of the generation that lived through the Cold War and that which has taken over since then? Curiously, it is not the elder statesmen with their experience of a world on the brink of nuclear war that call for caution. It is not they who argue that the world does not change, that there have always been wars and always will be; that you must keep your powder dry and be ready at any time – that to believe anything else is to be dangerously naïve.

It is certainly true that wars have continued over the centuries even though the means of warfare have changed enormously: submarines did not end wars, nor did gas… Air warfare did not stop war but expanded the theaters of war. Whether and to what extent the existence of nuclear weapons and MAD is the reason for the absence of big power war since 1945 we do not know. The world was close to nuclear war several times and it seems that luck more than anything else prevented armed action.

Nevertheless, big changes have occurred and continue to occur in the world. In my view they are making and will continue to make shooting war on a global scale all but impossible.

A first factor is the increased mutual proximity and consequent accelerating economic interdependence. The volumes of trade in today’s world are orders of magnitude greater than in the past. It is not only oil and gas that are traded in vast quantities between continents. Even fruits and flowers are flown from the summer in the Southern hemisphere to the winter in the Northern! Russia exports huge quantities of gas and oil to Western Europe and imports technical products and know how. China has more US government bonds than any other country. With the internet, people sit in India and answer routine calls for various activities in North America. This is not the world of 1914 or 1939! It can be torn apart but there are now innumerable ties that caution governments to observe restraint in their international relations. Perhaps one could say that MAD is being replaced by MED – mutual economic dependence.

A second factor is geopolitical. A major cause of conflicts and war in the past was controversy over borders or an ambition to acquire more territory – adjacent or in colonies. Innumerable differences over borders have been settled over time and the last colonial wars were those of decolonization. The Oder-Neisse border was once a lethal line between the East and West. Today it is an internal waterway within the European Union. There are no controversies about the borders between China and Russia or between Turkey and Iran, the US and Mexico or – for the most part – between Latin American states. Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran and Kuwait look like a painful outmoded imitation of the land-grabbing that was common in the past.

It is true that there are still some border disputes that are potentially dangerous – like the one between India and China or between India and Pakistan or between Israel and its neighbors or between states in various parts of Africa. However, neither these, nor even the question of Taiwan are likely to lead to armed action at the global level. There are also many islands, and borders at sea or around continental shelves that are not yet settled. There would seem to be a good case for a campaign to settle controversies of this kind by conciliation, arbitration or judicial settlement by the International Court of Justice. A great advantage of judicial settlement is that it normally occurs without any loss of prestige. No one loses in a negotiation. There are a vast number of precedents. A conflict between Denmark and Norway about sovereignty over Eastern Greenland was settled by the International Court of Justice and that Court also settled a long standing dispute between France and the UK over the islands of Minquiers and Ecrehou in the Channel. Argentina and Chile settled a long-lasting dispute about the Beagle Channel by arbitration. There are several islands and borders at sea in dispute between states in East Asia – China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines and other states – that would be susceptible of such peaceful means of settlement. A number of questions are also open as regards borders and rights of exploitation in the Arctic. The Law of the Sea Conventions provide a good basis and framework for their settlement.

A third factor relates to ideology, religion and form of government. Wars have been fought in the past about religion and the Cold War might be seen as a lethal duel between ideologies. That war is over and while there remain great differences in political philosophy and in systems of government no country or region seeks to impose its particular economic and political system on others. To various degrees all accept the market economy as guiding policy and while there remain highly autocratic states it is clear that democracy and popular participation has expanded tremendously in the world. Caudillos used to be common in Latin America. Not so now. The Arab world is only the latest area where people are throwing off autocratic rulers. At the same time we must recognize that there exist states with totalitarian rule and states where there is anarchy: ‘failed states’. While such states pose grave problems – most of all for the people who live in them – and in some cases risks to the world and the regions in which they are located they do not threaten world peace. What we have seen in the cases of the DPRK and Iran is rather a fair amount of cooperation among major players to contain the risks.

A fourth factor is the gradual de-legitimizing of regime change brought about through armed attacks from the outside or foreign instigated subversion. The war in Iraq in 2003 is a case in point. The limited armed action in Libya on the basis of a Security Council resolution shows a new restraint. Subversion or other intervention by outside states without UN mandate could still trigger international conflict but are unlikely to be pursued in cases where the vital interests of a major power would be hurt and could provoke counter action.

A fifth factor is that an increasing number of problems that are serious to many if not most states cannot be solved but for common international action. The challenges to the global financial and trade system is one such group of problems. Immigration is another. A third group is formed by problems relating to the world’s climate and to issues relating to the commons – like ocean fisheries, aviation or use of space and wave lengths. Action against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, trafficking in nuclear material, terrorism, piracy, international criminality or drug trade — also increasingly force states to cooperate. The same is obviously true for measures against contagious diseases.

It is obvious that the handling and solving of all these problems require procedures, mechanisms and organizations. This is not the place to go into the large subject of international governance. The world has come a long way in creating international institutions – universal or regional – in which they can negotiate and reach agreements regarding interstate financial equilibrium, post and telecommunication, for aviation, shipping, health, agriculture, nuclear regulation etc. The institutions also serve to administer agreements. The system is still very primitive compared to the system by which states are governed in which laws and decisions can be adopted by majority (or qualified majority) and be binding also upon those who are not in favour. Such systems are built upon a measure of solidarity among those to be governed by the laws and decisions and a measure of confidence that the majority will not use its power to treat the minority unfairly.

The closest we come to a system of decisions by majority vote in the interstate sphere is in the Security Council of the United Nations. Decisions under Chapter VII of the Charter can be made binding upon all member states. While this order could be susceptible of broader use through a flexible interpretation of the Charter –it might be agreed, for instance, that the climate threat could be seen a threat to world peace – such expansion would call for a more representative composition of the Council and for a sense of duty among the members of the Council to act in the interest of the whole international community rather than in their own self interest only.
As noted above the short term perspective for disarmament is gloomy.

The most promising way to improve the outlook is through measures that bring further détente, especially between the great powers. In a more relaxed climate hawks will find it harder to resist measures lowering the military guard:

  • In the absence of a comprehensive public debate showing that Europe must have a shield against intermediate range missiles – notably from Iran – it is difficult to understand why a capability for retaliation is not enough. Nevertheless, if a shield is indispensable, agreement and cooperation with Russia is a high priority. Creating protection against hypothetical threats from Iran at the price of impaired relations with Russia cannot be a good idea.
  • Negotiations with Iran and the DPRK must continue and involve both Russia and China. Failure in either case could have serious domino effects. The lack of success so far is highly negative for the international détente and indirectly for international disarmament.
  • Negotiations will continue between the US and Russia on a follow up on New START. There is plenty of room for further reductions but probably little wish among President Obama’s opponents for success.
  • The removal some 200 NATO nuclear weapons to the US and many more Russian nuclear weapons to central storage deeper into Russia would be highly desirable as a gesture of mutual confidence. However, while their deployment is hardly anything more than a relic of the Cold War a formal agreement might be difficult to achieve. Perhaps parallel action could be taken as a result of consultations – as was done in the case of the so called Presidential initiative in 1991. Given a climate of continuing détente between the EU, US and Russia the weapons have little strategic value to either side.
  • Negotiation of a cut off agreement of fissionable material for weapons use (FMCT) remains highly desirable and could take place – if no other way is found – outside the CD. There ought to be an advantage also for Pakistan to reduce the risk of a race in stocking fissile material or weapons.
  • Talks should begin on a resuscitation of the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe). It would be in the interest of all parties to bring it into operation but much diplomacy will be needed to avoid sensitive issues.
  • Ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty should be pushed. However, only a second term for Mr. Obama will bring success on this in the US.
  • Work should continue to create assurances of supply of uranium – e.g. fuel banks – to discourage unneeded facilities for enrichment.

Pursuing these ideas would add much needed momentum to the disarmament agenda in 2011/2012.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.