Nuclear arms control is back on the table

After more than a decade in the doldrums, the issue of nuclear-arms control could make a comeback this year with a review of the size, structure and mission of U.S. nuclear forces, a new Russia-U.S. strategic treaty, a summit in Washington in April and a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference in May.

A compelling road map has been provided by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, chaired by former foreign ministers Gareth Evans of Australia and Yoriko Kawaguchi of Japan. Its report, Eliminating Nuclear Threats, helps us navigate our way through the world as it is and ought to be by offering a fresh take on four critical policy choices.

First, marrying realism to idealism, it combines the non-proliferation and disarmament agenda by skillfully integrating minimization in the short and medium term with elimination in the long but not indefinite term.

“ As long as they exist, they will be used one day again, by design, accident or miscalculation.”

The case for elimination is updated from the report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which Mr. Evans set up in the 1990s. Many passages echo the earlier report’s elegant logic: As long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them. As long as they exist, they will be used one day again, by design, accident or miscalculation.

Critics of the zero option are self-serving in wanting to keep their bombs while denying them to others. They also lack the honesty and courage to show how non-proliferation can be enforced without disarmament, to acknowledge that the price of keeping nuclear arsenals is uncontrolled proliferation and to argue why a world of uncontrolled proliferation is better than abolition for Western and international security.

The minimization agenda seeks to halt and reverse the nuclear-weapons tide as a prelude to abolishing them through an international convention. The tasks include delegitimizing their possession, deployment and use; reducing their numbers by 2025 to about 10 per cent of present stockpiles for a global total of 2,000 warheads (500 each for Russia and the U.S. and the balance among Britain, China, France, India, Israel and Pakistan); reducing their inherent risks by separating warheads from delivery systems and lengthening the “decision-making fuse” for their launch; bringing into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a fissile-materials cut-off treaty; and strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Second, the minimization-elimination distinction allows the commission to bridge the NPT and post-NPT worlds. It argues for nuclear abolition to be enshrined in a universal, comprehensive and legally binding convention.

It tries to convince “realist” skeptics that security needs can be met by the transitional approach and “idealist” advocates that an incremental approach is more likely to get us to the desired destination than rhetorical flourishes.

Importantly, it argues that serious discussions and negotiations on a nuclear-weapons convention (NWC) must begin now, not be deferred indefinitely.

Third, the report departs from the unrealistic agenda of forcing the non-NPT nuclear-armed states (India, Israel and Pakistan) to sign the treaty as non-nuclear states. Existing model NWCs fall into the trap of requiring different steps and time scales from the five NPT and three non-NPT states. The report argues that for all practical purposes, all eight nuclear-armed states belong in the same policy basket.

Fourth, the report tries to strike a balance between the desirability and inevitability of a move toward greater reliance on nuclear energy and the safety, security and proliferation risks posed by increased nuclear-power generation. Those strongly opposed to nuclear power as a solution to the world’s energy-cum-environmental crisis will be disappointed; cynics may even detect an attempt to advance Australia’s and Japan’s commercial interests in selling uranium and nuclear technology. The pragmatic and flexible stance is welcome. After all, the balance between non-proliferation, disarmament and power is integral to the NPT.

The report’s writing is careful and 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 the national capitals that matter.

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.

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spotted by RS

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