The Future of Nuclear Disarmament

The past year has registered once again despondency on the part of the campaign, and cynical dismissal on the part of sceptics of nuclear disarmament. The world is at a crossroads as to whether that brief spring of hope, which bloomed with President Obama’s Prague speech, will in his second term gain more warmth or ice. A faint feeling has grown in recent years – a plausible hope that use of the nuclear weapon may never be repeated, especially with the widening distance in time since its last use (in warfare) over sixty years ago. It is a moot point, whether the hope of such a taboo enduring is illusory. The grim reminders of the horrors of the evisceration of Japanese cities point to the abyss to which humanity can sink, and the ultimate horrors of our own destructiveness. History compels us to think retrospectively and gauge if and to what extent humankind has moved away from the brink. Deterrence theorists claim that this 60 year absence has only been possible due to the maintenance of a robust and credible deterrent. Argued equally strongly is the case against placing faith in such a strategy, which is inherently destabilizing to the point of hair trigger alerts and where deterrence remains vulnerable to misjudgement, miscalculation or catastrophic failure.

Nuclear disarmament is the strict opposite of nuclear arms race – it seeks undiminished or enhanced security at progressively lower level of arms while the latter is like chasing the chimera of strategic stability through dominance over the adversary. Nuclear deterrence as a theory was developed for ex-post-facto rationalization of the nuclear arms race. So, when we speak of the future of nuclear disarmament it is inextricably tied to the future of the nuclear arms race and theories of nuclear deterrence. There is an increasing sense that deterrence stability requires a modicum of cooperation between those involved. If so, at least there lies the cusp between deterrence and disarmament since a certain promise of cooperation is also needed to lead to nuclear arms reduction.

Nuclear weapons today are scarcely the currency of power and respect that was in vogue during the years of cold war or in the decade after the Soviet collapse. The watershed to a large measure has been the extraordinary terror strikes by suicide bombers over the past decade, not in distant forlorn urban habitations of the developing world but in the metropolitan centres of the developed societies. These metropolitan centres lay in countries that had won the cold war; won, inter alia, on the power of nuclear weapons and open market economy. The suicide attackers came from developing regions and may well have had diverse backing of proliferating nuclear weapon states under the cloak of deniability and a black mail which get starker by the day. This is the moment of reckoning which inspires even hardened practitioners of nuclear deterrent theories to proclaim that nuclear deterrence may not be credible against the new adversaries and the kind of threats that have cropped up.

Paradoxically, it was precisely during the most virulent phase of the cold war during the 1980s that revulsion against these weapons also peaked – a million strong rally in the Central park of New York city in 1982 and subsequent demonstrations all over the world, the Summit in Delhi declaring nonalignment as history’s biggest peace movement, acute concerns epitomized in Jonathan Schell’s powerful book “The Fate of the Earth”1Schell, Jonathan. The Fate of the Earth. New York: Knopf, 1982, and the prophesies about nuclear winter: these were the cri du coeur of humanity at the brink of nuclear exchange. Somehow with the Soviet collapse that entire angst and revulsion appeared to have given way to complacence in Europe and America. It was made out as though the peril did not lay in the nature of such weapons. The hardnosed appeared sanguine about living with nuclear weapons and dismissed those evoking the fear of a nuclear holocaust as time warped.

There was the wise counsel of many at that time for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the security calculus and outlawing their use. The debate in the UN General Assembly in the midnineteen nineties about seeking a reference in this regard to the International Court of Justice and diverse submissions before the Court reflected a persistent divide about the approach to questioning the legitimacy of nuclear weapons use. As things stand today, the fears of nuclear weapons use never seemed to have gone away and are reignited today by the spectre of nuclear terrorism; though its provenance may have shifted to the South.

In that sense nuclear weapons have ceased to offer hopes of enduring peace, security or stability, and evidence abounds about their inability to deliver on these goals. Besides, such is the dismal record of nuclear weapons stockpiles that the demise of the Soviet Union could not be prevented by them, nor are the conflagrations in the Middle East deterred by nuclear weapons and even South Asia scarcely enjoys more security after its much heralded and possibly inescapable nuclearisation. There are ethical and moral concerns in the West as displayed, for instance, by popular resistance to high cost of modernization of the Trident system in U.K. or the symbolic but intrepid protest of the senior gatecrashers at the Oak Ridge nuclear production facility in United States. Finally, serious questions have been raised about the safety and security of the ‘nuclear enterprise’ which sustains these weapons. These are clear indicators of a future where it is going to be progressively and tangibly more dangerous living with nuclear weapons.

As regards nuclear disarmament, it has multiple dimensions: apart from the popular angst against the weapons, their mounting costs and non-utility; dedicated NGOs and think tanks have consistently made the case for their elimination in recent years. Then there are the non-proliferation advocates whose concerns focus more, or primarily, on preventing new nations from acquiring these weapons than on disarmament. Their case gets increasingly weaker under scrutiny as, for example, very thoroughly argued by none other than Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and former director General of the IAEA in his book, “The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times”.2ElBaradei, Mohamed. The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011. He warns that proliferation will be hard to stop so long as nuclear weapons of the “haves” continue without restraint. As a result, the official stance of the nuclear weapon states of indifference to disarmament has been under severe pressure for change or reform, as in the case of NATO, and questioning by the NPT parties for implementing obligations (under Art. VI of the NPT) for nuclear disarmament; apart from being roundly squeezed on grounds of financial sustainability.

President Obama rekindled in his 2009 Prague speech a refreshing initiative towards the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, which became difficult for his nuclear allies in Europe to push aside. The concrete achievements of arms reduction between Washington and Moscow are undeniable: For the first time the numbers of strategic weapons in their arsenals have gone to levels below those in the nineteen fifties. An entire set of measures and proposals are also before the international community for taking steps towards the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. This is unprecedented since the first special session of the UN General Assembly on disarmament in 1978 had forged a consensus setting similar goals; this time cynicism about such aspirations is less defensible than in the past.

That said where is the reality check? The question that is hard to blow away is why many nations crucial to the process are still not prepared to commence dedicated work for nuclear disarmament. What are possible reasons of the present dithering on their part, and general disbelief or even cynicism? The past five years have seen the tide and ebb of the ideas proposed by the four horsemen of apocalypse. In a 2007 joint paper, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn sought a nuclear weapon free world, essentially since nuclear deterrence, which may have worked in a bi-polar world, is too risky in a multi-polar world, and of no use against emerging threats such as those posed by suicide terrorists possessing a bomb.3Kissinger, Henry. A., and Sam Nunn, William Perry, George, P. Shultz. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”, Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007. The spate of proposals and initiatives that followed included President Obama’s Prague speech and the range of measures in his 2009 Nuclear Posture Review, further reductions in USRussian forces in the New Start treaty (and proposals for even deeper reductions), the UN Secretary General’s systematic five point plan for nuclear disarmament, the recommendations of NPT Review Conference of 2010 and a slew of other well considered measures advanced by global think tanks and peace movements.

However, in a piece last April in the Washington Post, Kissinger and Scowcroft seemed to have come full circle, as it were. Their concern:

“The Obama administration is said to be considering negotiations (with Russia) for a new round of nuclear reductions to bring about ceilings as low as 300 warheads. Before momentum builds on that basis, we feel obliged to stress our conviction that the goal of future negotiations should be strategic stability and that lower numbers of weapons should be a consequence of strategic analysis, not an abstract preconceived determination.”4Kissinger, Henry. A. and Brent Scowcroft. “Nuclear weapon reductions must be part of strategic analysis.” Washington Post, April 22, 2012. 22/opinions/35454468_1_nuclear-weapons-strategic-forceslow-numbers.

They further assert that

“Regardless of one’s vision of the ultimate future of nuclear weapons, the overarching goal of contemporary U.S. nuclear policy must be to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used. Strategic stability is not inherent with low numbers of weapons; indeed, excessively low numbers could lead to a situation in which surprise attacks are conceivable.”5Ibid.

While official Pentagon positions on these issues remain far more conservative, Kissinger and Scowcroft are pointing here to the hard road which lies ahead. Given their vast experience with nuclear disarmament negotiations it is not easy to dismiss their concerns. They have re-emphasized some old basics and added new pre-conditions for nuclear arms reduction, which, as understood by this author, could be briefly paraphrased as enhancing strategic stability, sufficiency, diversity, robustness as well as suitability and interrelationships of strategic forces with new technologies including missile defence, and precision guided or long range conventional weapons. Furthermore, they insist on taking into account a possible weakening of the non-proliferation regime and emergence of proliferating states if the US and Russia reduce nuclear weapons drastically and too quickly, on avoiding strategic analysis by mirror imaging à la cold war dialogues (i.e. attributing the same behaviour to the adversary as oneself with regard to nuclear weapons use) and the need to reassure US friends and allies about reliability of US extended deterrence in the ensuing uncertainty.

As can be seen very clearly these fundamental conditions are difficult to meet in simple minded stepby-step reductions. Verification of reductions and extended confidence in the verification system are also very weighty requirements when more nuclear powers join the fray; especially as sharp reduction in numbers would make the risks much higher of ineffective verifiability of compliance. Additionally, as North Korea showed, and the Iran imbroglio betrays, the so called “break out scenarios” lend further complications. The option trumpeted by the hawks, of pre-emption has a throwback to the age old pattern of disarmament through warfare – which would appear to be far less desirable in a multi polar world in times of global economic crises. Hence, more determined advocacy of global nuclear disarmament will be required – advocacy where the road map may have to comprise mutual acceptability among concerned states at every stage
and for every step.

The story of the twentieth Century struggle for disarmament in general and nuclear disarmament in particular has been that key states either preferred, or were compelled, to view it as a game. It is not as though humankind can afford to rest or have a sense of closure with having completed a round. Nor can key states have the luxury of resting on their laurels since reality of these weapons asserts in devious ways and outstrips past gains. It was first proliferation, then clandestine acquisition by states, then non-state actors joining the fray and finally the terror outfits prowling among them, putting paid to whatever assurance of stability were built by adherence of norms and restraints on the part of so many law abiding states. Partial solutions meant for managing rather than abolishing the weapons are proving inadequate in the face of dangers that persist.

In short, the moral, ethical, economic and strategic reasons for nuclear arms reduction may be much more potent and convincing today than ever before in the history of nuclear age but the pathways and mechanism for ushering in a systematic process of negotiations, actual reductions, and effective verification and compliance are by no means less daunting than anything hitherto. Hence the need for maintaining and stepping up pressure on governments to focus on a road map to elimination with inter-related steps and mutually reinforcing solutions – letting up such pressures is no option as these weapon systems have spawned over the decades tremendous vested interests, complex industry lobbies and pork barrel politics; unmindful of untold disasters in store.

As viewed from India, as regards the detailing of essential steps, those spelled out in the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan (RGAP), for instance, appear to be still valid for the most part, perhaps with some updating, e.g. prohibition on first use by an international convention, non-use against nonnuclear weapon states, fissile materials cut off, implementation of the CTBT, clear stages of involvement of the other three nuclear weapon states after deep reductions by US-Russia, and committing all nuclear weapon-possessing states to halting and reducing their weapons in a verifiable, transparent, equitable and multilateral process of negotiations. Concurrent work on each of these steps will be mutually reinforcing and would reduce concerns about threats to strategic stability and possible deterrence failure in the disarmament process. This is especially true due to the fact that nuclear capacities and force structures are varied between the regions and globally. There is big rupture in the logic of some states that articulate defence of their nuclear deterrent as one of last resort but in the same breath, advance scenarios and preparedness – avowedly for deterrence credibility – with no holds barred. Global commitment therefore would seem to be the sine qua non for the road ahead.

Surveying the political landscape; hopes are delicately pinned on the second term of President Obama for reviving the impetus. More cynical assessments have alleged expedience to NPT review in 2010 as being the motivation for the orchestrated wave of disarmament talk from 2007-10. Fact remains, however, that economic situation looks less and less predictable and in any case far from capable of sustaining the enormous cost of these weapons not only for US, but for other nuclear weapon states such as U.K. and France. And, what of Russia and China? Each of them has own agenda vis-à-vis the impending prospect of a changing global order. China postulates a global order with cooperation at high table with US and Europe; but remains somewhat ambivalent on nuclear disarmament. Russian President Putin’s strident pronouncements, on the other hand, do not conceal what he is demanding before moving with further reductions. France and Britain are coy but equivocal about a process even as their weapons stockpile remains low.

Pakistan is by far alone going full throttle on nuclear weapons build up and proclaims it would guard its prowess with all its military might. Indian government maintains its credible minimum deterrent while remaining broadly committed to pursuit of RGAP goal of NWFW in a verifiable, equitable, multilaterally negotiated process. Challenges posed by Iran and North Korea remain undiminished. It remains critical in the case of Iran to separate the perspective from that in North East Asia, not to let Iran go the North Korea way and continue the search for a diplomatic solution. Peaceful resolution of the Iranian imbroglio will also lend strength to the International Atomic Energy Agency which remains the only international organization with a track record in the nuclear domain, with a Nobel to its credit.

A vision of the world without nuclear weapon cannot be a reality unless credible international machinery was at hand and the inherent balance within the IAEA’s cooperative framework points the way towards it. In spite of the present state of the CTBT the organization set up in this regard, i.e. the CTBTO, has done commendably so far and is reassuring enough to be competent to play its due role after the Treaty enters into force. The UN machinery for disarmament was envisaged in 1978 and needs revitalization and review of the methods of work and procedures. Responsible states need to guard against steps that may dent the trust of a vast majority of nations in these institutions.

One can be an incorrigible optimist and say that a timeline exists for nuclear weapon free world i.e. the present century. To give a sobering perspective for disarmament, it is relevant to draw comparison with the prognosis of the Chemical Weapons Convention which is expected to fulfil its objectives almost close to the centenary of 1925 protocol. We are nowhere close to even the stage of the 1925 protocol as far as nuclear weapons are concerned. For nuclear disarmament, the emotion and passion must remain to act and achieve it tomorrow even though ample patience will be required to wait for a century and to not allow fatigue to set in.

References   [ + ]

1. Schell, Jonathan. The Fate of the Earth. New York: Knopf, 1982
2. ElBaradei, Mohamed. The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011.
3. Kissinger, Henry. A., and Sam Nunn, William Perry, George, P. Shultz. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”, Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.
4. Kissinger, Henry. A. and Brent Scowcroft. “Nuclear weapon reductions must be part of strategic analysis.” Washington Post, April 22, 2012. 22/opinions/35454468_1_nuclear-weapons-strategic-forceslow-numbers.
5. Ibid.
Ambassador Sheel Kant Sharma

About Ambassador Sheel Kant Sharma

Ambassador Sheel Kant Sharma is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi, India and former Secretary General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service and holds a Ph.D. (High Energy Physics) from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).