Nuclear Futures

WEB EXCLUSIVES | May 13, 2009     

Over the past year, there have been numerous high-level events dedicated to, or greatly influenced by, the growing movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It is a curious phenomenon: a sense of urgency has begun to surround a goal that, for all intents and purposes, everyone agrees is still very distant.

While a dedicated group of disarmament activists has pursued this goal for decades, much of the renewed debate in the mainstream can be credited to four senior American statesmen: Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn—hardly a group of pacifists. Together, they have raised the issue of a renewed drive to eliminate nuclear weapons not so much as a moral crusade, but rather as necessity for American security.

Their reasoning is that the dissemination of nuclear materials and knowledge makes the use of these weapons more likely over time by a weak and desperate state, or even by a non-state actor. Better, therefore, to ban the weapons completely and establish some sort of international regime to enforce the ban.

A very hard-headed, realist assessment has thus led this group to support what has, up to now, been largely regarded as an idealistic goal. And the realists are putting their time and credibility behind this drive. A substantial project has been established by this group, based at Stanford University, and serious work is being done to ponder how a nuclear weapons free world would work, and how we might get there.

The so-called ‘four horsemen’ are not alone. Similar, though more cautious, statements have been made by groups of British and German statesmen. (See also the comments in favour of denuclearization by Louise FrĂ©chette in her TĂȘte Ă  TĂȘte in the inaugural issue of this magazine.) Other projects concerning the elimination of nuclear weapons have been established, all with their respective coteries of retired senior officials who lend credibility to an objective that might otherwise be seen as quixotic.

Most importantly, President Obama has officially recommitted the US to the goal of a nuclear free world in his April speech in Prague. Though Obama stated specifically that he does not believe that the elimination of nuclear weapons will happen in his lifetime, he has called for serious efforts to begin the drive towards this goal. At the least, he has re-energized the international arms control and disarmament agenda, which had been grievously undermined by his predecessor.

So why all this talk about the elimination of nuclear weapons now?  Has something happened recently that has somehow dramatically increased the chances of their use?

Yes and no. The move towards a more dangerous nuclear world has been incremental over the decades as nuclear technology, materials and know-how have spread. Events in North Korea, Iran and Pakistan have created a heightened sense that the danger may be speeding up, but in fact this danger has been with us for while now. Nor have the developments of the past decades all been in one direction. South Africa, Libya, Argentina and Brazil are states which had gone down the nuclear road, but have turned back for varying reasons.

So the record is mixed, and the danger is not new. But the idea of a nuclear free world has suddenly taken off. There are at least four reasons why.

First, it fits the mood of the times. We live in an increasingly apocalyptic age. Global warming, spectacular terrorism and financial meltdowns all contribute to a sense that the world is spinning out of control. Though concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons are hardly new, there is indeed a growing sense that the genie is about to be let out of the bottle; that all sorts of undesirables are closer now to a nuclear capability than they have been at any other time.

Second, the Bush Administration’s callous disregard of global norms and standards, including those related to nuclear arms control and strategic stability, has created a backlash. Being for nuclear zero, and a renewed commitment to international arms control and disarmament, are a fashionable way to be against the philosophy of the neo-cons. This is not to denigrate or belittle the nuclear-zero movement. But the urgency that is now being attributed to the cause may draw some of its strength from a sense that we have eight long years of bad policy to overcome, and that dramatic steps are required to begin this process.

Third, as fossil fuels become scarce, and as environmental concerns rise, it seems likely that nuclear power will play an increasing role in meeting the global, and especially the developing world’s, demand for power. This raises proliferation concerns. A renewed commitment to disarmament is an important corollary of a growing dependence on nuclear power. If more and more nuclear materials and know-how are going to spread around the world, there must be a tougher regime to prevent it falling into the wrong hands.

Finally, it must be said that the US superiority in conventional military capability permits consideration of a world without nuclear weapons in which US dominance would still be assured. Indeed, such a world would help to assure US dominance. If poorer nations cannot keep up conventionally, then a nuclear deterrent is often believed, rightly or wrongly, to be the great leveller of the playing field. There is a sense, perhaps misplaced, that the US would not have invaded Iraq if Saddam Hussein had already developed nuclear weapons. And if many smaller states acquire nuclear weapons, the US ability to intervene would also be in question.

All of this points to the conclusion that the elimination of nuclear weapons cannot be a discrete goal unto itself. A new global security system is required within which smaller states that may have been thinking about nuclear options do not feel that they need them.  This suggests that states, including states that are little liked, will require guarantees of their security. Mechanisms to control the flow of such materials to sub-state actors will have to be developed—mechanisms that are more stringent, by an order of magnitude, than anything of which we can conceive today. Moreover, we must find ways to eliminate other WMD threats: it would be ironic indeed if the elimination of nuclear weapons simply created a world in which chemical and biological weapons became more valuable.

We do not yet know if any of this is possible, but that is no reason not to think about it or strive for it. The renewed energy around the goal of nuclear zero is welcome and overdue. A word of caution, however: this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

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Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He served for seven years in the Canadian Privy Council Office in positions dealing with intelligence and national security affairs, and seven years dealing with arms control for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

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