Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: Giving the Obvious a Chance in 2009

It has long been blindingly obvious that the only sure way to prevent the use of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them, but the politics of arms control has never really been drawn to the obvious – until now, that is.

This year could be a turning point for nuclear disarmament. That sounds like the kind of thing that might be said by disarmament enthusiasts each January, but it could not have been credibly uttered by even the most congenital of optimists at the start of any of the last eight years – make that 16.

George Bush the elder, presiding, as he did, over the end of the Cold War, had some genuine turning point opportunities and in fact managed to set in motion, along with Russia’s Michail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, a period of significant decline in US and Russian nuclear arsenals. The Presidency of Bill Clinton supported the momentum, but his failure to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty through the Senate and the rapid expansion of NATO were among factors leading to a souring of Russian-American disarmament efforts.[i] Then George Bush the junior, while continuing reductions in nuclear arsenals, embarked on a series of policies and actions designed to re-entrench nuclear weapons in US security policy and to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by any serious or permanent international disarmament laws or obligations.

But at the dawn of 2009 it is a whole new world of possibility.

To begin with, some simple truths are getting harder and harder to avoid:

· As long as some States insist on indefinitely retaining, and brandishing, nuclear weapons, others will insist on acquiring them as well.

· The greater the number of States with nuclear weapons, the greater the likelihood that they will be used.[ii]

· Nuclear knowledge, technology, materials, and weapons will inevitably be accessible to any state with a developing industrial base and advanced educational and scientific institutions – and that’s a long and growing list of potential proliferators. Thus, successful non-proliferation depends on creating a political/legal climate that sees nuclear weapons as sources of insecurity and vigorously eschews them.

· It is impossible to rationally construct a scenario in which the world would be better off if nuclear weapons were used in combat, than if they were not used.

Accordingly, indeed obviously, the consensus in favor of nuclear disarmament down to zero is reaching global proportions. A survey of 21 key states around the world found that 76 percent of people questioned favor a global agreement that “all countries with nuclear weapons would be required to eliminate them according to a timetable” while “all other countries would be required not to develop them.”[iii] Public support for the total elimination of nuclear weapons is higher than the global average in China, France, the UK, and the US, but lower than the average in Russia and India (but still 69 percent and 62 percent respectively). In Pakistan support is only at 46 percent, but even there more favor total nuclear disarmament than oppose it.

Given that overall support, it is not simply a coincidence that as of January 20, 2009 the White House will be occupied by an American Commander in Chief genuinely committed to the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. Furthermore, he will have allies among the elites of the American and international security community, ranging from Henry Kissinger to Ban Ki-Moon.[iv]

In December a group of 100-plus political, military, business, religious, and civic leaders met in Paris to mobilize efforts toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. A unique contribution of this group, which Canada’s Simons Foundation was instrumental in assembling, is to insist on a definite timeline, 25 years, in which to accomplish the goal. The group refers to its effort as “Global Zero” and includes an impressive list of major figures among its supporters: former US President Jimmy Carter; former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger; former Defence Secretary Frank Carlucci; former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; Shaharyar Khan, a former Pakistani foreign minister; retired Air Chief Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi of India; and Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary.[v]

It’s also worth remembering that under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) all states (except India, Israel, and Pakisatan which have never signed it) are already committed to the elimination of their nuclear arsenals (but without a required timeline) and in the 2000 NPT Review Conference the nuclear weapon states made “an unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI.”

There are still plenty of skeptics out there, some of them in high places. But the concrete steps needed for progress toward fulfilling that promise are already known and broadly agreed.

Analyst Gwynne Dyer has it about right: “It sounds like a pipe dream, but in fact the conditions have never been as promising as they are now. If Obama takes the lead, it could happen – and even in the depths of a recession, it wouldn’t cost anything.”[vi] The only thing to add is that this “pipe dream” is now the only realist option in the nonproliferation mission.

Over the course of 2009 there will be many occasions to assess progress, or lack of it, on the specifics, and, of course, to hear further from both the skeptics and the enthusiasts.

[i] John Holdren, the newly designated Chief Science Advisor in the Obama Administration, provided a review of the 1990s achievements and failures in advancing nuclear disarmament in an address to Pugwash, 5 August 2000, “The Impasse in Nuclear Disarmament, http://www.pugwash.org/reports/pac/pac256/holdren.htm.

[ii] That is the conclusion of a November 2008 report of the US National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025:

A Transformed World, available at http://www.dni.gov/nic/NIC_2025_project.html.

[iii] “Publics around the World favor International Agreement to Eliminate all Nuclear Weapons,” World Public Opinion.Org, 9 December 2008, http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/international_security_bt/577.php?nid=&id=&pnt=577&lb=btis.

[iv] See posting here on 04 August 2008, “McCain, Obama, and the imperative of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” https://www.igloo.org/disarmingconflict/mccainobam.

[v] “World leaders gather in bid to impose a ban on nuclear weapons,” Yahoo News, 7 December 2008, http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/capress/081206/world/nuclear_weapons_1. Visit the Global Zero website at http://www.globalzero.org/.

[vi] Gwynne Dyer, “Conditions favourable for elimination of nuclear weapons,” Kingston Whig Standard, 15 December 2008, http://www.thewhig.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=1346088&auth=GWYNNEDYER.

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