Surmounting the Obstacles to Nuclear Disarmament

A November 13-14 public forum at Toronto City Hall looked at the opportunities and obstacles to nuclear disarmament. The program and details are available at The following notes are my comments on some of the obstacles.

The current possibilities for finally locking in some significant gains in the slow movement toward zero nuclear weapons are truly unprecedented. The path toward a world without nuclear weapons is already well marked – many of the steps to be taken have been developed and agreed to in the multilateral review process linked to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – the NPT. To a surprising extent, we know who has to do what.

But the focus is not on what has to be done, rather, it’s on the obstacles to doing what must still be done. Four such challenges are identified. They are not necessarily the biggest obstacles – like the complex of military, industrial, scientific, and security constituencies that endure as complex centres of nuclear retentionism – but they are issues that need serious and sustained attention.

The first challenge is that posed by the real and potential proliferators within the NPT. As you know, the NPT is the core global law on nuclear weapons. The five states that had them when the Treaty was signed in 1968 are required to disarm; all other states must never acquire nuclear weapons. In one sense it has worked extremely well; of all the non-nuclear weapon states that signed the Treaty, only North Korea explicitly violated that commitment – pursuing a weapons capability while part of the treaty, then withdrawing and acquiring weapons. Some, like South Africa, pursued nuclear weapons, but then signed and moved into full compliance with the Treaty. Iran, as a Treaty member, has certainly not acquired nuclear weapons, but it is pursuing technologies, for a time it did it clandestinely, that raise serious questions as to its intentions.

So, out of 183 non-nuclear signatories, only two (North Korea and Iran) are now in formal noncompliance with their Treaty-related obligations.

The disarmament part of the Treaty has, of course, not worked nearly so well – but that shouldn’t detract from the new developments that indicate the disarmament agenda is finally starting to get some serious traction.

Now, disarmament advocates get justifiably impatient when nuclear weapon states keep changing the subject, away from disarmament and to nonproliferation. But, in the context of the priority objective of disarmament, we still need to affirm the central importance of getting the nonproliferation issue right. Few developments would be as durably devastating to disarmament hopes as would a pervasive and deep-seated suspicion that the nuclear nonproliferation regime is ultimately not reliable – that it is not up to the task of stopping or reversing the proliferators.

Disarmament requires a nuclear nonproliferation regime that earns the overwhelming confidence of the international community. In a world in which all nuclear weapons are finally banned, the system of monitoring and inspections will be the primary barrier to nuclear breakout and resumed arms competition. Nuclear technology, materials, and knowledge will continue to be present throughout much of the world via civilian programs, and more and more states will develop capacity, and there will also always be some who are tempted to convert that knowledge and material into weapons.

So, we need a detection and verification system that is continuously and indefinitely effective and has the confidence of the international community – and the successful resolution of the DPRK and Iran cases is essential to building that confidence.

During the course of the discussion there was a question as to the implications of Iran acquiring a weapon – but the ongoing dispute has serious repercussions even if Iran does not acquire a weapon. For the longer the IAEA has to say that Iran is not fully cooperating or that unresolved issues remain, the more the nonproliferation regime is undermined. Both the DPRK and Iran cases have benefited from a new infusion of more sensitive diplomacy and creative proposals, but they both continue to be very difficult problems, and as long as they fester, confidence in the nonproliferation regime continues to suffer. And already the fierce opponents of global zero in the US are bolstering their arguments against CTBT ratification, for example, on grounds that America should not lower its nuclear guard at a time when the nonproliferation regime is proving to be powerless to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to determined proliferators.

A second challenge is represented by the states with nuclear weapons that are outside the NPT. Three de facto nuclear weapon states have always been and still are outside the NPT (India, Israel, and Pakistan).

India’s status as a state with nuclear weapons was granted a level of formality when it was exempted from the Nuclear Suppliers Group prohibition on civilian nuclear cooperation with any state not under fullscope safeguards. Pakistan has really won the same recognition by default. The UN Security Council Resolution (#1172 of 1998) that required India and Pakistan, in the wake of their 1998 nuclear tests, to end their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, was never heeded and then rendered irrelevant by the Nuclear Suppliers Group action.

So we now have a situation in which India and Pakistan are essentially accepted as nuclear weapon states, but without being formally bound by any of the obligations that accrue to Nuclear Weapon States – notably Chapter VI (the disarmament chapter) of the NPT. Furthermore, while NWS in the NPT have signed the CTBT, India and Pakistan have not (US and China have signed but not ratified). And while NWS have put a moratorium on producing fissile materials for weapons purposes pending the negotiation of an FMCT, India and Pakistan have not (indeed, India is positioned to accelerate production when it imports uranium – possibly from Canada – for civilian purposes because then its domestic supply can be more fully dedicated to military purposes). That in turn puts pressure on Pakistan – and before you know it you’ve got a real nuclear arms race.

Canada, of course, is actively pursuing a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with India, and we’ll see whether Foreign Affairs is able to attach some nonproliferation conditions.[i]  It should, for example, be clear, at a minimum, that any further test of a nuclear warhead by India would immediately end all cooperation (the preference, of course, would be that India sign the CTBT).[ii] In particular India should be pressed to offer credible assurances that it has joined the five officially recognized nuclear weapon states in halting all production of fissile material for weapons purposes.

Israel obviously also remains outside the constraints and obligations of the NPT – and it is clear that a remedy will have to be pursued in the context of efforts toward establishing the Middle East as a nuclear weapons free zone and a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction – that will be a difficult process, to put it mildly, but at least discussions have begun about appointing a special envoy, or about holding a special conference to give some energy to that agenda.

A third major challenge to nuclear disarmament is the steep imbalance in global conventional military forces. Current levels of US conventional military spending, along with the posture of NATO, will not incline Russia toward zero nuclear weapons. Look at the statistics (2007 military spending):[iii] The US spent (in its basic defence budget) $552 Billion, or 43% of world total. Russia was at $32 Billion, or 2.5% of the world total. Russia, India, and China combined made up 8% of world military spending, while NATO’s share was 67%. At an almost 20:1 disadvantage, Russia, justified or not, will obviously continue to look to nuclear weapons as the way to level the strategic playing field.

The point here is not that general and complete disarmament is a prerequisite to nuclear disarmament – not at all. But it does suggest that nuclear disarmament requires the pursuit of cooperative security rather than competitive security, and it requires a fundamental rebuilding of security relations between the West and Russia, and China. The overall security objective needs to shift from mutual deterrence, to mutual, and demonstrable, reassurance.[iv]

Fourth, NATO nuclear doctrine persists as another impediment to disarmament. There isn’t time to expand on this, except to say that nowhere is the need for reassurance as an alternative to deterrence greater than in NATO. And, of course, the current review of NATO’s Strategic Concept is the place to begin. Both the rationale and the language for a new approach to nuclear weapons are available in the growing anthology of nuclear abolition statements that has emerged in the last few years from figures like Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, and many others.

Nuclear weapons, far from being “essential to preserve peace”, as the current NATO doctrine has it, are in the logic of the NPT an unacceptable risk to humanity; which means that it is their elimination, not their retention, that is essential to security.

Next, some Canadian policy priorities.


[i] John Ibbotson, “Why Harper needs a nuclear deal with India,” 12 November 2009.

[ii] CTBT Annex II Signatories/Ratifications still required: NNWS in NPT: Egypt, Indonesia, Iran (has signed); NWS in NPT: China (has signed), US (has signed). Non-NPT: India, Israel (has signed), Pakistan.

[iii] The Military Balance 2009, The International Institute for Strategic Studies (Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2009), pp. 447-452, re 2007 military spending: US ($552 Billion - 43% of world total); Russia ($32Billion - 2.5%); China ($46Billion); India ($27Billion); Russia, India, China combined (8%); NATO: $863Billion (67%); CSTO: $36Billion (Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan  (the Collective Security Treaty Organization); World Total: $1,280Billion.

[iv] Point forcefully made in, Steinbruner, John. 2009. Engaging with Russia: Managing risks, repairing rifts. Arms Control Today. January/February.

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