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The Nuclear Illusion

In Project Syndicate (Worldwide Distribution), 26 April 2013

GENEVA – As delegates from 189 countries gather to prepare for the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, due in 2015, I am reminded of my first official briefing, as a young Australian minister back in the early 1980’s, on United States nuclear strategy. It was given to me, in the bowels of the Pentagon, by a man with a white dust jacket and a pointer who looked uncannily like Woody Allen.

He did not have much to say about the countless real human beings who would be vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled, or irradiated to death if a nuclear war ever erupted. The language was disengaged and technical – all about throw-weights, survivability, counterforce, and countervalue targets. But it was a dazzling account of the logic of nuclear deterrence and the mechanics of mutually assured destruction, which both the US and Soviet Union applied throughout the Cold War.

Thirty years later, our world is not one in which the governments in Moscow or Washington are likely to hurl swarms of nuclear missiles at each other (if it ever was). Nor is it a world in which China or the US would conceivably ever intentionally start a nuclear war against the other.

Even for India and Pakistan, the risk of misjudgment or miscalculation is much greater than that of deliberate nuclear warmongering. And, for North Korea – or Iran, should it ever build nuclear weapons – the risk of the regime initiating a nuclear attack is negligible, given that doing so would result in its certain (non-nuclear) incineration.

Not many delegates here in Geneva, even from the nuclear-armed states, would disagree with any of these assessments. But it is extraordinary how much of the disembodied calculus of my Woody Allen-lookalike still prevails in today’s nuclear policymaking.

Russia worries that its nuclear-tipped missiles, based largely in static locations, might be destroyed on the ground by a preemptive strike by long-range US missiles, and its retaliatory punch weakened by US ballistic missile defense. Though it can paint no scenario in which this would ever occur, it not only drags its heels on further arms-reduction talks, but insists on keeping a thousand or so of its strategic nuclear weapons on launch-within-minutes alert status.

Not surprisingly, the US refuses to de-alert its own nuclear missiles if Russia will not. So nearly 2,000 weapons of mass destruction still face each other on high alert, maximizing the prospect of a catastrophe through human or system error or cyber sabotage.

This deterrence logic produces a snowball effect. With Russia and the US holding 18,000 of the world’s current stockpile of 19,000 nuclear weapons, it is proving impossible to persuade any of the other nuclear-armed states to reduce their own (much smaller) arsenals until the Big Two make further drastic cuts to theirs.

China shares Russia’s concerns about US conventional and missile-defense superiority, and is increasing and modernizing its estimated 240-weapon stockpile. With China taking that course, India – outside the NPT but with 100 weapons of its own – feels the need to add to its own arsenal. And Pakistan then becomes even more determined to try to keep ahead of India.

The truth is that none of the nuclear-armed states, inside or outside the NPT, pays anything more than lip service to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. The continued seductive power of the Cold War logic and language of nuclear deterrence is the primary reason, though for some states it is clear that the testosterone factor – perceived status and prestige – also plays a role.

The uplifting pro-disarmament rhetoric of US President Barack Obama remains just that. No nuclear-armed state will set a timetable for a major reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, let alone their abolition. The size of their arsenals, their fissile material stocks, their force-modernization plans, their stated doctrine, and their known deployment practices all point in the same direction. All foresee indefinite retention of their nuclear weapons, and a continuing role for them in their security policies.

The implications of this stance are profoundly troubling. Concern about states in the Middle East and Northeast Asia joining the nuclear club is as high as it has ever been. But the foot-dragging by the nuclear states on disarmament is making it increasingly difficult to add necessary new muscle to the global non-proliferation regime.

This was obvious at the last NPT Review Conference in 2010, when efforts to mandate stronger safeguards, strengthen compliance and enforcement mechanisms, and inject new life into the control of fissile-material production all went nowhere. And that sentiment is alive and well in Geneva this week.

Of course, it is irrational for those whose ultimate objective is a nuclear-weapons-free world to support anything but the strongest non-proliferation measures. But bloody-mindedness is a natural and inevitable reaction when leaders see double standards – “my security concerns justify nuclear weapons, but yours do not” – at work on this scale.

Progress toward achieving a safer and saner world requires all of the nuclear-armed states to break out of their Cold War mindset, rethink the strategic utility of nuclear deterrence in current conditions, and recalibrate the huge risks implied by retaining their arsenals. It is time for them to recognize that in today’s world, nuclear weapons are the problem, not the solution.


This article is available online at: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/foot-dragging-at-the-npt-review-conference-by-gareth-evans#kDWw77K01SUZoqGs.99