WASHINGTON, DC – The shocking thing about nuclear weapons is that they seem to have lost their power to shock. While the nuclear deal that was just reached with Iran in Lausanne might suggest otherwise and is very good news, that effort should not obscure the bad news elsewhere. The momentum toward a nuclear-weapon-free world driven by US President Barack Obama’s landmark 2009 speech in Prague, having faltered for the last few years, has now gone into sharp reverse.
When Russia annexed Crimea last year, President Vladimir Putin announced his readiness to put Russian nuclear forces on alert, and even signaled plans to “surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons.” The world barely stirred. Meanwhile, China and India are steadily increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals, and Pakistan is doing so even faster, even spelling out plans to combine battlefield nukes with conventional weapons. Again, the world shrugs.
For its part, the United States plans to spend $355 billion upgrading and modernizing its vast nuclear arsenal over the next ten years. Far from moving toward disarmament, the intention seems to be to maintain and enhance every component of America’s current land, sea, and airborne nuclear capability. There was more amusement than alarm at a conference of 800 nuclear specialists in Washington, DC, in March, when a senior Air Force general, eerily channeling George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove,” offered a nostrils-bared defense of “an ability to allow no adversary to have sanctuary anywhere in the world.”
Spooked by Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, North Korea’s erratic intransigence, and China’s new foreign-policy assertiveness, US allies and partners in East Asia and Europe have rushed back to unthinking embrace of Cold War assumptions about the deterrent utility of nuclear weapons and their central importance in security policy.
As my colleagues and I put it in our book-length report Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015, launched in Geneva, Vienna, and Washington in March: “On the evidence of the size of their weapons arsenals, fissile material stocks, force modernization plans, stated doctrine and known deployment practices, all nine nuclear-armed states foresee indefinite retention of nuclear weapons and a continuing role for them in their security policies.”
All of this has serious implications for the five-year review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), scheduled to begin in New York in late April. The NPT has been the single most crucial factor in limiting the world’s nuclear-armed states to the current nine, rather than the 20-30 widely feared a generation ago. But its credibility now hangs by a thread.
The NPT, after all, is based on a bargain: states that do not possess nuclear weapons promise not to acquire them, in exchange for a pledge by those that do to move seriously toward eliminating their arsenals. And recent developments have once again jeopardized that bargain, with many states again asking why, if the US, Russia, and others need nuclear weapons, they do not.
Given such sentiments, it will prove almost impossible at the review conference to build a consensus in favor of further necessary strengthening of the non-proliferation regime, with improved safeguards, export controls, security disciplines, and sanctions against withdrawal from the treaty. The irrationality of such resistance is not likely to weaken it.
Not all the news is bleak. Aside from the Iran negotiations, other arms control cooperation is continuing, including between the US and Russia over the New START treaty to reduce strategic deployments, and over chemical weapons in Syria. Despite lack of any visible progress toward ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, the signs are encouraging that Egypt and others in the region want to keep trying, and will not use the issue of a WMD-free zone to blow up the review conference, as had been feared.
Most encouraging of all, a major new international movement is gathering pace to focus policy attention on the horrific humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and to create the conditions for a treaty to ban them once and for all. Since 2012, major conferences have been hosted by Norway, Mexico, and Austria, and more than 155 states have pledged support for appropriate action, with only the nuclear-armed states and their allies and partners dragging their feet.
The nuclear-armed states will not sign on any time soon to any treaty that bans the use of their weapons under all circumstances. They will resist even more strongly the outright elimination of their weapons, given that the world is probably still decades away from devising sufficient verification and enforcement measures.
But if the NPT review conference is not to end in tears, with all the accompanying risks for world order that failure would entail, the five nuclear-armed states that are NPT signatories can and must be prepared to bring more to the table than they have so far. Baby steps – improving their transparency in reporting, or agreeing on the meaning of technical terms like “strategic,” “deployed,” and “reserve” – will not begin to satisfy the many NPT countries that have been appalled by the recent re-emergence of Cold War mindsets and behavior.
The nuclear-armed states can and should make serious commitments to dramatic further reductions in the size of their arsenals; hold the number of weapons physically deployed and ready for immediate launch to an absolute minimum; and change their strategic doctrines to limit the role and salience of nuclear weapons, ideally by committing to “no first use.”
Most important, they should agree on indicative target dates – from five to 15 years – for achieving all of these initial objectives. Deadlines have been indispensable for achieving sustainable-development and carbon-reduction goals: saving the world from the threat of nuclear annihilation is hardly a less urgent and important objective.