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Nuclear Arms Control: A role for The Elders

Presentation introducing Towards a Nuclear Weapons Free World: An advocacy role for The Elders, The Elders Board Meeting, London, 22 October 2018

Not only is Nuclear Arms Control one of the two biggest and most important policy issues in the world at the moment, it is a subject area especially well suited to The Elders – one where your particular combination of moral stature and practical governing experience at the highest level can make a real difference.

I say ‘one of the two biggest’ issues in the world today for this simple reason. There are only two existential threats to life on this planet which international policy failure can make real. One is global warming, and the other is devastation by the most destructive, as well as indiscriminately inhumane, weapons ever invented. And nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2.

And I say that The Elders can make a real difference for two reasons. Because of the nature of the messaging required (which I will suggest plays to the Elders’ strength, in balancing idealism with realism, while at the same time not needing to be impossibly complex), and because the kind of advocacy most required – where there is a real gap at the moment – is not so much bottom-up grass-roots mobilization but direct high-level access (which again obviously plays to the group’s strength).

There is a whole spectrum of nuclear arms control issues on which you could engage – and some (DPRK and Iran) where you already have a voice – but my strong recommendation is that for maximum efficacy you keep your main focus fairly narrow. You could focus on any one or more of three distinct issue areas:

  • nuclear security issues (ensuring nuclear weapons and fissile material don't get into the hands of rogue states or non-state terrorist actors);
  • nuclear non-proliferation issues - ensuring no new states join the existing nine members of the nuclear weapons club; or
  • nuclear disarmament – getting the world serious about getting rid of the weapons we now have, with the objective of ultimately getting to global zero.

My quite strong view is that The Elders value-added lies in focusing overwhelmingly on nuclear disarmament, because of all of them this is the first order issue – the one where the need for movement is presently greatest, but the least is being effectively done.

Nuclear security is, by contrast, a 3rd order issue: there is more or less universal agreement already on its importance, a lot has already been done through the Nuclear Security Summit process, and (though some will disagree) I don't think the risks of catastrophe here are nearly as high as with the other areas.

Nuclear non-proliferation is obviously hugely important, and a lot more does need to be done in practice both to ensure that there is no new breakout, not least in the Middle East and North East Asia, and especially to strengthen the NPT and related non-proliferation regimes. But again there is more or less universal furious agreement in principle about this, and no real new advocacy needed at the conceptual level.

What is needed, more than anything else, to get agreement – at the NPT Review Conference and elsewhere – on regime strengthening, is a perception that the nuclear weapons states are serious about disarmament, their Art VI obligation, which they are manifestly not at the moment: as the first part of the Canberra Commission mantra in 1996 puts it (in language which has been repeated in every blue ribbon commission or high level panel since, including the ICNND, of which Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ernesto Zedillo were both members with me): ‘So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them’.

All the world hates a hypocrite. And so long as the nuclear weapon states – and those which, like my own country, Australia, shelter under their umbrella – continue to insist that their security concerns justify retaining a nuclear option, but other countries’ concerns do not, that is exactly how the nuclear weapons states will continue to be regarded.

It’s in these senses that I regard non-proliferation as a 2nd order issue, with the 1st order issue having to be seen as nuclear disarmament: everything comes back to it. As the full text of the Canberra Commission mantra goes:

So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere, they are bound one day to be used – if not by design, then by human error, system error, miscalculation or misjudgement. And any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.

Of course one cannot just assert the need for disarmament, and for abandoning all the traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence that nuclear armed states make: one has to make the case. I won’t burden you by doing that now, but have tried to summarise all the relevant arguments in Sections II, III and IV of my paper. In short –

  • the risks associated with retention of nuclear weapons are very real indeed (paras 5-18)
  • the so-called strategic rewards of having nuclear weapons, their deterrent utility, are overwhelmingly illusory – even in the asymmetrical cases where smaller or weaker states claim they need nuclear weapons to protect themselves from predators (paras 19-31)
  • in addition to the risks far outweighing the rewards, there are formidable humanitarian, legal and financial arguments against nuclear weapons (32-41)

What has made the need for a focus on disarmament even more compelling is that (with the possible exception of DPRK – if President Trump doesn't end up derailing the process as quickly as he did help initiate it) things have been getting worse: not only has practical progress of the kind that President Obama tried to initiate in 2009 ground to a halt, but there are multiple signs that we are slipping backward:

  • a massive modernization program is underway in both US and Russia, with new warheads and new methods of delivering them;
  • net weapons numbers are increasing across Asia with Pakistan, India and China all increasing their arsenals (with the DPRK on the verge of achieving, if it has not already, intercontinentally-deliverable nuclear weapons);
  • existing arms control agreements - INF and New START – look either dead in the water or extremely fragile, with no new ones are in sight (and with Trump’s walking away from the Iran deal reducing confidence that the US would stick to any new agreement it did make);
  • there has been a depressingly casual re-embracing by policymakers almost everywhere of all the old Cold War language about the utility of nuclear deterrence – the absolute necessity of nuclear weapons to keep the peace, at least between the major powers; and
  • worst of all, there are signs that the nuclear taboo which has been an important inhibitor of aggressive first use of nuclear weapons in the past, is weakening – with the Russian President talking up the useability of nuclear weapons, including tactical weapons, in language not heard since the Cold War years, and the latest US Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year expanding the nuclear mission to include certain ‘non-nuclear strategic attacks’.
  • the use of nuclear weapons not just for deterrence but actual warfighting is back under active consideration, and the famous Reagan-Gorbachev joint statement that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’ seems to have less salience now, at least with the US and Russia, than at any time since it was made in 1987.

It is for all these reasons that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight, as they were in 1953, the closest to midnight in the Clock’s history.

The Project

So - big question for The Elders, I’d suggest, is not whether to put the focus of its nuclear project on disarmament, but how. Should your effort be put into getting behind the Nuclear Ban Treaty, which was negotiated with 122 states and is on its way to achieving the 50 ratifications it needs to come into force, as you were urged to do at your last Board meeting? Or would it be a more productive strategy, as I suggest, to put the outright prohibition issue on the backburner, treat it as the ultimate objective but one unattainable for the foreseeable future, and concentrate efforts not on elimination but what we called in the ICNND report the minimization agenda?

Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty. I am not suggesting that The Elders oppose the Ban Treaty. The treaty-making enterprise – and the humanitarian consequences movement from which it was born – has already generated real normative momentum, and will continue to do so. Having the treaty come into force would give disarmament further normative momentum. Global stigmatization, delegitimization, and the political will to prohibit nuclear weapons may not be sufficient conditions for their elimination, but they are necessary conditions. And whether the nuclear armed states like it or not – and whether others believing they are sheltering under their nuclear umbrella like it or not – that is the mood that is out there in the rest of the world.

But the Nuclear Ban Treaty is not going to directly produce any practical operational results any time soon. It was drafted in a hurry, has more preambular paragraphs than operational ones, and a number of obvious substantive weaknesses (spelled out in para 66 of my paper, not least the absence of any credible enforcement mechanism) which mean that none of the existing nuclear armed states, or their allies or treaty partners, have endorsed the draft treaty or will join it any time soon – or indeed for the indefinitely foreseeable future. The reality is that nuclear weapons elimination is only ever going to be achievable on an incremental basis. The Elders could spend a lot of time and effort campaigning for the Ban Treaty, but none of the relevant states will be listening.

Minimization Agenda. If progress is to be made on disarmament, it is crucial that those who are passionate about achieving a nuclear weapon free world bring some clear-eyed realism to the project, and not make the best the enemy of the good. The argument for nuclear disarmament, and for a timeline in getting there, has to be made in a way that is seen as credible, not hopelessly incredible, by policymakers.

The sensible course to adopt is to accept that disarmament has to be, as all the nuclear armed states say, a step by step process, but to demand that they actually get serious about taking some major risk reduction steps, and start seriously moving down the path by embracing what we called in the ICNND report the ‘minimization’ agenda. This sets four specific medium-term goals:

  • further drastic reductions in stockpile numbers, down from present 14,500 to around 2,500 (we said 2,000 in 2009, i.e. 500 each for US and Russia, and 1000 for everyone else combined, but probably now have to adjust that target upward a little);
  • major reductions in the number of weapons actively now deployed – much less than the present 4,000 or so;
  • drastic reductions in the number of weapons on dangerously high launch-alert status; and
  • commitment by every nuclear armed state to an unequivocal ‘no first use’ declaration (which would be given real practical credibility by the other minimization measures)

The ‘minimization’ approach recognises that there is not a straight continuum between getting to low numbers and getting from there to zero: there are a series of very big real world obstacles that will have to be overcome before states give up their last remaining weapons

: geopolitical - a sense that conflicts and potential conflicts, threats and risks, are becoming more rather than less manageable : psychological - overcoming the sense that some states have (France especially) that nuclear weapons are essential to their status in the world: what I call the testosterone facto; and above all : verification and enforcement - we may be on the way to developing credible verification measures, so that states can be confident a disarming state has in fact disarmed and is not rearming, but no one has begun even conceptually to identify an enforcement mechanism that would work effectively to counter a state determined in the future to break out of a zero constraint.

So the bottom line, and core message in all of this is this:

A world with very low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few of them physically deployed, with practically none of them on high-alert launch status, and with every nuclear armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use nuclear weapons, would still be very far from being perfect, and no-one should even think of settling for that as the end-point. But a world that achieved these objectives would be a very much safer and saner one than we live in now.(Para 73 of paper)

Methodology This is the message that is just not cutting through with policymakers at the moment, and I suggest is the one The Elders make their own. In advocacy terms, the basic storyline is quite straightforward:

1) Policymakers have to get serious about disarmament in a way they never have before. The mantra again:

So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere, they are bound one day to be used – if not by design, then by human error, system error, miscalculation or misjudgement. And any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.

2) Getting serious about disarmament doesn't mean being naïve about the immense difficulties involved in finally getting to zero – beyond our reach at the moment. But there is every reason to get serious about the half–way house – the minimization objective: it will not prejudice any country’s national interest, real or perceived, and with the right political will it is within our reach. If using ‘disarmament’ terminology is thought to be counterproductive with some interlocutors then talk about Nuclear Arms Control or Nuclear Risk Reduction – the substantive message is the same

3) The particular operational targets involved in the minimization objective can be succinctly and memorably summarized: as the ‘four Ds’ - Doctrine, Dealerting, Deployment and Decreased numbers.

In terms of advocacy strategy, my recommendation is simply to play to the Elders’ strengths (spelt out in para 105)

  • concentrate on high-level advocacy: direct communications and meetings with key leaders and those who most influence them (and in this context work with the UN Secretary General and Office of Disarmament Affairs in implementing the dialogue strategy they spell out in the Agenda for Disarmament); and
  • support that with visibility raising efforts in the media and at relevant international conferences and forums

My general objective would be to get the Elders playing the kind of elder statesman role that was for a long time occupied by the ‘four horsemen’ – Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nun – with their famous series of Wall St Journal articles calling for nuclear disarmament (see paras 94-5).

As I conclude the paper by saying: There is little point in setting formal ‘impact’ targets for this kind of advocacy. Progress will be slow and difficult to measure, as will be any causal relationship between what The Elders advocate, and any particular policy progress that is made. But in the present moral and intellectual global leadership vacuum, on one of the great existential issues of our time, it is hard to argue against the effort at least being made to turn the global debate on nuclear weapons in a more constructive direction. The Elders are as well placed as any group in the world to make that effort, and have a rather better chance than most to make a difference.