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Obama’s Prague Speech One Year On: The Nuclear Balance Sheet

Transcript of address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Co-Chair, International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, to Australian Strategic Policy Institute Luncheon, 18 March 2010, Canberra

Thank you very much, Lee Ward, for your generous introduction, and for Unisys's role in sponsoring this occasion. And thank you to ASPI - Peter Abigail, Rod Lyon and all the rest of the team - for the terrific work that you do in so many of these interrelated areas, and particularly for the privilege of being able to speak to you here today.

It's nearly a year, 5 April 2009, since President Barack Obama delivered his Prague speech, generating an extraordinary international reaction. Maybe there wasn't quite as much exhilaration from some members of some defence establishments around the world, but for a great many other people it was exhilarating indeed because here we had the United States President articulating, with great clarity and precision, a vision of a nuclear weapon-free world, making the case for that, and spelling out the kind of steps that the US would take or seek to take by way of leadership in that respect over the period immediately ahead.

It's difficult to overstate the impact that speech made in overcoming the sense of sleepwalk that has really been out there in the international community for most of the last decade. There was an initial burst of activity, intense and very important, in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. But the last ten years have been rather different. There's been a sense that this issue has just been sliding away from public and policymakers' consciousness, notwithstanding the obvious anxiety about the particular cases of Iran and North Korea -- a sense that it really just wasn't the kind of issue that demanded global attention, certainly not on the scale that is being given to, for example, climate change.

But the Obama speech, and his demonstrable commitment to taking the issue forward, did change the game. And certainly, it gave hugely accelerated momentum to the effort that the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament was making at that stage to get this issue on to the global agenda. When originally conceived by Kevin Rudd and his Japanese counterpart in the middle of 2008, the basic rationale of this Commission was really to just energise a high level of international policy debate on an issue which really had dropped out of policymaking consciousness, and badly needed to be restored to it because of the nature of the multiple character of the threats that are out there.

With the Obama speech, the nature of our exercise was transformed from one of just trying to generate attention to, rather, spelling out chapter and verse as to how a debate already started might be taken forward, and carry through into practical implementation. What we tried to do was to take the Prague speech -- with all the excitement and momentum it had generated -- and translate it into something resembling a deliverable, implementable program of action.

Our report begins, as you would expect, by analysing in great detail the nature of the threats we need to be concerned about: from existing weapons; from new players entering the nuclear-armed state game; from non-state terrorist actors; and, potentially, from a dramatic expansion in civil nuclear energy, particularly if that is associated with the development of “bomb starter kits” in the form of new national uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities. We then address those threats with a series of policy proposals that are not just thrown out like a long, extended laundry list, but rather are shaped into a series of serious, practical, action agendas: short-term, medium-term, and long-term respectively.

Our short-term agenda, to which I will return in a moment to describe in some detail, covers the next three years, through to 2012, not entirely coincidentally the end of the present term of the Obama administration and also Medvedev’s presidency in Russia -- short enough to generate a sense of urgency, but also long enough to enable some serious foundation stones for the future to be laid.

The medium-term agenda we articulated was built around 2025, fifteen years out, as the target date for achieving a really quite dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear warheads in existence: down from the present 23,000 -- with a combined destructive capability incidentally, of something like 150,000 Hiroshima-scale weapons -- by over 90 per cent to no more than 2,000 weapons worldwide, with accompanying significant changes in nuclear doctrine and weapons deployment.

Our longer term agenda is for the period 2025 plus, during which the goal is to move down, as soon as possible, from very low numbers of nuclear weapons to zero weapons. We were careful not to identify a particular target date, something which has disappointed a lot of civil society groups, but I think that been critical for the credibility of our report with most actual decisionmakers. For this final, extraordinarily complex and difficult, step there are just too many uncertainties and unknowns to be able to make any kind of confident judgement about actual timetables at this stage, although that should not be taken as any kind of reason for not working hard to build and sustain the momentum for a fully nuclear free word.

Returning to the short-term agenda that we described, and on which I want to focus today, this to a significant extent mirrors the key elements that President Obama said in his Prague speech had to be attended to over the next few years, and in relation to which he pledged that America would play a leading role. The issues fall into three boxes: disarmament, non-proliferation, and building blocks for both.

As to the disarmament box, there are three crucial short term ingredients. First, successfully concluding the US-Russia START-treaty follow-on negotiation so as to significantly reduce the number of deployed strategic weapons on each side, and to lay the foundations for further deep bilateral reductions, crucial given that these two countries between have over 95 per cent of the world’s warheads. Second, for a major start to be made in reducing the role, or salience, of nuclear weapons in the military doctrines of the nuclear armed states -- with the US having a critical leadership role here. And third, for at least the foundations to be laid for a serious ongoing multilateral disarmament process, bringing in all the nuclear armed states other than the US and Russia.

The non-proliferation box of issues contains two very large items. First, to strengthen those aspects of the present non-proliferation regime which have demonstrably shown weakness: monitoring, verification and safeguards; compliance and enforcement; and the resources available to the IAEA itself. It is critical that countries not be able to shelter, as North Korea did and Iran may be trying to do, under the protection of the Non-Proliferation Treaty only to then purport to walk away from it, having acquired the capacity to actually build nuclear weapons: that process should not be as cost-free as it has tended to be in the past. The second big non-proliferation objective which needs to be accomplished in the short term is to somehow reverse, or at least contain, the problems that exist with North Korea and now stare us in the face in Iran.

The “building blocks” box again contains three key items. First, bringing the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty finally into force, so that we are no longer relying on the fragile voluntary moratorium which exists at the moment: this is crucial in ensuring that existing nuclear-armed states will not be able, by testing, to dramatically generationally change the character of their weapons, and to help ensure that there won't be horizontal proliferation with new players coming into the game. Second, to negotiate and bring into force a new treaty to ban the production of fissile material for weapons purposes. And third, to effectively implement all the measures which have been agreed to be necessary to guarantee nuclear security -- to ensure that nuclear weapons and materials remain under safe lock and key wherever they are -- which is the subject matter of the Obama summit in Washington in April.

In addition to these three groups of short-term issues, President Obama in Prague also referred to (as does our Commission report in great detail) the need to build a new framework of civil nuclear cooperation, including the possible establishment of an international fuel bank designed to negate the downside risks of a dramatic global expansion in civil nuclear energy -- to ensure, in effect, that the enrichment and reprocessing “bomb starter kits” to which I have referred don’t get built, or if they do, are under some kind of international supervision.

Given ASPI’s Asia-Pacific focus, what are the implications of all this for this region? It is worth making the point that while reference to the Asia-Pacific only tangentially occurred in the Obama speech last year, it is obviously the case that this is one of the three geographic regions of the world in which the world's nuclear future will in fact be played out; the other two being the Euro-Atlantic space, and the Middle East. Getting right the North Korean case is being seen as a wholly Asia-Pacific enterprise, with the six-party talks comprising entirely regional players. In this case, and other non-proliferation contexts as well -- not least Iran -- China’s cooperative role is being seen as absolutely crucial. So too in the case of disarmament: even though the primary focus, worldwide, is on the US and Russia -- understandably so since they between them possess 22,000 of the world's 23,000 nuclear weapons -- all eyes, thereafter, are on China to see what happens next and whether it becomes a serious player in the disarmament game. And what happens in China in this respect will very much determine how the other two members of that key Asian triad, India and Pakistan, react to pressure to move into at least the prelude to a serious disarmament exercise.

Key regional countries will also be important in determining whether there is early movement on the issue of nuclear doctrine, viz. reducing the role of nuclear weapons in strategic policy. How adventurous the US is prepared to be in taking the lead in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in its own doctrine will depend in significant part on its perceptions of what its North East Asian allies - Japan and South Korea in particular - think about that. In the case of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, a key reason for President Obama’s willingness to pursue “aggressively” its ratification by the US was to unlock the resistance to ratifying the treaty, by the key Asian players -- China, India and Pakistan -- with the hope that thereafter, that sentiment would flow through to the Middle East holdouts. And in the fissile material cut-off treaty negotiation, Asia is again centre stage with the critical issue now being the attitude of Pakistan, which has taken upon itself to block that process in Geneva, with wide-ranging consequences the world must now address.

So while the primary context in which Obama made his Prague speech was the traditional Euro-Atlantic alliance one, with a lot of his focus on NATO and the broader European theatre, all the issues he raised have great resonance in the wider Asia-Pacific region, and what happens here is going to be crucial in determining whether this agenda moves forward, or whether it gets stuck.

So what is the state of play now worldwide, a year after the Prague speech, and three months after the launch of our Commission’s report? How much progress are we making toward a nuclear weapon free world, and to what extent is the Obama enterprise holding together or already under strain?

The judgements I will offer you are based on a very comprehensive program of worldwide travel and advocacy in which I am presently engaged on behalf of the Commission and with the Australian Government’s support, visiting some 25 countries between December and the start of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May. By the middle of January I had already been to Washington twice and Moscow, and to London, Paris and Tokyo. I returned 48 hours ago from another trip which has taken me to the other nuclear armed states, a China, India, Pakistan and Israel, as well as to Cairo, Seoul, Brussels and Vienna and Geneva. That just leaves key South-East Asian and Latin American countries to go: that is my schedule for the next few weeks, combined with a visit to Canada and a couple more to the US for both the Obama summit in Washington and the May Review Conference in New York.

From all these travels to date, I have a mixture of good news and less good news to report. The first piece of good news is that President Obama's personal commitment to this cause remains absolutely undiminished -- and one cannot overestimate the significance of that kind of leadership coming from the US. It's another question, of course, whether he is going to be able to fully deliver on that commitment, but certainly the commitment is there.

The second piece of good news is that the Nuclear Security Summit that he is hosting in April -- just a few weeks time -- is very much on track. There has been a good consultative process. There has been a lot of buy-in by all the countries whose support is crucial for the kinds of disciplines that are required to ensure that nuclear weapons are properly locked-up, and that nuclear fissile material is not vulnerable to misappropriation, theft, or other diversion to either non-state terrorist actors or less than salubrious state actors. The agenda here is well known and has been well mapped in many previous decisions in the UN Security Council, and in institutions already created, but we're a long way behind in terms of effective implementation. Obama set a four year timeframe for doing just that, and this conference is designed to energise a global constituency for that purpose. All the signs are that there is already pretty well unanimous agreement among participating countries -- 40 or 50 of them -- as to what that implementation strategy should be and what kind of resources need to be mobilised.

My third piece of reasonably good news is in relation to North Korea. That assessment might come as something of a surprise to some people here who are generally pessimistic that any good news could ever come out of that country, and I fully understand the rationale for that. But the truth of the matter is that it has never been entirely clear that the North Koreans are absolutely hell-bent on acquiring a permanent nuclear weapons arsenal. There's one school of thought that says of course they are. But others have always felt that this was an issue that's negotiable. With the varying quality and character of the internal political and economic environment -- with some terrible mistakes made in recent times by the leadership in terms of maintaining any kind of support from its people in terms of economic issues -- the pressure is back on the North Koreans, aided by some substantial squeezing that's going on from China, and indeed all the other members of the six-party talks, and I think that there's a reasonable chance that those talks will be reinstated before the year is out. It is quite another thing to say they will bear any kind of immediate fruit, but I think the prospects are for a continuation, more or less indefinitely, of the sort of one step forward, two steps back/ two steps forward, one step back kind of process that we've seen for so long. I don't believe there is going to be any resolution to this in terms of a denuclearisation deal effectively delivered any time soon. But I do think the situation is containable and that it is very much perceived that way by the key regional players that matter most in this context. .

Fourth, on the doctrinal issue, there is good news in the very important but still largely unreported and unnoticed shift in the Japanese position on the question of what nuclear weapons are actually for. One of the issues that exercised us most on the Commission, and over which we most agonised -- as my fellow commissioner François Heisbourg, whose presence here today I am delighted to acknowledge, will well remember, as I am sure will my distinguished co-chair Yoriko Kawaguchi -- was the concern of our Japanese colleagues about any proposal to diminish the nuclear umbrella component of US extended deterrence. There was quite a strong comfort-level in the LDP and in the traditional Japanese bureaucracy about the availability of the American nuclear umbrella to operate as a deterrent, or potential retaliatory weapon, against not only nuclear threats, but against all kinds of non-nuclear threat contingencies as well -- including of course biological and chemical threats potentially coming out of North Korea or other places in the neighbourhood, cyber-warfare, or indeed even straightforward conventional attacks -- notwithstanding that this was quite dramatically at odds, conceptually, with the notion of diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security strategies.

A real debate is going on at the moment, in the context of the US Nuclear Posture Review, about the extent to which, consistently with maintaining extended deterrence, that very broad nuclear umbrella can be contracted -- with the US committing itself, if not to a full scale “no first use” position, at least to something which can be thought of as the first cousin of no first use, viz. “sole purpose”. What would be involved here is a declaratory statement that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others against oneself or one's allies. The significance of recent Japanese developments here is that there have now been, in recent months, following the change of government, both public statements and direct communications to the US by the Japanese leadership of Prime Minister Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Okada saying they could live with such a shift in the US doctrinal position.

I was hearing recently from various sources that that attitude might not be shared by the ROK, but in fact my own very recent conversations with the most senior members of the national security apparatus in Seoul makes me believe that the South Koreans too are prepared to move with a doctrinal shift of that kind. And the significance of all this in the North East Asian context can hardly be underestimated, laying as it does the ground for quite a significant move towards the delegitimisation of nuclear weapons. I should add that very much part of the Japanese and the Korean positions is an understanding that extended deterrence by conventional means would still continue to apply in a way that gave them complete confidence about their security future. But that said, given that confidence, they are prepared to see a winding back of the scope and range of the nuclear umbrella. And this indeed, I understand, is Australia's official position - though we have not yet spelt that out as clearly as has been done in the public domain by Japan itself.

There is to match all this, however, some less good news, and the issues about which my current assessment is a little bit bleak constitute, unhappily, a rather lengthier list.

First of all, of course there is the situation in Iran, which is to say the least hanging in the balance, with it not being entirely clear what Iran's intentions are -- there is still a lively debate about whether they really do want to actually weaponise, or whether rather they would be content with just having break out capabilities of a very high order. That said, there has been a significant record, now extended over a year or more, of resistance to Security Council and IAEA resolutions, to which, if the international community wants to maintain the credibility of those institutions, it is very difficult for it to continue to turn a blind eye. In this context, I think it's reasonably clear that China won't continue to maintain indefinitely its reluctance to support some kind of sanctions resolution in the UN. Beijing will continue to duck and weave and defer decision on this as long as possible, arguing that it is just keeping the door open for negotiations, but if Russia continues its present stance, of being quite tough-minded in terms of reacting to Iran’s latest manoeuvring, then it is likely that China will ultimately fall in at least with an abstention, if not offer outright support. But it is all very much up in the air as to how this finally resolves itself.

The Commission takes quite a clear view in relation to Iran that diplomatic negotiation has to be the name of the game; the door does have to be kept open. But at the same time we are conscious that we can't do this to the extent of seeing the credibility of our institutions diminish: so we are trying to weave a principled course through this, as is the rest of the international community. One of the issues that is playing out at the moment is the timing of all this in context of the NPT Review Conference, because Iran does have a very considerable constituency in the Non-Aligned Movement, which is making life very, very tricky indeed in the kind of political calculations everyone is making about how coalitions and constituencies can be built and held together in the next few weeks and months.

My second area of concern is the US-Russia bilateral negotiation, which really is a precondition for everything on the disarmament agenda. The following-on of the previous START treaty is a deal that should have been done, frankly, several years ago, and it was certainly expected that when the deal was done, with Obama and Medvedev both keen for this to happen, there wouldn't be any great difficulty in the US Senate ratifying the result. Now, we have to say, given the post-Massachusetts- meltdown .political environment in the US, and the general current dysfunctionality of the US system in multiple ways, this is no longer an absolutely done-deal. It is, unhappily, no longer to be assumed that even an entirely innocuous, sensible and rational US-Russia deal, when it is finally done - as we all expect it to be in a matter of days now – will have an untroubled path to ratification, and certainly not by the Senate before the end of the NPT Review Conference. So what was expected to be big stimulus for forward movement on disarmament, which would not only be the precursor to the next big round of the US-Russia arms reductions, but would feed through and create momentum for eventual disarmament among the other nuclear other players, is now seriously in the balance.

A further concern goes to the question of US doctrine, changes in which to reduce the role of nuclear weapons Obama floated in Prague last year, and, as I've just said, have been given some impetus by Japan’s recent significant policy shift. It is not at all certain that the Nuclear Posture Review to be announced by the US in the next few days or weeks will in fact produce the big doctrinal shift that it had been widely hoped it would, towards something like a “sole purpose” declaratory statement. Again it seems that current domestic political dynamics are playing into the hands of those who want to be more cautious, particularly given that there is still disagreement among the NATO allies as to the proper role and extent of the nuclear umbrella. It looks increasingly likely that the Nuclear Posture Review will be a major missed opportunity, rather than the occasion for a big step forward.

On the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, it had been hoped that with major effort this year by the US administration to answer previous concerns about stockpile reliability and the worldwide verification system, the ratification vote could be brought to a positive outcome. But -- needing as it does 67 of 100 votes – that seems now to be completely off the agenda this year, as the result of the current deadlocked political environment. A significant number of Republicans – including Senators like John McCain and those who would come with him -- need to cross the floor, but those numbers are just not visible at the moment. With McCain, for one, under threat from his own right in an Arizona primary later this year, the logic of the argument is not likely to prevail over the politics.

In the case of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty -- another one of the big building blocks, and one of the key short-term issues on everybody's agenda -- the news is also bad, with the negotiation in Geneva now profoundly deadlocked before it has even started to address any substantive issue. Having just visited Islamabad, I have a very clear sense of the intensity of feeling of our Pakistani colleagues on this front. Why one country matters is because the Geneva Conference on Disarmament is based on consensus, and without that it is not possible to even start a negotiation, let alone agree on any of the matters in issue. So this very important treaty negotiation is stuck. The question now is how to un-stick it: to go outside and around the CD is not just an option, it's becoming an imperative. But there is some anxiety about how that should play out in the context of the dynamics, again, of the Review Conference in May: how many are going to be offended and how many are going to be cheering should that happen? It has to be said that quite possibly sitting comfortably in Pakistan's slip-stream, but not being nearly as visible and vulnerable to criticism, are one or two other key players, who are only too happy for there not to be constraints on the further production of fissile material, because they want to keep open the option of further weapons production.

Which leaves, finally, the NPT Review Conference in May: what is the state of play there? The world simply cannot afford another disastrous non-agreement, as happened at the last five-yearly Review Conference in 2005, where after a lot of positive energy in 2000, the wheels completely fell off and no agreement was reached about anything. This was not entirely unrelated to the Iraq adventure a couple of years earlier, but nonetheless was a deeply depressing outcome. There are basically five areas which are up for debate/discussion, where there will be potentially significant differences of opinion.

The first is disarmament, on which I have to say the environment is looking rather better than it has for a while, with the weapons states all now looking as though they're prepared to get behind quite a strong statement of commitment to a disarmament agenda which is, if not a sufficient condition for getting agreement on anything else at the conference, certainly a necessary one. Our own proposals in the Commission report for a formal statement about disarmament in this respect are, interestingly, getting quite a lot of traction, with real attention being paid to it as a possible negotiating text.

The second crucial issue is agreement on the necessary strengthening of the non-proliferation regime itself, including the IAEA as an institution, and it has to be said that the prospects for this are shaky, even with a strong positive movement on disarmament. There are a number of countries still finding all sorts of reasons to see a strengthening in the non-proliferation regime as being some sort of assault on NAM’s interests, rather than something that is in absolutely everybody's interests to get right. Consensus in this area will not be impossible to achieve, but very tricky.

The third issue is whether or not there will be agreement on moving forward the concept of a nuclear or weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Here I think that there is a chance that there will be some kind of a proposal agreed on, along the lines that our Commission recommended, involving a UN-sponsored regional conference in which, at the very least, the prerequisites or preconditions for moving forward on this issue are seriously discussed, along with specific new confidence building measures. There are still immense difficulties in finding any common ground between Egypt and Israel, in particular, as to moving this process forward, not least because Israel does not even acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons, let alone being prepared to be in the business of getting rid of them. But the Iran issue is concentrating minds, giving more urgency to the idea of a genuine WMD-free zone and creating at least some momentum for compromise on ways forward.

The fourth issue is the nuclear security one, where as already mentioned the stresses are least profound and the degree of consensus is at the highest. Getting endorsement in May for the kind of recommendations likely to be agreed at the Obama Summit in April should not be a problem.

But, as to the last big NPT RevCon issue, relating to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, there is again a significant degree of policy difference about just how far the world, and the developing countries in particular, will be prepared to go in signing up to some kind of internationalisation of those sensitive facilities at the front and back end of the fuel cycle on which so much depends, if we are going to have real nuclear security in the future.

Moving the focus back out from the May Review Conference to the overall state of play, I would summarise the position in these terms. Whereas we in the Commission, and probably President Obama himself, were thinking of the three years to 2012 as being the time frame within which it was necessary to accomplish a series of identified short term objectives, to lay strong foundations and establish momentum for the long haul to minimization and ultimately elimination of nuclear weapons, I think we now have to acknowledge that the short term time horizon that really matters is not three years out, in 2012, but this year: 2010 is emerging as the critical watershed year.

If we do not have positive outcomes on half or more of the issues or events I have listed as benchmarks for this year, then I fear the momentum will be well and truly lost. If we have negative outcomes of a clearly visible kind on half or more of them, not only will the momentum certainly be lost, but I fear we will have abandoned for a very long time the possibility of it ever being regained. So it is absolutely critical for all the relevant international voices to unite to recognise the seriousness, the vulnerability, the fragility of the present situation, and to act accordingly.

My very last word in all of this is a message that I often repeat around the world. That is that on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, as in life itself, positives and negatives tend each to be mutually self-reinforcing, and self-fulfilling. If you start to get positive momentum going in any one area, this really does generate a degree of enthusiasm and willingness to take risks and move forward elsewhere: we saw just that happen in the immediate aftermath of the Obama Prague speech last year, when the mere fact of articulating these issues in an adventurous and visionary way made a huge psychological difference to the performance of the people participating in all the preparatory processes for the NPT Review Conference, and in the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, and in a variety of bilateral contexts as well.

But when doubt started to set in, almost immediately that positive, optimistic dynamic slipped away. Now there is a real risk that the negatives that are emerging -- and in particular possible disappointments relating to the delivery of some highly-anticipated outcomes in the US – will become all too visibly and unhappily self-reinforcing, and feed into a much less constructive outcome, for the NPT Review Conference in particular, than had been hoped.

The short point simply that the page on which the world must stay on at this stage is the positive rather than the negative one. I just hope that we can, in the very short time available, turn around some of these dynamics, and really get these issues of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, that are so critically important for the future of this world as we know it, back on track.