Nuclear Weapons As A Threat To Global Peace
Address by Professor Gareth Evans, Co-Chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group and former Foreign Minister of Australia, to the UNI Global Union 3rd World Conference, Nagasaki, Japan, 11 November
Meeting here in Nagasaki reminds us forcefully, and movingly, of something the world’s policymakers seem to have forgotten. Talking past each other at endless international conferences, playing their political games, dancing their diplomatic minuets, the world’s political leaders need to be starkly reminded, as we have been by our presence here, that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation is not just another difficult security policy issue - but one in a class all of its own, and with a gravity and urgency all of its own.
Nuclear weapons are, simply, the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the only ones capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it. There is only one other global policy issue remotely comparable in terms of its impact on planetary survivability, and that is climate change: but nuclear bombs can kill us a lot faster than CO2.
A lot of people, as we all know, are still hard to persuade about all this. It’s 65 years, after all, isn’t it, they say, since anyone was actually killed by a nuclear weapon? The Cold War, with all its tensions and dangers, has been over for twenty years, hasn’t it? Yes, North Korea and Iran seem a bit troubling, but doomsayers have been crying disaster about one threat or another now for decades, haven’t they, with nothing ever happening - like that boy in that old story who kept crying ‘wolf’ until the villagers stopped rushing to his rescue? Isn’t this all yesterday’s problem, not today’s?
But too many people seem to have forgotten that the boy who cried wolf did actually end up getting eaten. The real truth of the matter is that it is not statesmanship, or good professional management, or anything inherently stable about the world’s nuclear weapons systems that has let us survive so long without catastrophe, but rather sheer dumb luck. It simply cannot be assumed that luck will continue indefinitely. The threats we face are real, immediate and immense. Confronting them now is not a matter of choice but necessity.
Threat number one comes from the existing stockpile. Despite big reductions which occurred immediately after the end of the Cold War there are at least 23,000 nuclear warheads still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of around 150,000 Hiroshima or Nagasaki sized bombs. Over 9,000 of them are in the hands of the US, around 13,000 with Russia, and around 1,000 with the other nuclear-armed states combined (China, France, UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and – at the margin – North Korea). More than a third of all these weapons – over 7,000 - remain operationally deployed. And, most extraordinarily of all, over 2,000 of the US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each President of four to eight minutes.
We have been closer to catastrophe in the past than most people know. During the Cuban missile crisis we escaped World War III on the 2-1 vote of the three senior officers of a Russian submarine: losing communications with Moscow after coming too close to a depth charge from a US ship blockading Cuban waters, and not knowing whether war had broken out or not, the commander had to decide whether to launch his nuclear torpedo or not - and, overwhelmed by the responsibility, put it to a vote! Over the years, communications satellite launches have been mistaken for nuclear missile launches; demonstration tapes of incoming missiles have been confused for the real thing; technical glitches have triggered real-time alerts; live nuclear weapons have been flown by mistake around the US without anyone noticing until the plane returned to base.
About the only consolation from this comedy of errors, if anything so serious can be called a comedy, is that we learned a few weeks ago that Bill Clinton, for several months of his presidency, completely mislaid the nuclear codes he was supposed to carry in his pocket at all times – which means that during that period a US retaliatory nuclear strike could not in fact have been authorised even had anyone wanted to!
Given what we now know about how many times the very sophisticated command and control systems of the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy; given what we know about how much less sophisticated are the command and control systems of some of the newer nuclear-armed states; and given what we both know and can guess about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber offence will be of overcoming cyber defence in the years ahead, it is utterly wishful thinking to believe that our Cold War luck can continue in perpetuity. So long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere, they are bound one day to be used - if not by design, then by mistake or miscalculation.
Threat number two is proliferation - new states adding new stockpiles, with all the risks of deliberate or inadvertent use that come with them. So long as any state retains nuclear weapons, others will want them, for reasons that may be wrongheaded but have their own force: maybe to buy perceived equivalent prestige in the case of relatively strong powers; or to try to buy immunity from attack in the case of weak ones. India, Pakistan and Israel have already joined the five original nuclear powers. North Korea has thumbed its nose at the NPT, and now has five or six nuclear explosive devices. Iran may or may not be preparing to follow suit; if it does, others in the region are bound to join in. The ‘cascade’ of proliferation which has been feared since the 1960s may not now be far away.
Add to all that now risk number three: of terrorist actors getting their hands on a nuclear weapon or the makings of one. We can no longer be under any illusions about the intent of certain messianic groups to cause destruction on a massive scale. And – although the probability is small, and probably lower than some alarmist accounts have suggested -- their capacity should not be underestimated to put together a Hiroshima-sized nuclear device, using manageable technology long in the public domain and back-channel sourcing of the kind the AQ Khan network taught us to be alarmed about, and explode it from the inside of a delivery truck in Trafalgar Square, or Times Square or Federation Square - or a small boat in New York harbour or on the Thames - causing in each case hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries.
The fourth and last threat is associated with the likely rapid expansion of civil nuclear energy in the decades ahead, in response not least to the need for non-fossil fuel contributions to base-load electricity generation. Maybe there will be a less dramatic expansion than the doubling-plus-within-twenty years that was originally widely predicted, but it will be significant, a number of new countries will want to take up this option. The problem, is not so much with the power generating plants themselves, but new uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities such countries may be tempted to build: so called “bomb starter kits” of the kind that have caused so much anxiety in North Korea and Iran.
There is only one answer to all these threats: stopping the further spread of nuclear weapons once and for all, and reducing the existing stockpiles to zero, starting now. We know how this can be done: a very detailed and comprehensive road-map, with challenging but not unrealistic short, medium and long term agendas addressing all the different threats I have mentioned, has been published last year by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) which I co-chaired with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi.
What remains in doubt is whether what needs to be done will actually be done. Hopes have been high for most of the last two years, following the election of a US president at last totally committed to the ultimate achievement of a nuclear weapon free world. And some good things have been done during that period, including a successful summit on the crucial issue of securing nuclear weapons and materials from misuse, a successful initial US-Russia arms reduction negotiation, and a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that did not collapse in disarray as the one held five years earlier did. But President Obama’s domestic star has been fading, and real doubts have arisen about his capacity to deliver the inspiring agenda he spelt out in Prague last year, and the willingness of others to follow.
We are, I believe, back at a real watershed. Unless over the next two years the key players in the international community, and there are many that matter in this context, not just the US and Russia, get really serious about moving forward on the multiple critical agenda issues that face us across the whole spectrum of non-proliferation and disarmament challenges, there is a very real danger that any remaining momentum for change will stall completely - that the whole project will fall apart, and that we will be condemned to live for the indefinitely foreseeable future in a nuclear world that is very dangerous indeed.
There isn’t time now to spell out in detail everything that needs to be done, but putting it briefly, there are three big baskets of issues about which we have to get serious - and get serious simultaneously because they are closely interrelated.
The first is disarmament, not only because the existing stockpiles are so dangerous, but because so long as anyone has nuclear weapons others will want them. The immediate need is to get serious, in a way that none of the nuclear-armed states have so far been prepared to, about a time-line for drastically reducing weapons stocks. The ICNND argued strongly for setting 2025 as the ‘minimization point’ - by which time nuclear overall weapons numbers would be down by over 90 per cent, from 23,000 down to less than 2,000; all states would have signed up to a doctrine of ‘no first use’; and credibility would be given to that commitment by nearly all remaining weapons being taken out of active deployment. Getting to this point will be tough, but doable. And it will make the world much safer than it is now.
Getting from there to complete global zero will be much tougher still, and harder to set a time-line - geopolitical, psychological, and very difficult technical verification and enforcement issues will all be in play. The point is not to be spooked by these realities, but to regard them as challenges that can and will, over time, be overcome. What seems unthinkable now is likely to seem much more achievable ten years from now: just as pessimism can feed on itself and produce pessimism, so too are positive developments self-reinforcing.
The objective now must be to focus single-mindedly on the minimization strategy: to bed down the New START treaty between the US and Russia (much easier said than done in the current US political climate), and to start almost immediately on the next round of serious bilateral arms reduction negotiations. There are plenty of obstacles ahead in this respect, not least stated Russian concerns about the US’ perceived massive current conventional weapons superiority, and the problems posed by its ballistic missile defence programs, but they are not insuperable. At the same time the foundations have to be laid for eventual multilateral negotiations with the other key players - not least China (which has concerns about US capability very similar to Russia’s), India and Pakistan, in respect to all of whom the first priority must be try to reach agreement on a freeze on additions to their present arsenals. And Israel has to recognize that its own interests are best served not by hanging on to its own undeclared nuclear weapons, but by becoming part of a genuine Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
Getting serious about non-proliferation means in the first instance strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the relevant watchdog organization, and effectively remedying weaknesses in the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, in particular strengthening the safeguards regime by universal adoption of rules which allow nuclear inspectors to be not just accountants, mechanically recording the flow of sensitive materials through power plants, but real detectives, chasing up leads about undeclared facilities and weapons programs. The agreed language on these and related issues at the NPT Review Conference was either limp or non-existent, and a huge amount more needs to be done.
Getting serious about non-proliferation also means addressing the proliferation risks potentially associated with the likely dramatic expansion of civil nuclear energy in the years ahead, with most immediate need being to ensure that no new ‘bomb starter kits’ are built by new countries. That means in turn being able to offer them assurances of supply of the fuel they need, the creation of an internationally managed fuel bank, or some other multilateral arrangement that would pose less risk. A lot of key countries, particularly in the global south, have been dragging their feet on this issue, and it is time that they stopped.
The most immediately pressing of all non-proliferation needs is, of course, to deal effectively with the specific problems of North Korea and Iran – getting Pyongyang back into the NPT box, and ensuring that Tehran doesn’t jump out of it. I believe that the Korean situation is containable and ultimately solvable, and that in the case of Iran there is much less likelihood than is generally assumed in the West that it will actually build nuclear weapons - but no one can doubt the seriousness of both these situations, and the need to continue working actively and urgently for a negotiated solution.
There is a final collection of issues, perhaps best thought of as relevant building blocks for both nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament about which we also need, as an international community, to be very serious indeed. The first is ratifying into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is still limping along on a purely voluntary compliance basis; the second is negotiating a new treaty to ban the further production of any fissile material for use in nuclear weapons, on which progress has been non-existent for years because of a blocking exercise by Pakistan; and the third is giving really practical effect to the large number of nuclear security measures which have been agreed in recent years to reduce the risk of theft or diversion of nuclear weapons or materials by irresponsible states or non-state terrorist actors.
Achieving a nuclear weapons free world is not an impossible dream, but it will certainly be an incredibly hard slog. To get there, the critical need is to build and sustain the necessary political will, and the most critical ingredient for this, as the ICNND spelled out in its report, is the right leadership, at three different levels: top down, sideways from peers, and bottom up.
The crucial top-down leadership is going to have to come from the US and Russia: holding between them 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, disarmament is inconceivable unless they lead the way bilaterally. Presidents Obama and Medvedev have made a flying start, but the next two years will be absolutely crucial in determining whether that momentum can be maintained.
When it comes to peer group leverage, like-minded countries around the world have to be mobilised to maintain the pressure on all the relevant players to do everything that is necessary to advance the disarmament, non-proliferation and building block agendas I have described. My own country, Australia, and Japan and a number of others have played important roles at various stages in the past in this respect, but it's crucial that a much broader group, and one fully reflecting southern voices, be heard in this respect in the future
The really crucial need, of course, is to somehow capture the imagination of publics around the world in the same way it has been by that other great threat to our global survival, man-made climate change. Maybe the vehicle for that is now to hand with the new film Countdown to Zero, premiered recently in the US and scheduled for worldwide distribution in coming months, by exactly the same documentary team that produced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth on the environmental challenge. I certainly hope so.
If we are going to generate effective action to avoid the horror of nuclear obliteration it will mean continuing determined effort from all those passionately committed to holding the line on proliferation, and making disarmament happen. That means not just from national and international leaders but from everyone, ordinary citizens in every country across every corner of the globe capable of influencing them. And it certainly means from trade unionists, who have long passionately defended the rights of ordinary working men and women, including the most fundamental right of all, to live out our lives in peace and security. As all of you here know better than most, you don’t get to change the world by simply observing it. And there’s no issue on which the world needs changing faster than ridding itself once and for all of the inhumane, catastrophic abomination of nuclear weapons.