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Toward Safer and More Stable Nuclear Deterrence

Remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Co-Chair International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and Chancellor Australian National University, to European Leadership Network/Nuclear Threat Initiative/Hoover Institution Conference on Deterrence: Its Past and Future, Lancaster House, London, 21 May 2011

Getting serious about reducing the risks associated with nuclear deterrence – including extended nuclear deterrence offered by nuclear weapons states to their allies – means getting collectively serious about, sharply focusing our attention on, and taking some immediate steps to advance, three big policy objectives, relating to decision time, doctrine and down-sizing respectively.

Decision Time. The issue of de-alerting – extending warning and decision time, and reducing the still quite alarming human and system-error risks associated with the more than 2000 U.S. and Russian weapons presently on very high launch-on-warning alert status, is one that demands very high priority attention.

As the Australia-Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) put it, “when political, economic and security relations, at least among the five NPT nuclear weapons states, render deliberate nuclear attack virtually unthinkable” to have just four to eight minute windows for presidential decision making as to whether to launch in response to some red-alert information or misinformation is “the ultimate absurdity of nuclear deterrence”.

But of course nothing is ever straightforward in the arms control business. As a result of the inability to break out of the Cold War mutual deterrence/mutually assured destruction mindset, we know that that mutual de-alerting is seen by Moscow as making Russia much more comparatively vulnerable than the U.S., because of its much less mobile, largely silo based, missile deployments. And that may mean that the step-by-step process of reducing that sense of vulnerability might ultimately prove as complicated as that of numerical weapons reduction itself.

It may be that, as Sam Nunn has suggested, the only way of really dealing with this issue is to make it even more complex by linking it with measures addressing warning and decision time for conventional weapons systems as well as nuclear ones. But the crucial need is for this issue to come close to the very top of the agenda in the next rounds of U.S.-Russia bilateral negotiations.

Doctrine. Changing nuclear doctrine to fundamentally reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in countries’ deterrence mindset is at the absolute heart of what this conference is about, and perhaps the most important issue of all to make early progress. The ICNND’s highest short-to-medium term disarmament priority was to encourage every nuclear weapons possessing state to embrace – if not, ideally, a commitment to no first use – at least the declaratory position that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, is to deter the use of such weapons against oneself or one’s allies. And we were successful at least to the extent of persuading Japan, in an historic shift which has not been given the attention it deserved, to say both publicly and privately to Washington that it could live with a sole purpose declaration.

The Obama Nuclear Posture Review flagged a willingness, and indeed intent, to go down this path but Washington is still giving very mixed messages. It obviously felt itself constrained by the fact that the ROK – or at least its military – would not follow Japan’s lead, and nor would a number of its Central and East European NATO allies.

I strongly hope that in the context of the further ongoing review of NATO nuclear posture – and simply because this is the right, game-changing thing to do if we are really serious about eliminating nuclear risks – the U.S. will revisit its hesitation on this issue: this conference could be an important voice of encouragement in this respect.

Of course what makes this issue a difficult one is that there are many policymakers in various countries – both allies and opponents of the U.S. – who are deeply resistant to quarantining the role of nuclear weapons in a way that a sole purpose declaration (softly) and a no first use commitment (much more explicitly) demands. There are three basic positions advanced to which we simply have to have good, specific, and maybe better answers than most of us have articulated so far:

o “Nuclear weapons are necessary to balance a potential enemy’s conventional weapons superiority. This is an argument that we don’t hear much from US allies these days, but we certainly hear it very loudly from Pakistan against India and, even more importantly, from both China and Russia against the U.S. as a justification for either not further reducing, or in fact increasing, their nuclear arsenals. Part of the answer has to be (albeit that this is unlikely to persuade the sceptics and cynics) that we have to use- every possible policy lever to solve regional problems like Kashmir, and to consolidate a global climate in which war of any kind between any of the major powers really would be a thing of the past. But part of it also has to be a serious commitment to balancing, or at least not further unbalancing, conventional capability; and also finding ways of taking out of the equation the anxiety about superior U.S. capability in ballistic missile defence (on which we seem to be making some good progress with Russia, but not so far with China)

o “Nuclear weapons are necessary to deter against the kind of existential threat posed by other WMD – chemical and especially biological weapons”: the argument which continues to have strong constituencies in the ROK and Japan in particular. The only real answer to this, but it is a perfectly sufficient one, is that, at least in the North East Asian context where the issue has most salience, U.S. and allied conventional capability combined is far more than enough to constitute the necessary military deterrent to this potential threat. (One problem in emphasizing that capability may be that it feeds back into the first concern about overwhelming U.S. conventional superiority, but I think that’s a manageable concern in this context.)

o “Nuclear weapons are necessary to protect against the threat of forcible regime change.” This argument obviously has had salience in Pyongyang and may be influencing some of Iran’s brinkmanship, but its force is far more psychological than militarily credible. Any regime that actually used whatever nuclear weapons it had either proactively or reactively against the U.S. or an ally would be condemning itself to total destruction, and there are plenty of reasons quite apart from concern about nuclear retaliation why the U.S. is going to remain extremely reluctant to even contemplate forcible regime change in the states in question in the foreseeable future.

There are answers along these lines to those who remain persuaded that nuclear weapons are necessary to meet their various non-nuclear threat concerns. But I do think we are going to have to work much harder in developing and selling persuasive answers, particularly on the issue of conventional imbalance, than as a disarmament-advocacy community we have so far, and we should be reflecting this in our research and publication programs.

Down-sizing. The third objective, which ICNND believed was doable by our medium-term target date of 2025 if we seriously start the process now, is minimizing the number of nuclear weapons ¬– from the present 23,000 or so down to 500 each by the U.S. and Russia, and no more than 1000 for the rest of the nuclear weapons states combined. (This objective is of course not an end in itself so much as the necessary prelude to the only entirely effective way of reducing the risks associated with nuclear deterrence, i.e. complete elimination – but we all know this will be not just the next step in a continuum, but a different ball-game again.)

If we are to dramatically further reduce the number of nuclear weapons, down to around 10 per cent of the present inventory over the next ten to fifteen years, the next practical steps we have to take to advance this agenda are:

o first, re-establish momentum on the post New START bilateral U.S.-Russia negotiations – much easier said than done with the factors in play including conventional imbalances, ballistic missile defence and deep differences over tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons, and continuing issues with ballistic missile defence – but an absolutely crucial precondition to getting serious momentum with the other nuclear weapons possessors; and

o second, in the context of persuading the other nuclear powers to at least not to add to their armories, establishing a serious strategic dialogue with each of China, India and Pakistan aimed at creating some common understandings about what minimum credible deterrence means for each of them (including what it would take for them to have survivable retaliatory capability). For this kind of dialogue a crucial accompaniment is far more transparency about their capability than each country has so far been willing to offer, and it is crucial that continued pressure be applied – and a good example offered – by the other nuclear powers in this respect.

From the General to the Particular. Of course policymakers are always more comfortable when faced with calls for action expressed in general and indirect terms, rather than honing in on very specific things their own governments could and should be doing to demonstrate that they really are serious about moving to a safer and stable form of deterrence. One way of concentrating minds a little bit more sharply might be for a conference like this to make some very specific calls on various key players – focusing on one or two big things that really would be game changers for the wider world if capitals were prepared to take them on.

Maybe, to take just one example, based on my experience with the ICNND, we could ask Tokyo to explicitly confirm – what emerged during the commission process but on which not a word has been heard since – that it did in fact support a ‘sole purpose’, and ultimately a no first use, declaration by the US, making clear that its extended nuclear deterrent was only available for nuclear threat contingencies, and for Japan to engage in some serious advocacy with the ROK and the foot-dragging NATO Europeans to get them to come aboard.

One final point, about the necessity to keep multiple balls in the air. While it is important to set priorities on particular issues if we are not to get lost in the weeds, it is also important to recognize – and this was the central theme of the ICNND report – that a safer and saner nuclear world cannot be pursued in an ad hoc, piecemeal fashion, focusing on just a handful of themes.

As complex and difficult as this is to do in practice, particularly with so much public and political indifference to nuclear weapons issues, we just have to keep grinding away at the total agenda – not just the disarmament and deterrence doctrine issues, with which this conference is concerned, but non-proliferation, terrorism and nuclear security, and the management of peaceful nuclear energy as well – and see the enterprise as an integrated whole, in which rational policy choice in one area does encourage and reinforce rational policy choices elsewhere.

That is the approach that the European Leadership Network is taking in Europe, and that we shall certainly be taking with the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), the sister organization we have just created in the Asia Pacific with NTI support. And it is also the approach that we will be taking in the new Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) just established in Australia – with an outreach arm in Geneva and working with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) – which will be following up the work of the ICNND by producing a major “state of play” report at the end of 2012, summarizing where we have got to on the whole vast interlocking nuclear agenda that the world needs need to pursue, and making clear who is pulling their weight and who is not, and what the action priorities need to be for the short, medium and longer term ahead.

None of these efforts by themselves will be remotely decisive, but I hope they will feed into and reinforce the tremendous leadership role that has been played by Sam Nunn, George Shultz, Bill Perry and Henry Kissinger – the inspirers not only of this conference but of the whole contemporary nuclear debate that has been running since 2007.