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The Road to Abolition: Beyond the Nuclear Umbrella

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) and Chair of the ANU Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND), to the Asahi Shimbun International Peace Symposium, The Road to Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, Nagasaki, Japan, 2 August 2014

Coming back to Nagasaki, to the site of that terrible holocaust 69 years ago this month, and revisiting the horrifying experiences of the victims, is a deeply emotional experience for all of us. We know, intellectually and rationally, that nuclear weapons are the most terrible, indiscriminately inhumane, weapons ever invented. But to walk the ground the hibakusha trod, to see in the museums the evidence of their indescribable suffering, and to listen to the testimony of those who were there, is to be totally reinforced in our conviction that nuclear weapons are a crime against our common humanity, and must be abolished.

We have always known that the road to the abolition of nuclear weapons will be long, winding and extremely difficult to travel.  All the present nuclear-armed states – including the five who, as members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, are committed to ultimate nuclear disarmament – pay at best only lip-service to that objective.  None of the nuclear-armed states has committed to any specific timetable for the major reduction of stockpiles – let alone their abolition. And on the evidence of the size of their weapons arsenals, their fissile material stocks, their force modernization plans, their stated doctrine and their known deployment practices, we have to conclude that all of them foresee indefinite retention of nuclear weapons, and a continuing role for them in their security policies.

What makes things worse is that, notwithstanding all the high hopes we held following the election of President Obama -- who made it so clear in his April 2009 speech that he was both intellectually and emotionally committed to nuclear abolition, and who leads with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, the most pro-nuclear disarmament United States team it is possible to imagine –  we seem in recent years to have been going backwards rather than forwards.

Since the negotiation of the New START treaty – which was and remains a real achievement, at least in reducing the number of strategic weapons deployed by the US and Russia – the Obama administration has been reduced to almost complete impotence by a combination of Congressional hostility; corrosive inter-agency processes; pressure from East Asian and East and Central European allies not wanting any diminution of the role of nuclear weapons in the protection of their own perceived security interests; a willingness to give undue weight to preserving P5 solidarity at the expense of principle, for example in their boycott of the Oslo and Nayarit Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons; and now by Russian hostility – given a whole new lease of life by the continuing Ukraine crisis – to giving any further ground at all in bilateral arms control negotiations.

And these are not the only grounds for gloom. Across Asia nuclear stockpiles are growing, not diminishing; neither the Six-Party talks process, nor anything else, has done anything to curb North Korea’s nuclear provocations; there is continuing uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear program;  there has been no movement on the Middle East WMD Free Zone issue, which will be crucial, as it has been in the past, to next year’s NPT Review Conference holding together; there has been continuing complete paralysis of the Conference on Disarmament on the Fissile Material Treaty issue; and a continuing inability to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratified into effect. Against all that, about the only positive achievement has been the modest success of the Washington, Seoul and Hague Nuclear Security Summits in generating some consensus about the need to ensure that nuclear weapons and fissile material don’t get into the wrong hands.

Confronted with these realities, it is tempting to become overwhelmed with pessimism, and to abandon the whole disarmament enterprise as a hopelessly lost cause for the foreseeable future.  But that would be a counsel of despair. Quite apart from almost certainly condemning the 2015 NPT Review Conference to a re-run of 2005, when it broke up without agreeing on anything, we would be failing to meet our own obligations – whether as diplomats, political and media opinion leaders, civil society leaders or simply individuals conscious of our common humanity – to do anything and everything to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the crazy risks the world continues to run so longer as any nuclear weapons remain in existence.

So how should we be exercising, individually or collectively, whatever influence we governments and civil society members might have? What is a realistic – or at least not totally unrealistic – global disarmament agenda to be advocating in the present environment? How can we work our way back to a situation in which a nuclear weapon free world is a genuinely shared objective of all the NPT parties, and indeed the outlier states as well?

I think there are five broad strategies which we need to pursue in this respect, which I’ll spell out as succinctly as I can.

First, we have to, in all our writing and speaking, make not just the emotional but intellectual case for abolition – to challenge head-on the Cold War mindset which is still so extraordinarily evident among so many policymakers, including here in Japan, that we all benefit from nuclear deterrence, and – in the case of US allies – from sheltering under its nuclear umbrella. The truth, and we all know it, is that for all its faults and uncertainties, and recent resurgence of aggressive posturing by some countries who should know better,  our world today is not one, if it ever was, in which the governments in Moscow or Washington are likely to hurl swarms of nuclear missiles at each other. Nor is it a world in which China or the U.S. would conceivably ever intentionally start a nuclear war against the other. Even for India and Pakistan, the risk of misjudgment or miscalculation is much greater than that of deliberate nuclear warmongering. And, for North Korea – or Iran, should it ever build nuclear weapons – the risk of the regime initiating a nuclear attack is negligible, given that doing so would result in its certain, non-nuclear, incineration.

But old habits of thought about nuclear weapons, and nuclear deterrence in particular, die hard. Nuclear decision-makers almost everywhere do seem to be stuck in a Cold War time-warp, in which the only focus is on capability, not the much more positive story about intent; where the only scenarios that matter are the absolute worst-case ones, not those bearing any relationship to real world probability; and where the only language of analysis is arithmetical, and not remotely ethical.

In breaking out of that Cold War mindset, the necessary starting point is to challenge, intellectually, the assumptions on which it is based. The arguments for the elimination of nuclear weapons – humanitarian, financial, and above all strategic – must be made, and remade over and again, if basic attitudes are to begin to change. In bald summary, the strategic arguments are that nuclear deterrence is at best of highly dubious utility, and at worst of zero utility, in maintaining stable peace. That because of the obvious risks associated with their deliberate use anywhere at any time, and the almost universally accepted taboo on such use, nuclear weapons are simply not the deterrent or strategic stabiliser they may seem, whether the context is deterring war between the major powers, deterring large-scale conventional attack, deterring chemical or biological weapons attacks or deterring nuclear terrorism.  That they encourage proliferation more than they restrain it, because so long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them.  And that, whatever may have been the case in the past, in the world of the 21st century the risks of retaining them outweighs any conceivable benefits. 

This all means, among other things, not letting go unchallenged the line, which we have been hearing from pro-nuclear weapons advocates over the last year, that Ukraine would not be in the trouble it is now if it had not given up its nuclear weapons in 1994 on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The evidence of history strongly suggests that nuclear weapons simply do not act as stabilizing tools in the real world, and do not act as a deterrent to the kind of adventurism we are now seeing in Ukraine, because the risks associated with their deliberate use are simply too high.

Both sides in these situations fully understand that. Putin knows that even if he drives his tanks into Donetsk, there would be no more prospect of a nuclear-armed Kiev nuking Moscow than of Washington doing do. The one thing that Ukrainian nuclear weapons would have added to today’s mix is another huge layer of potential hazard: from all the risks of system error and human error – miscalculation, misjudgement, mistake – that are associated with the possession of nuclear weapons by anyone.

Second, we have to make the argument for nuclear disarmament, and for a timeline in getting there, in a way that is seen as credible, not hopelessly incredible, by policymakers.  And that means, I think, being very careful about how we articulate the “Global Zero” objective, however passionate we may be – as indeed I am – about ultimately achieving a totally nuclear weapons free world. We have to frankly recognise that we will not get to zero as a straight-line process, and we certainly won’t get to it by anything like 2030. There will need to be two distinct stages, first “minimization” then “elimination”, with some inevitable discontinuity between them, because of the reality, when it comes to moving from low numbers to zero, that there are not only psychological barriers, and geopolitical barriers (in the world as we can envisage it for the foreseeable future), but serious technical barriers – of verification and enforcement – as well.

Getting to zero will be impossible without every state being confident that every other is complying, that any violation of the prohibition is readily detected, and that any breakout is controllable. Those conditions do not exist at the moment, although important work is being done on verification by the UK, Norway and U.S. and this part of the problem may well be solved over the next decade or so. Enforcement, however, will continue to be a major stumbling block for the foreseeable future, with the Security Council’s credibility on this issue manifestly at odds with the retention of veto powers by the Permanent Five. By all means let us argue for work to be done on a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention to identify and find solutions to these various problems. But don't let’s pretend that we’re ready in this area for a “campaign treaty” like the Ottawa or Oslo Conventions on land mines or cluster bombs: we’re just not technically there – not nearly there – and pretending that we are is a turn-off, not a turn-on, for the states which we have to persuade.

The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, took the view that a target date of 2025 could be set for the achievement of a minimization objective. This would involve reducing the global stockpile of all existing warheads – now over 16,000 – to no more than 2,000 (a maximum of 500 each for the U.S. and Russia and 1,000 for the other nuclear-armed states combined), with all states being committed by then to “No First Use” – and with these doctrinal declarations being given real credibility by dramatically reduced weapons deployments and launch-readiness. That target date was optimistic when we set it in 2009, and is looking even more optimistic now.  But it is not wholly unrealistic provided some serious momentum can start to build soon.

That brings me to the third point. We have to focus hard on getting some movement, somewhere, on numbers.   The obvious place to start on numerical reductions has always been bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia – because on any view they each have so many weapons to spare, way above even the most neurotic view as to what constitutes for each a credible minimum deterrent. But such negotiations are obviously for the time being at a dead-end. And it would be Quixotic to imagine any bilateral negotiation between the US and China being more productive given the scale of the current imbalance between them, and the extent to which China’s stated concerns about US ballistic missile defence and new generation conventional strike capability mirror those of Russia.

A lack of movement from China will also make it difficult to persuade India to reduce or even freeze its stockpile. Although, if rationality were ever to play a role in these matters, which of course it does not, there is every reason for India and Pakistan to call a halt to the nuclear arms race in which they are engaged and to freeze their present stockpiles at their present relatively evenly balanced, and perfectly credible levels.

If bilateral and multilateral arms reductions are going nowhere for now, the only way of getting reductions in numbers is going to be unilateral.  The smart place to start, and one that might conceivably even be domestically politically saleable, would be for the US to wave goodbye to the land-based component of its triad, which is wildly expensive to maintain in an environment where there are huge budgetary imperatives to massively cut expenditure (not least to maintain the operational credibility of the rest of the US defence machine), and which as even the nuclear hawks acknowledge, is far more vulnerable to attack than the sea or air-based components. 

The UK could also make a significant contribution both to the disarmament cause and its own budget by downsizing its Trident-carrying submarine fleet. Of course that does mean no more Continuous At-Sea Deterrence, but are there any circumstances in which the UK would ever be likely to need that capability?  British policymakers have not been very articulate or persuasive in arguing for that need, and despite the caution which continues to prevail about any reduction in UK capability, it is very important, in the context of building momentum for disarmament worldwide, to keep that option alive.

The fourth need is to persuade the nuclear-weapon states to rethink their resistance to the humanitarian consequences movement. This movement has the potential – although it has not yet been fully realised – to generate real worldwide momentum, both bottom-up from civil society, and through peer-group pressure by governments on each other. To find common ground on this is not only obviously ethically right, but would much improve the highly-charged atmospherics on this subject  in the lead up to the 2015 NPT Review Conference and help avoid it breaking down.

The unhappiness of the nuclear-weapon states with any talk of humanitarian impact is not a new phenomenon: this is an issue on which they have always felt uncomfortable – not because they don't understand the ethical issue, but because they fear the consequences of it becoming central to the argument about the future of nuclear weapons. They like to talk about nuclear weapons in a way which is disengaged and technical – using the language of throw-weights, survivability, counter-force, and counter-value targets. But as the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima know better than anyone else in the world, what nuclear weapons are really about are the countless real living, breathing, loving human beings who would be vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled, or irradiated to death if a nuclear war ever erupted.

The initiative that has been taken by the Swiss and Norwegian and Mexican and other governments, and a legion of NGOs, to bring back to centre stage our understanding  of what these weapons actually do to real human beings, is profoundly worthwhile. If the campaign to raise the consciousness of policymakers and publics about the awful downside risks posed to our common humanity by nuclear weapons, has the result of diminishing the credibility and acceptability of the nuclear deterrent on which so many policymakers mindlessly rely, that is exactly what all of us should be applauding, not resisting.

The fifth, and final strategy on my wish-list, and to me it is close to being my highest immediate priority, is to start a serious movement to reduce reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This issue is of enormous significance here in Japan, as it is with South Korea and Australia and other close allies of the US in Europe,  because it goes to the very heart of the the question as to whether we are really serious about nuclear disarmament.  If we are not serious about doing what we can to reduce the role or salience of nuclear weapons in our own national security policies, then we should stop pretending that we are really serious about ultimately achieving a world without nuclear weapons.

I strongly believe that those of us U.S. allies, including my own country, who are presently sheltering – or believing that we are sheltering – under the US nuclear umbrella, should be prepared to make clear our acceptance of a much reduced role for nuclear weapons in our protection. So long as any nuclear weapons continue to exist, it is not unreasonable for us to want to be able to rely on U.S. nuclear protection for nuclear threat contingencies. Although I personally believe, as I have already indicated, that the arguments for the utility of nuclear deterrence have been grossly exaggerated, I have to acknowledge that there is some psychological comfort involved in being able to retaliate in kind against nuclear attack, and that, for  Japan and South Korea particularly, the continued availability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to defend against nuclear threat contingencies has been politically important in stilling those voices who would like to see each country develop a nuclear weapons capability of its own.

But when it comes to non-nuclear threat contingencies, whether they involve chemical or biological or conventional or cyber weapons, surely it is time for us all to step back. We know that, with the U.S. help on which we can all reasonably rely, we have the capacity for the indefinitely foreseeable future to deal with any such contingency, however severe, through the application of conventional military force. And we should now all say so, in so many words. Because so long as we continue to insist that the nuclear option be kept open for a variety of non-nuclear threat contingencies, notwithstanding our collective capacity to deal with them by non-nuclear means, we are contributing absolutely nothing but rhetoric to the achievement of a nuclear-free world. Extended deterrence does not have to mean extended nuclear deterrence.

The Obama administration has wanted its Asian and European allies to down the path of accepting a declaration by it that the ‘sole purpose’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, not any other kind. This formulation does not go quite as far as a ‘No First Use’ declaration, but is a long way down that path, and as such would be an extremely important doctrinal shift, and a crucial way-station on the road to nuclear abolition. In the context of the lead-up to its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the then Labor Government in Australia indicated it could live with a ‘sole purpose’ formulation, and in Japan the then DPJ Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada also dipped at least a toe in that water in a 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, saying that ‘While the Japanese Government places trust and importance on your government’s extended nuclear deterrence, this does not mean that the Japanese Government demands a policy of your government which conflicts with the goal of a world without nuclear weapons’.

But any such move was halted by the resistance of South Korea, led by its military, and a number of Washington’s NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe. The 2010 NPR ends up saying no more on the subject than that while the U.S. is ‘not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons… [it] will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted’. And nothing has happened since, other than the recent adventurism of Russia in Ukraine no doubt making it harder than ever to persuade Central and Eastern Europeans that they can live comfortably with less nuclear protection, and recent heightened tensions with China and North Korea in this region no doubt having a similar effect here (although it has been encouraging to see LDP Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida apparently keeping an open mind on these doctrinal issues).

This has not been an easy issue for Japan to deal with, torn between the horror of its 1945 experience and its passion for nuclear protection, but a more robust commitment to really leading the way on nuclear disarmament – not just through general rhetoric but by adopting specific path-breaking policies – would I believe pay it real dividends.  And so would a similar policy choice by South Korea. I know it is easier, psychologically and politically, for Australians than others who live in more troublesome neighbourhoods to play a leadership role in this respect. But I really believe that all of us, acting together, could add very considerable momentum to the disarmament cause if we were to come out strongly in favour of the U.S. adopting a declaration that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack, and better still if we were to argue explicitly for Washington adopting a “No First Use” posture.

For us to continue to be as hypocritical as, frankly, we have been –  arguing that everyone else do as we say, but  not as we do, when it comes to reliance on nuclear weapons for our security protection – certainly does not help the non-proliferation agenda. And it certainly does not begin to be a recipe for reducing the terrible risks – which no one understands more than the citizens of this city – that the world continues to face so long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere. It’s time for us not just to talk, but to act.