Halting a Thousand Suns

This article appeared in the Fall 2000 edition of The United Nations Chronicle.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) biggest problem may simply be its name. Stop a hundred “ordinary Americans” on the street, and ask them what the NPT is about. Ninety, in our civically impoverished age, will undoubtedly reply: “Don’t know and don’t care.” But nine of the remaining ten will likely say: “It’s about nuclear non-proliferation. It’s about stopping new countries from getting The Bomb.” It seems unlikely that even 1 in 100 Americans know that their own government, in the NPT, formally committed itself to getting rid of its entire atomic arsenal. Perhaps if the NPT had been called the “Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Elimination Treaty,” the nuclear age might have ended long ago.

The international community forged a “grand bargain” between the few “nuclear haves” and the many “nuclear have-nots” when it enacted the NPT in 1970. Over one hundred non-nuclear weapon states (182 today) agreed never to develop or acquire atomic arsenals, on the understanding that the (then) five nuclear weapon states agreed, in Article VI, “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

As the NPT’s 30 Year Review Conference approached last spring, it was “almost universally conceded,” according to Jimmy Carter, that the five had made no serious attempt to comply with their Article VI obligation . “The NPT is supposed to lead to a nuclear-free world,” said Ben Sanders, a member of the Dutch delegation. “The non-nuclear countries see it as a bargain which the weapons states have failed to keep.”

That failure is what Indian officials have repeatedly called “nuclear apartheid.” That failure helped motivate both India and Pakistan to conduct atomic tests in 1998 – and to proceed steadily toward operational nuclear weapon deployments today. During the Conference, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh rose in his country’s Parliament, and thundered that the five had “arrogated a permanent special right to possess nuclear weapons for their exclusive security.”

As the Conference unfolded, the five – beginning to feel some heat – took a bold step. In their first-ever joint statement on nuclear weapon issues, they pledged an “unequivocal commitment to the ultimate goal of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” But the proclamation provided neither a time frame nor any new ideas as to how to move toward that goal. It was greeted with derision by most of the non-nuclear delegations.

Admiral Ramu Ramdas, former head of the Indian Navy, characterized the statement as a “damage control exercise by the nuclear states – nothing new at all.” Darach MacFhionnbhairr, head of disarmament in Ireland’s Foreign Affairs department, said it did nothing more than restate the legal obligation the nuclear states had made 30 years ago. This latest “unequivocal commitment,” he said, “doesn’t move forward at all toward what we are seeking in the New Agenda.”

That would be the “New Agenda Coalition” (NAC), a group of middle powers – Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden – that came together in 1998 to pressure the nuclear states to take tangible steps toward fulfilling their Article VI obligation. It was widely reported that the group had the support of about 120 of the 155 non-nuclear states in attendance. Invigorated by the scorn which had greeted the five’s joint statement, the NAC turned up the heat. It soon became clear to the nuclear states that they would not be able to secure a consensus unless they responded concretely to the Coalition’s demands.

In the Conference’s final statement, the five pledged “an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” – the precise formulation insisted on by the NAC. Some argued that this language actually went beyond the NPT itself, since Article VI commits the nuclear weapon states only “to pursue negotiations in good faith,” while the new statement commits them “to accomplish” nuclear weapons abolition.

Japan’s chief negotiator, Ambassador Seiichiro Noboru, was ecstatic. “It is happy news,” he said, “that we could get agreement for the first time without the infamous word ‘ultimate.'” Ambassador Antonio de Icaza of Mexico, speaking on behalf of the NAC, called the explicit promise “an important landmark on which to build a nuclear weapons free world.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the nuclear states will actually engage in any “undertaking” at all to match their proclamation. London and Washington wasted no time in throwing cold water on the proceedings. British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, on his way to the airport, said: “We have agreed in principle that we would like to see the end of nuclear weapons. But there is no timetable, and … realistically, it is unlikely to lead to action tomorrow, next week, or next month.” An unidentified Clinton administration official grumbled to The New York Times that the agreement did not represent a significant shift in United States policy.

One of the great lessons of the Cold War is that atomic arsenals have no political or military utility in the currency of international affairs. They did not enhance American political or military capabilities in Vietnam. They did nothing to rescue the untenable Soviet position in Afghanistan. They made no difference at all to the exercise of American power in the 1990s in East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, or even the Persian Gulf. (U.S. Air Force General Charles Horner, Commander of Allied Air Forces during the Gulf war, argues that the American capacity to obliterate Baghdad was just as potentially devastating – and probably more credible – with conventional U.S. forces alone, and that this itself likely “deterred” Saddam Hussein from launching weapons of mass destruction against Israel or other targets.) With regard to the latest wearying cataclysms du jour in places like Sierra Leone, Angola, and what Philip Gourevitch recently called “Africa’s World War” in Congo, nuclear weapons provide Washington with precisely zero political options.

The single most important step to bridge the gulf between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” today can only be taken by the leader of the leading nuclear weapon state. The U.S. President (outgoing or incoming) must tell the American people that the NPT was actually intended to be a nuclear weapon elimination treaty. He must declare with zero ambiguity that he is committed to the goal of zero nuclear weapons. And he must indeed make some kind of an “unequivocal undertaking” toward that end.

What kind of undertaking? How about beginning to explore how the international community might develop a new round of multilateral negotiations directed toward producing a universal, verifiable, and enforceable Nuclear Weapon Elimination Convention? Its goal would be to require the phased dismantling and destruction of every nuclear warhead on Earth by a time certain, impose strict worldwide controls with elaborate inspection provisions over all weapons-usable fissile materials, and prohibit atomic weapons from ever being constructed again. If the United States took the lead in initiating such a process, it would create immeasurable international political capital. It would produce a legacy of visionary leadership that would last long into the new century.

The other option is for the five to treat last May’s promises as they have treated commitments on disarmament before. The destination at the end of that road could not be more predictable. The rest of the world will not forever forego nuclear weapons if the nuclear states insist on forever retaining nuclear weapons. “In the NPT,” said Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy to his NATO ministerial colleagues in May, “we are confronted regularly with the argument that if nuclear weapons are good for NATO, then they are good for others too.”

An endless nuclear state posture of “do as I say not as I do” is today hopelessly lacking in credibility. Can there be any serious doubt – unless the nuclear states change their ways – that the subcontinental detonations in 1998 are a herald of things to come? Nuclear technology, after all, is over 50 years old, and nearly 50 countries today are considered “nuclear weapon capable” – a number that can only grow.

Consider the alternative. Is it remotely plausible to envision the world order of 2010 or 2020 or 2050 with today’s atomic status quo in place? If the “nuclear haves” insist on holding on to their atomic arsenals, a world of 10 or 20 or 50 nuclear weapon states is immeasurably more likely.

In that world, an accidental or unauthorized atomic launch, or a nuclear terrorist incident, or a political miscalculation in a crisis will almost certainly result eventually in an unprecedented and still unimaginable atomic catastrophe. For all the other challenges humankind must confront in the decades ahead, a nuclear war remains the worst-case scenario.

If anything seems unalterable about the political landscape of the 21st Century, it is that a legion of new nations will acquire their own nuclear weapons unless the present nuclear nations get rid of their nuclear weapons. We can move toward a world of zero nuclear weapon states, or we can expect a world of many dozen nuclear weapon states. As Abraham Lincoln said about a nation half slave and half free, a world with a few “nuclear haves” and a great many “nuclear have-nots” cannot long endure.

Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons