The world faces two existential threats: Climate change and nuclear Armageddon – and the bomb can kill us all a lot sooner and faster. The nuclear peace has held thus far as much because of good luck as sound stewardship, with an alarmingly large number of near accidents and false alarms by the nuclear rivals. Having learnt to live with nuclear weapons for 70 years, we have become desensitised to the gravity and immediacy of the threat. The tyranny of complacency could yet exact a fearful price with nuclear Armageddon. It really is long past time to lift the shroud of the mushroom cloud from the international body politic.
Keeping nuclear nightmare at bay
India’s propensity to let the best become the enemy of the good notwithstanding (the nuclear liability law is a good recent example), the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has kept the nuclear nightmare at bay for over four decades. The number of countries to sign it embraces virtually the entire family of nations. The number of countries with nuclear weapons is still -if only just – in single figures. Yet at the same time, the nuclear arsenals of the five NPT-defined nuclear weapons states expanded enormously under the NPT umbrella. The global total number of nuclear warheads climbed steadily after 1945, peaked in the mid-1980s at more than 70,000, and has fallen since then to a current total of almost 16,400 stockpiled by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states.
Paradox of deterrence
The central paradox of nuclear deterrence may be bluntly stated: Nuclear weapons are useful only if the threat to use them is credible but, if deterrence fails, they must never be used for fear of destroying the planet. Second, they are useful for some, but must be stopped from spreading to anyone else. Third, the most substantial progress so far on dismantlement and destruction of nuclear weapons has occurred as a result of bilateral US and Soviet/Russian treaties, agreements and measures, most recently a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). But a nuclear-weapon-free world will have to rest on a legally binding multilateral international instrument such as a nuclear weapons convention.
India is the most firmly committed of the nuclear nine to such a goal that would be fully consistent with its policy as the most reluctant nuclear weapons possessor of them all. No other country paused for 24 years between the first test and eventual weaponisation. Successive governments, even since the 1998 tests, have declared with conviction that a nuclear-weapon-free world would enhance India’s national and global security, and also contribute to the attainment of India’s development goals.
Optimism in 2009 to pessimism in 2015
Five years ago hopes were high that the world was at last seriously headed towards nuclear disarmament. In April 2009 the (then) exciting new US President Barack Obama gave a stirring and inspiring speech in Prague outlining his dream of a world free of the existence and threat of nuclear weapons. The US and Russia negotiated New START that will cut their deployed strategic nuclear warheads by one-third to 1,550 each. The inaugural Nuclear Security Summit in Washington attracted broad international buy-in to an ambitious new agenda. In contrast to the total and scandalous failure of its 2005 predecessor, the Eighth NPT Review Conference of 2010 was a modest success.
By the end of 2012, however, as reported in my Centre’s inaugural “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play” report, much of this sense of optimism had evaporated. By the end of 2014, as our follow-up report “Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015” documents, the fading optimism has given way to pessimism.
A few silver linings
To be sure, as always, there are a few silver linings. One has been the modest success of the Washington (2010), Seoul (2012) and The Hague (2014) Nuclear Security Summits in generating some consensus about the need to ensure that nuclear weapons and fissile material do not get into terrorist hands. Even here, however, much remains to be done to implement a fully effective international nuclear security system, setting global standards, including military materials within the nuclear security efforts, and with an accountability mechanism – and Russia has declined to participate further in the summit process.
Another positive development has been the emergence of the humanitarian consequences movement. Successive conferences in Norway, Mexico and Austria have mobilised governments as well as civil society to focus on the reality that any use of nuclear weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised, would have a catastrophic human and environmental impact, beyond the capacity of any one state’s, or all acting together through international organisations, emergency systems to address.
Even so, levels of public engagement on nuclear weapons issues remain low and the nuclear-armed states are under little pressure to justify the claimed security benefits of nuclear deterrence, or to rigorously defend their vast expenditure on nuclear weapons and modernisation as an effective use of public money.
The gathering nuclear storm
Nuclear-armed states pay lip-service to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, but none has committed to any “minimisation objective,” nor to any specific timetable for their major reduction – let alone abolition. On the evidence of the size of their weapons arsenals, fissile material stocks, force modernisation plans, stated doctrine and known deployment practices, all nine foresee indefinite retention of nuclear weapons and a continuing role for them in their security policies.
North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in 2013 and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is yet to enter into force. We are no closer to resolving the challenge posed by North Korea and a comprehensive agreement on Iran eluded negotiators by the extended deadline of November 24. The push for NPT-mandated talks on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East has stalled and the region remains highly volatile.
New START was signed and ratified, but the treaty left stockpiles intact and disagreements about missile defence and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved. Nuclear weapons numbers have decreased overall but are increasing in Asia
(India, Pakistan, China and North Korea); and fissile material production to make still more warheads is not yet banned. Cyber-threats to nuclear weapons systems have intensified, outer space remains at risk of nuclearisation, and the upsurge of geopolitical tensions over the crisis in Ukraine produced flawed conclusions about the folly of giving up nuclear weapons on the one hand, and open reminders about Russia’s substantial nuclear arsenal, on the other.
The peoples of the world recognise the risks and dangers of nuclear arsenals. Curiously, however, their concerns and fears find little reflection in the media coverage or in governments’ policy priorities. In a recent survey conducted by the US Pew Research Center, nuclear weapons was chosen as the top threat in 10 of the 44 countries polled (including nuclear-armed states Russia and Pakistan), and as the second gravest threat in another 16 (including China). They were rated the top threat by 20 per cent of the people in the Middle East, 19 per cent in Europe, 21per in Asia, 26 per cent in Latin America, 22 per cent in Africa, and 23 per cent in the US.
Latin America’s anti-nuclear commitment was reinforced by the negotiation of the regional nuclear-weapon-free zone in 1967 under the Treaty of Tlatelolco which consolidates and deepens the NPT prohibitions on getting the bomb. Since then virtually the entire southern hemisphere has embraced additional comparable zones in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Africa (plus Central Asia and Mongolia).
Mitigating & eliminating nuclear risks
Consequently, looking out at the world from our vantage point, we see no security upsides by way of benefits from nuclear weapons; only risks. Indeed it helps to conceptualise the nuclear weapons challenge in the language of risks. Originally, many countries acquired the bomb in order to help manage national security risks. As the four famous strategic heavyweights of Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz – all card-carrying realists – have argued in a series of five influential articles in The Wall Street Journal between 2007 and 2013, today the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism posed by nuclear weapons far outweigh their modest contributions to security.
Viewed through this lens, the nuclear risks agenda has four components.
First, risk management. We must ensure that existing weapons stockpiles are not used; that all nuclear weapons and materials are secured against theft and leakage to rogue actors like terrorist groups; and that all nuclear reactors and plants have fail-safe safety measures in place with respect to designs, controls, disposal and accident response systems.
Second, risk reduction, for example by strengthening the stability-enhancing features of deterrence, such as robust command and control systems and deployment on submarines. Russia and the US could help by taking their 1,800 nuclear warheads off high-alert, ready to launch within minutes of threats being supposedly detected.
Other countries, including Pakistan, could abandon interest in things like tactical nuclear weapons that have to be deployed on the forward edges of potential battlefields and require some pre-delegation of authority to use to battlefield commanders. Because any use of nuclear weapons could be catastrophic for planet Earth, the decision to do so must be restricted to the highest political and military authorities.
Third, risk minimisation. There is no national security objectives that Russia and the US could not meet with a total arsenal of under 500 nuclear warheads each deployed across air, land and sea-borne platforms. If all others froze their arsenals at current levels, this would give us a global stockpile of 2,000 bombs or one-eighth the current total.
Bringing the CTBT into force either by completing the required ratifications or changing the entry formula, concluding a new fissile material cut-off treaty, banning the nuclear weaponisation of outer space, respecting one another’s sensitivities on missile defence programs and conventional military imbalances etc. would all contribute to minimising risks of reversals and setbacks.
None of these steps would jeopardise the national security of any nuclear-armed state; each would enhance regional and international security modestly; all in combination would greatly strengthen global security.
Finally, risk elimination. Successive international commissions – the Canberra Commission, Tokyo Forum, Blix Commission, Evans -Kawaguchi Commission – have emphatically reaffirmed three core propositions. As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. As long as they exist, they will be used again some day, if not by design and intent, then through miscalculation, accident, rogue launch or system malfunction. Any such use anywhere could spell catastrophe for the planet.
The only guarantee of zero nuclear weapons risk, therefore, is to move to zero nuclear weapons possession by a carefully managed process.