A Coalition of the Willing for Nuclear Disarmament?

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By Alex Bollfrass – In September, the members of the UN Security Council unanimously pledged, “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.” The road to nuclear disarmament will no doubt be long and arduous. But its feasibility does not depend upon scientific discoveries or the invention of new technologies; it hinges strictly upon governments’ willingness to embark upon it. Stimson’s Unblocking the Road to Zero project recently reviewed advanced nuclear nations’ degree of resistance to the idea of negotiated, multilateral nuclear disarmament. The results show that serious effort, hard work, and a measure of luck would make disarmament a viable endeavor.

The nine governments with nuclear weapons would all need to consent to a disarmament process, but the achievement of a concurrent consensus would not be necessary. They each would have to agree on incremental and reciprocal steps at the appropriate junctures.

US and Russia: No matter how one envisions the initiation of nuclear disarmament or its timeframe, it is certain that the US and Russia – which jointly own more than 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons – must take the lead. Although talks for a treaty to reduce their nuclear arsenals are underway, the agreement that might emerge later this year will only be a modest, initial bilateral step toward the ultimate goal. To make further progress, Russia must overcome its sense of inferiority in conventional forces, particularly in its relationship with NATO, before it will make truly deep nuclear cuts. In the US, presidential leadership for nuclear disarmament must be impressed upon key institutional players. In addition, the US must come to terms with the possible need to accept limitations on missile defenses in order to move toward deep cuts in offensive weapons.

France and the United Kingdom: America’s NATO allies currently have contrasting views regarding their nuclear arms’ utility. British mainstream political debate has moved ever closer to considering unilateral disarmament to avoid diverting resources from its strained war-fighting capacity. France has been far more resistant to the idea, although it has recently joined the ranks of countries with former national security leaders writing publicly in favor of disarmament. Our review indicates that if the US and Russia made significant progress toward deep reductions in their own arsenals, these two would find it difficult to resist joining multilateral negotiations with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from all nations.

China and India: The similarities in the emerging global powers’ approach on nuclear weapons are notable. Both have been satisfied so far with surprisingly modest nuclear postures and both espouse support for far-reaching disarmament objectives. But the path for a broad dialogue on nuclear elimination among all of the major nuclear powers – including China and India – will only be cleared if the US and Russia first make deep cuts.

Pakistan and Israel: Both see their nuclear arsenals as offsetting opponents’ actual or potential conventional advantage and are the two countries that will likely require the most persuasion to join the disarmament process. Dedicated US leadership and the support of the other great powers would be required to reduce the existential threats perceived by Pakistan and Israel. To give them the confidence to join in multilateral reductions in particular would require the resolution, with credible guarantees by all relevant parties, of two of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Between them, Israel probably poses the greater challenge.

Non-weapon states: Several non-weapon states with advanced nuclear technologies, such as Brazil and Japan, would have to lead the effort to ensure that procedures and organizations are in place to ensure that civilian nuclear facilities, and especially enrichment and reprocessing facilities, could not be quickly or covertly diverted to weapon purposes in a disarmed world. Another important group of non-weapon states are the thirty countries covered by the United States’ extended nuclear deterrent. Fears have been raised that a disarming United States could change the security calculus for these states, such as Japan or Turkey, potentially prompting them to seek their own nuclear arms. Both groups of non-weapon states need to be engaged early to shape future non-nuclear security assurances and to develop restrictions on the most proliferation-prone technologies.

Iran and North Korea: Skirting the boundaries between weapon- and non-weapon states are the countries whose nuclear misbehaviors have dominated headlines in recent years: Both Iran and North Korea have pursued nuclear programs beyond the boundaries of their Nonproliferation Treaty obligations. Although North Korea has made clear its intention to remain a nuclear-weapon state, it is conceivable that over time, a wide-ranging program to resolve Pyongyang’s security concerns and to ensure its economic development could put it on a new course. Iran’s ambitions are less clear. Iranian leaders maintain that their nuclear activities are restricted to civilian purposes, although the recent revelation of a secret enrichment facility gives lie to this statement. Again, addressing underlying geo-political tensions in Iran’s neighborhood might provide sufficient incentives to persuade it to dedicate its nuclear program to verifiably peaceful purposes.

Support for nuclear disarmament is spreading and deepening across the globe. The Security Council’s resolution was an important step, but only a symbolic one. Real progress can only be made by grounding the process in an understanding of governments’ views of the role nuclear weapons play in their defense policies, not merely their vague rhetorical promises.

Alex Bollfrass is a Research Associate at the Stimson Center.

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