Monday, June 12, 2006

Why is Nuclear Disarmament Unworkable?

Check out this penetrating piece at The Economist on the practical difficulties of achieving universal nuclear disarmament. The article's focus is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 (NPT), the international treaty that restricted possession of nuclear weapons to China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. With reference to the 1986 Reykjavik summit, at which President Reagan made the mind-boggling proposal on the "zero option" -- the complete elimination of nuclear weapons -- The Economist asks why should nuclear abolition seem so utopian and what might bring the world closer to its achievement?

Although they seem to be objects of desire for such countries as Iran and North Korea, nuclear weapons are supposed to be on their way out. The five officially recognised nuclear powers—America, Russia, Britain, France and China—are all legally committed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to good-faith negotiations “on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. All who sign the NPT are also treaty-bound to pursue “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

Some believe it is quixotic to expect much nuclear disarmament until all non-nuclear countries have started to turn their swords, tanks, missiles and chemical and biological weapons into ploughshares. Nuclear weapons, they note, helped keep a peace of sorts during the cold war (a nuclear war fought between such powerfully armed adversaries would have been tantamount to mutual suicide). So there is no reason to believe today's world would be safer without the bomb, say the sceptics.

Others would ban the bomb and damn the consequences. Anti-nuclear campaigners have long argued that nuclear weapons are not just legally destined for the scrapheap (a judgment upheld by the International Court of Justice in 1996), but morally abhorrent, too, and uniquely so. Moreover, if it would be immoral to use them (the court split on that), say the disarmers, it would be immoral to threaten to use them—so hanging on to them, even as a deterrent of last resort, is unacceptable.

Nuclear disarmament has never been adopted as a practical policy by any of the nuclear five. But they did agree in principle in 1995 that steps towards that end should not have to await disarmament of the more universal sort. That is because their promises are part of a bargain that lies at the heart of the non-proliferation treaty. The treaty recognises that five countries have nuclear weapons (all had them before 1970, when the NPT came into force, though France and China signed it only in 1992), but obliges them to give them up eventually. For their part, the have-nots have agreed not to seek nuclear weapons, but can in return expect help in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

But the bargain is now looking shaky. Though the NPT is all but universal, the three countries that have refused to join it—India, Pakistan and Israel—are now nuclear-armed. India's bomb tests in 1998, and then Pakistan's, dashed hopes that nuclear weapons would simply fade into post-cold-war irrelevance.
Take a look at the whole piece. The article flirts with the notion of total abolition, but eventually adopts a realistic view in that total elimination of nuclear capabilities would be impossible to verify, there'd be huge national incentives to cheat, and that the nuclear genie can never be put back in the bottle. The Economist's proposed framework for a Nuclear Weapons Convention is intriguing in any case, as nuclear nonproliferation is certainly urgent. At the time of the 2002 U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, the National Resources Defense Council developed a computer simulation indicating that under U.S nuclear planning a "counterforce" strike on the Kozelsk ICBM field outside of Moscow would likely result in 13.3 million deaths (the Russians had a similar attack plan on the U.S.)

Strategic targeting such as this was the basis for the nuclear doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which guided U.S.-Soviet strategic relations through the Cold War. Neither side in the superpower nuclear rivalry would even think about launching a nuclear strike because it would be vulnerable to the other's devasting retaliatory capability. However, the future of MAD is being questioned in the current era of American unipolarity. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press have new research indicating that the degrading of Russia's nuclear arsenal and the growth in U.S. nuclear capabilities may render a new era in which MAD no longer holds. The U.S. is near to achieving nuclear primacy, a situation whereby Russian and Chinese nuclear forces are at risk of being knocked out in a first strike. For Lieber and Press's Foreign Affairs article, "The Rise in U.S. Nuclear Primacy,"
click here. For their International Security article, "The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy," click here (PDF).


Unknown said...

Long ago I read tis book called "On the Beach", by Neville Shute.

Turned me off Nukes big time. I'd be happy if they all were obliterated, but as the article points out, that's highly unlikely.

Donald Douglas said...

Hi Jenn:

A nuclear exchange would obviously be a disaster, but nuclear weapons have contributed to the absence of great power war, and continue to provide a deterrent against threats to American national security. Lieber and Press's research is fascinating, in any case.

Thanks for the visit.

Michele said...

Nukes are forever,until the end.
Blogmad hit,stop by for a visit
and a laugh.

Donald Douglas said...


Yes, nukes probably are forever. Calls for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons are utopian -- yet, considering their potential devastation, societies will continue to find ways to abolish them.