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Reexamining disarmament obligations

By George Perkovich | 1 April 2009
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

View the information directly on Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' website

Article Highlights
  • Disarmament obligations promise to be an important topic at next week's Carnegie nonproliferation conference.
  • Critics question the role of disarmament in discouraging would-be proliferators.
  • Disarmament negotiations need the imprimatur of high-level officials from both weapons and non-weapons states to move past this impasse.

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Next week, government officials and experts from around the world will gather in Washington, D.C., for the 2009 Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference. The meeting will focus on the health of the global nonproliferation regime and current nuclear disarmament efforts. A central, ongoing debate within these policy arenas, and one that is likely to feature prominently in the conference's proceedings, is the nature of nuclear-armed states' obligation to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

Late last year, my colleague at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, James M. Acton, and I cowrote an Adelphi Paper, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, which outlined the challenges to abolishing nuclear weapons. In the months since its publication, we solicited responses from experts and officials around the world. These responses are freely available in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, which contains the original Adelphi Paper and 17 critiques by authors from 13 countries. Several of these responses suggested new ways of overcoming current debates about the role nuclear weapons states play in disarmament discussions.

Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligates all parties, particularly the nuclear-weapon states, to pursue nuclear disarmament. This commitment contains no deadline by which nuclear disarmament must be complete, and it is combined with a separate obligation on behalf of all NPT member states to conventional disarmament.

In his response to Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, British scholar Sir Lawrence Freedman cut through the various arguments over nuclear-weapons states commitments by suggesting, "The problem is not that the nuclear powers are in breach of a binding promise to disarm; the legal requirement was never more than best efforts. [The problem] is more the impression of cynical disdain, as the nuclear powers insist that the non-nuclear weapon states strictly follow treaty obligations while showing indifference to their own."

Still, if nuclear-armed states did more, would non-nuclear weapon states undertake measures such as making the Additional Protocol universal and clarifying procedures for states to withdraw from the NPT? Frank Miller, a former Pentagon official deeply involved in U.S. nuclear policy, questions this logic: "[T]he nuclear-weapon states have been steadily reducing their nuclear forces and stockpiles. . . . While all this was occurring . . . North Korea repudiated its treaty obligations and developed and detonated a weapon, Iran is on the brink of developing a weapon, and two other emerging nuclear weapons programs (Iraq and Libya) were terminated by superior force and skillful diplomacy. . . . It is not immediately evident therefore that proliferation is linked to the existing arsenals of the five nuclear-weapon states."

Representatives of non-nuclear weapon states should take the lead in answering these arguments. But we can first clear away some of the conceptual and historical underbrush. Informed advocates do not argue primarily that nuclear disarmament would change the minds of determined proliferators such as North Korea or perhaps Iran. Rather, disarmament strengthens the willingness of mainstream states--the overwhelming majority of NPT members that are not seeking nuclear weapons--to cooperate in enforcing the treaty against proliferators. As author Jonathan Schell writes in response to the Adelphi Paper, rather than the current situation in which nuclear-armed states (with varying degrees of alacrity) try to enforce a regime based on a double standard, the abolition framework could mobilize a "global campaign to exert moral, political, economic, and even military pressure against the few holdouts that dared to argue that they alone among the world's nations had a right to these awful weapons."

As a matter of history, arms reductions by the recognized nuclear-weapon states have helped encourage or pressure others to relinquish nuclear weapons and related programs. Argentina and Brazil shut down their nascent nuclear weapon programs largely for domestic reasons, but there is no doubt that the post–Cold War environment of nuclear arms reductions created norms that helped pull them in that direction. Had the United States and Russia been insisting at the time that they would never eliminate their nuclear arsenals and had no genuine intention of fulfilling Article VI of the NPT, would Argentina and Brazil have joined the treaty? South Africa dismantled its secret nuclear arsenal and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state also because of internal changes and the disappearance of Cold War-related external threats; but this decision, too, came amidst the most significant U.S. and Soviet arms control treaties.

Moreover, contrary to skeptics, the North Korean and Iranian cases do not indicate that disarmament has no value in affecting determined proliferators. North Korea and Iran both began their clandestine efforts to acquire nuclear weapon capabilities before the U.S.-Soviet disarmament process began in earnest. It should also be noted that Iranian and North Korean leaders' interests in acquiring potential nuclear deterrents seem to be affected by fears of U.S. military intervention in any form. U.S.-Russian reductions that still leave each with thousands of nuclear weapons therefore have not addressed these states' core concerns.

Some non-nuclear weapon states make the more fundamental argument: Reductions are welcome, but if they are paired with expectations that nuclear weapons will be retained indefinitely, then the goal under the NPT of an equitable nuclear balance of zero is still being ignored. Like American invocations of "freedom," non-nuclear weapon states' demand for the equity of a nuclear-weapon-free world reflects genuinely felt values and aspirations. The demanders do not always practice what they preach, however. Sometimes they undermine their own interests by failing to help strengthen the nonproliferation regime. But the "cynical disdain" that some nuclear-weapon states' officials display towards serious efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, as Freedman notes, intensifies rather than abates demands for the fairness of zero.

Two steps would break the current impasse. First, as Freedman suggests, high-level officials from nuclear-armed and unarmed states must become involved in negotiating on these issues. Second, as many commentators have suggested, the United States and Russia must take the lead by doing more to reduce their nuclear arsenals and lower the salience of these weapons.

If Russia and the United States were to reduce their arsenals to, say, hundreds of nuclear weapons, down from the thousands of weapons in current stockpiles, reduce the political salience of these arsenals, and firmly commit to pursuing complete nuclear disarmament according to Article VI, then momentum could develop. In the words of Achilles Zaluar, a Brazilian diplomat: "The change would be so enormous that its consequences would ripple throughout the international system, without the risks that some fear from the tidal wave of going to absolute zero. It would, moreover, provide the international community with a 'to-do list' that would take at least a decade--a decade in which the loss of credibility of the nonproliferation regime could be reversed." This analysis deserves attention and debate at next week's meeting.