Farewell to Arms

What's Blocking Nuclear Disarmament?

by Harald Müller

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In the 1960s, when the United States and Soviet Union submitted their draft non-proliferation treaty to the 18-member Disarmament Committee in Geneva, it was exactly that - a treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to more States. It prohibited non-nuclear weapon States from acquiring nuclear weapons and prohibited the five acknowledged nuclear-weapon States from supplying them.

However, it was not possible to conclude a treaty on those terms alone. Consequently, Article IV (on peaceful nuclear cooperation) and VI (on disarmament) were added. Only on the basis of this "bargain" could the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) come into existence.

It is ironic that the nuclear-weapon States that care for their own sovereignty rights would overlook that sovereignty is also dear to other States.

Today, in an era of stagnating nuclear disarmament, one hears voices from some nuclear-weapon States that the disarmament stipulation was without substance and unnecessary. They argue that non-nuclear weapon States care only about their security and nothing else. Proliferation would hurt their security, the argument goes, while the arsenals of the nuclear powers would have no negative effect upon it. Therefore, they reason, disarmament really has no relation to the treaty and its future stability.

This line of thinking is a serious and potentially fatal error. Security is a very important consideration for States, but by no means the only one. It is ironic that the nuclear-weapon States that care for their own sovereignty rights would overlook that sovereignty is also dear to other States.

Renouncing the most powerful weapons of one's time - as NPT non-nuclear weapon States pledge to do - is a historically unprecedented move by States having the resources to acquire them. This is a waiver of sovereign equality that could only be gained by the promise that it would be temporary.

What we have today is the makings of a dangerous gamble. Nuclear-weapon States appear unwilling to implement their disarmament undertakings under the NPT's Article VI. At the same time, they insist that non-nuclear weapon States meticulously observe Articles II (renunciation of nuclear weapons) and III (nuclear safeguards), and that they even adhere to new requirements every now and then (such as renouncing fuel cycle activities).

A Gamble of Slippery Slopes

The gamble is that all this is happening without nuclear-weapon States being ready to offer any quid pro quo. Their stance enhances the discomfort of an increasing number of non-nuclear weapon States with the Treaty. While this will not lead to a mass exodus, it reduces the willingness to accept tougher verification, compliance and enforcement measures and might thus, over time, erode the effectiveness of the NPT. If the Treaty is perceived as losing its value, withdrawing from it might eventually be seen as a consideration. Nuclear-weapon States, always so weary about "slippery slopes," should keep this most slippery of all slopes in mind.

Particular developments in the last few years add to the gamble. In 1995, and even more so in 2000, a change of attitude and strategy by the non-nuclear weapon States regarding Article VI had set in. Rather than demanding utopian and thus unrealistic, overly far-reaching steps from the nuclear "haves", they proposed tangible, incremental steps. After long and hard negotiations, a "Program of Action" was accepted by consensus. Acceptance came in the context of the "Principles and Objectives" of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, and in the "thirteen steps" (that are, in fact, 21 individual measures) in the final declaration of the 2000 Review Conference.

If the Treaty is perceived as losing its value, withdrawing from it might eventually be seen as a consideration. Nuclear-weapon States, always so weary about "slippery slopes," should keep this most slippery of all slopes in mind.

At this point, non-nuclear weapon States had believed that they shared with their nuclear-armed counterparts a solid outlook on how to proceed with the implementation of Article VI. No one had the illusion that all the steps would be strictly implemented. Most accepted that the failure to achieve an agreed amendment to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between Washington and Moscow led to the scrapping of that Treaty. But the pathetic under-achievement of the "Thirteen Steps," accompanied by statements of several nuclear-weapon States that they did not feel bound by these agreed measures (that are, as the common interpretation of the NPT community of how Article VI is meant to be fulfilled, politically binding) came as a shock and led to great frustration among the majority of NPT members.

A Better Posture

If we start from the notion of the "bargain" and accept that nuclear disarmament will not happen overnight, nuclear-weapon States could assume a different posture. A State faithful to its disarmament obligation might be guided by the following principles:

A quick look at the "Thirteen Steps" shows that they are largely compatible with such a posture.

(See box.)

Looking at the thirteen steps makes it all the more astonishing that nuclear-weapon States move reluctantly. The steps themselves present reasonable options that should be in the best interests of nuclear-weapon States. They create much more reliable mutual expectations, confidence and transparency without eliminating the deterrent value in which the nuclear powers all appear still to believe. In addition, several of the measures contained in the steps - such as reducing non-strategic nuclear arms, a verified cut-off and the submission to IAEA safeguards of fissile material no longer destined for weapons - serve, indirectly, the globally shared goal of fighting terrorism. They make access by non-State actors to nuclear weapons and related materials more difficult - an objective that has been endorsed and pursued by Resolution 1540 adopted by the Security Council in April 2004.

Nowadays, nuclear-weapon States do not face existential threats against which unfettered options for keeping or acquiring large arsenals or revolutionary new weapons would appear necessary. If there is any concern that nuclear activities in North Korea or Iran may lead to the emergence of new nuclear powers, the world's existing arsenals are more than enough to control that risk.

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