By Andrew Brown
The Canberra Commission, a group of international experts appointed by the Australian government, reported in 1996: “A nuclear weapon free world can be secured and maintained through political commitment, and anchored in an enduring and binding legal framework.” The political commitment necessary will depend on international public pressure to end a complacent reliance on weapons of unprecedented destructiveness and will require, as the commissioners stated, irrevocable treaty arrangements that are rigorously enforced.
How feasible are those treaty arrangements is not clear at this time. What is certain is that it will need a sea-change in international relations and adherence to international laws that is going to take generations and will not happen in one revolutionary step.
Ever since the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945, there has been a contest between those who believe nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantors of national security and emblematic of a state’s importance in the world and those who regard them as morally indefensible or militarily useless or both, and oppose their proliferation.
The UN, whose charter was signed in June 1945 with no anticipation of the nuclear age, moved quickly to establish an Atomic Energy Commission reporting to the Security Council: in the summer of 1946, it convened to consider the Acheson-Lilienthal plan proposed by the United States.
This plan attempted to divide nuclear activities into ‘dangerous’ (those that could lead to the manufacture of atomic weapons) and ‘safe’ (eg electricity generation). An international agency would be set up to restrict the former, while promoting the latter.
The lead author of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, Robert J Oppenheimer, stated that if it became an international treaty, the US senate in order to ratify it would have to accept the ‘partial abrogation of our national sovereignty’ – a price worth paying to establish international control and to diminish the risk of future nuclear war.
The head of the U.S. Army, General Dwight D Eisenhower, explicitly agreed with this sentiment. Furthermore, both men thought that atomic weapons could not simply be abolished and were alert to the prospect of other countries breaking their promise not to build them.
Oppenheimer wanted the U.S. to construct atomic power plants that could easily be switched from electricity generation to the manufacture of fissile material for bombs, while Eisenhower wanted to reserve the right for a coalition of law-abiding nations to use atomic bombs against a recalcitrant state that was threatening to use them in breach of any treaty.
After many months of listless debate the Acheson-Lilienthal plan failed, but it brought to the surface many issues that still have to be resolved in any international effort to prohibit nuclear weapons.
Once the Cold War was underway in earnest, adherents of nuclear weapons were in an almost unchallenged ascendancy and a spiral of nuclear warhead production ensued. The first break in the trend came in 1987, at a time when the combined arsenals of the two superpowers amounted to about 70,000 weapons.
The two leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, had talked tantalizingly about the complete elimination of nuclear weapons at their summit in Reykjavik the previous year, but did manage to conclude the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that abolished a whole class of weapons carried by medium-range missiles.
In 1990, Gorbachev and President George W.H. Bush signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), against the determined resistance of their own defense establishments. The following year, they also effected radical cuts in their tactical nuclear weapons arsenals without going through official negotiations first.
Nearly 20 years elapsed before the new START agreement that restrict Russia and the U.S. to no more than 1,550 deployed weapons with limits on the numbers of delivery vehicles, but it made no stipulations about the thousands of warheads each had stockpiled.
While other nations developed their own nuclear weapons (sometimes with outside help), none of these possesses more than several hundreds, and it seems improbable that there will be any international progress towards a nuclear weapon free world (NWFW) until the two leading Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) dispose of their enormous stockpiles.
Arms control agreements are impossible to reach during political conflicts, and it is hard to imagine that if the process of negotiating a NWFW is going to depend on the complete satisfaction of all the individual Nuclear Weapons States, it will ever be completed. In order for it to happen, there has to be a general recognition that all can benefit from improved collective security and the removal of such a destructive threat to the planet.
Robert McNamara, U.S. Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, in his later years became a staunch anti-nuclear campaigner because he believed: ‘The indefinite combination of nuclear weapons and human fallibility will lead to a nuclear exchange.’
Nuclear deterrence that seemed an established reality in the bipolar Cold War era, is a much less convincing and straightforward concept in a world of multiple nuclear powers and in a time of extremist terrorist groups. The more fingers there are on nuclear buttons, the greater the risk of an unintended or accidental launch.
The advantages of collective security as opposed to individual national security are slowly being appreciated, at least in the West. The rhetoric of a NWFW has become respectable as evidenced by the 2007 Wall Street Journal article by four distinguished US former statesmen and President Obama’s electrifying 2009 speech in Prague. Inspirational words are a necessary stimulus for political action, but it is action that will determine the reality of a NWFW.
There are already international agreements, notably the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that is awaiting ratification by the U.S. and some other Nuclear Weapons States, and the simple policy commitment on all sides to No-First-Use would improve the atmosphere for negotiation.
The large number of nuclear weapons already in existence could be readily reduced without upsetting perceived military balances, but as has been long recognized, the significance of individual nuclear warheads would grow as the world’s supply approached zero.
The world will not stand still during the long period envisioned, but whatever political or military conflicts arise, as the stores of nuclear weapons diminish, there would be a lessening of one global existential threat. Monitoring and verification systems in a NWFW would have to be rigorous and, just as Eisenhower suggested in 1946, there would need to be immediate preventive military action against any potential aggressor who was violating the disarmament treaty.
Andrew Brown – Andrew Brown is a practicing physician as well as a research associate with the Managing the Atom Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Brown is an adviser to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. His most recent book is ‘Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: the life and work of Joseph Rotblat’ (Oxford,2012)