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A feeble approach

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 18, 2010

    Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers.
    by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi
    Paragon, Canberra/Tokyo, 2009

    Since the publication of an article by Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, a momentum has been built in favour of nuclear disarmament. The endorsement of a world without nuclear weapons by President Barack Obama in April 2009 and the resumption of US-Russian negotiations on a successor treaty to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), as well as the forthcoming Nuclear Security Summit (April 2010) and the NPT Review Conference (May 2010) have given fillip to this momentum. The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, and consisting of fifteen reputed and influential ‘commissioners’ from around the world has come out with a report to argue the case for elimination of nuclear weapons. The report, with the objective of providing a practical action agenda to policy makers, is timely as it has led to a debate on nuclear disarmament ahead of the nuclear security summit and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference.

    There is so much scepticism about nuclear disarmament that those who argue for it are often the subject of ridicule. The report, in Chapter 6, summarises these arguments and gives counter arguments. Essentially, the case for nuclear weapons rests on the perceived efficacy of nuclear deterrence in having deterred a nuclear and conventional war between the major powers. Any major move towards disarmament, it is argued by the proponents, will be inherently destabilising. Other arguments in favour of retaining nuclear weapons include: nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented; they are still the currency of power and prestige in international relations; disarmament is not necessary for nuclear non-proliferation; nuclear weapons cost less than conventional forces, etc. (pp. 59-71).

    The report takes on these arguments one by one and seeks to expose their weakness. It points out that nuclear deterrence is not foolproof. There were many occasions during the Cold War when deterrence nearly broke down. Humanity has been lucky so far that there has not been an accidental or mistaken launch of a nuclear-tipped missile. The risk of an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon cannot be eliminated as thousands of weapons still remain actively deployed. In any case, nuclear weapons are useless in deterring a terror attack or stopping nuclear proliferation. The only way nuclear threats can be eliminated is by eliminating nuclear weapons. In this regard, the report argues that there is a need to rethink nuclear deterrence (pp. 61-71).

    Rethinking on nuclear deterrence can begin only with a change of mindset, which would involve de-legitimising nuclear weapons and reworking nuclear doctrines. The report argues that “The critical need is to finally transform perceptions of the role and utility of nuclear weapons from occupying a central place in strategic thinking to being seen as quite marginal, and ultimately wholly necessary.” (p. xix).

    At the heart of the report lies the suggestion of a short term (up to 2012) and medium term (up to 2025) action plan for “eliminating nuclear threats”. In the short term, up to 2012, the new START should be signed, CTBT should come into force, FMCT negotiations should begin, negative security assurances should be given by nuclear-armed states to non-nuclear weapon states, as many nuclear weapons as possible should be removed from alert status, nuclear arsenals should not be increased, and a multilateral nuclear disarmament dialogue should begin at the Conference on Disarmament (p. xxvii).

    The medium term action agenda suggested by the Commission aims at ‘minimisation’ of nuclear weapons in the world to no more than 2000 with Russia and the United States fielding no more than 500 weapons each. During this period there should be resolution of “parallel security issues” like missile delivery systems, space based weapon systems, biological weapons and conventional arms imbalances (p. xxix).

    The period up to 2025 is to be used to build the ground for eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, which would happen in the distant but unspecified future. During the period up to 2025, nuclear armed states should work towards reducing the salience of nuclear weapons by agreeing on no first use doctrines and changing the deployment of weapons according to this doctrine (p. xxix). The report acknowledges that appropriate political, security and military conditions would need to be created to facilitate complete elimination of nuclear weapons. In particular, a strong verification and compliance regime would have to be created to ensure that no one cheats. This is a difficult task.

    Is the goal of complete elimination achievable? The Commissioners think so, though they appear to be not entirely convinced. Their approach to elimination of nuclear weapons is too cautious and mostly tilted in favour of arms control and non-proliferation measures. Thus, several recommendations have been made in different chapters on what arms control and proliferation measures should be taken to make the ‘minimisation’ goal possible. There is nothing new in these suggestions, which are essentially concerned with signing of CTBT, negotiating FMCT, strengthening the NPT, multilateralisation of nuclear fuel cycle, and a series of measures aimed at strengthening nuclear security.

    The Commissioners fall short of providing an ambitious action plan for disarmament. Herein lies the chief weakness of the report. They accept that nuclear disarmament is a difficult process which will require a long time to conclude. The best they do is to argue for minimising the number of nuclear weapons in the world to 2000 by 2025. That can hardly be called nuclear disarmament!

    Way back in 1988, India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had proposed at the United Nations a phased programme for complete elimination of nuclear weapons by 2010. The report by Global Zero envisaged complete elimination of nuclear weapons by 2025. Compared to those proposals, the present report offers a slow track to disarmament. Why should the world wait up to 2025 to arrive at the “minimisation point”? Why cannot the United States and Russia agree to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 500 each in the current round of START negotiations? The security establishments will always find some argument or the other to retain, modernise and even use nuclear weapons.

    While arms control and non-proliferation measures should continue, there is also a need for a top down normative approach starting with de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons. The Report discusses the Nuclear Weapons Convention approach to nuclear disarmament but doubts its ‘immediate utility” (p. 225). This is unfortunate as there is growing support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention among nations and civil societies.
    The report seems to have been written keeping in view the NPT review conference in May 2010. There are apprehensions that the review conference may fail, like it happened in 2005. This will create a crisis in the NPT. The Commissioners provide a list of twenty points (Chapter 16) for the consideration of the NPT review conference. The report has more to do with the NPT review conference than with disarmament. It is interesting that the title of the report is about eliminating nuclear threats and not eliminating nuclear weapons. That shows the defensive mindset of the report.

    The report provides useful documentation on nuclear issues but falls short of making recommendations which would speed up nuclear disarmament. This is not surprising considering that many of the Commissioners are from nuclear armed states or from ones which enjoy the comfort of a nuclear umbrella. Actually, the report may have the unintended impact of strengthening the hawks in nuclear and security establishments as it fails to put enough moral pressure on them to undertake drastic measures to achieve nuclear disarmament.

    Dr. Arvind Gupta holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. These are his personal views.

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