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Disarmament’s ‘Lost Decade’

S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 02, 2011

    Addressing the Geneva-based 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) on January 26, 2011, UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon had very strong words for the representatives of the multilateral arms control body: shape up or become irrelevant! Ban bemoaned the “lost decade” at the CD, which adopted a Programme of Work (PW) for the first time after 12 years in May 2009, and since then has continued to be paralysed in its work. He contrasted the functioning of the CD with the many positive developments in the arms control and disarmament arena in the immediate past – including the May 2010 NPT Review Conference and the ratification of the New START by the United States and Russia. He warned that the continued deadlock had “ominous implications for international security. The longer it persists, the graver the nuclear threat — from existing arsenals, from the proliferation of such weapons and from their possible acquisition by terrorists.”

    The lack of progress at the CD has been most noticeable in failed efforts to work towards a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), with the latest spoilsport being Pakistan. Points of contention at the CD have ranged from issues of verification to fissile material stocks and arms races in outer space. If the rule of consensus at the CD was originally agreed upon to prevent any decision that could negatively affect the security concerns of member states, and particularly that of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT)-certified nuclear weapon states (NWS), now nuclear upstarts like Pakistan seem to have mastered the rule. India also famously rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the CD in 1996.

    In a sense, the lack of progress at the CD captures the state of affairs that has bedevilled the field of arms control/disarmament during the past decade. This despite rhetorical flourishes provided by President Obama, most dramatically in Prague in April 2009, coupled with some concrete ‘political’ achievements like the ratification of New START recently. Nuclear disarmament activism of the kind shown by civil society groups like the Global Zero Initiative or the Australia-Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) were worthwhile. These were also undertaken towards the end of the decade – Global Zero launched in December 2008 while the ICNND report was released in December 2009. There is a new Indian initiative in the works (announced in December 2010) with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh establishing a Working Group to carry forward the agenda of the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan.

    At the beginning of the last decade, the total nuclear stockpiles of the United States and Russia, according to the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council, were about 30,000. Arms Control Today has estimated that in 2010 these stockpiles totalled about 22,000, including both operational and deployed warheads (as well as the 5113 active warheads that the US said it possessed in May 2010) and about 4500 US warheads “retired and awaiting dismantlement”.

    The reasons for disarmament/arms control’s ‘lost decade’ are varied. Issues like terrorism and pre-emptive wars launched on the charge of states illegally pursuing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technologies dominated the strategic landscape post September 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of that terrorist strike, the United States announced its unilateral decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty (December 2001). As President Bush noted at that time, the ABM treaty “hinders our government’s ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks.” Concerns about non-proliferation and nuclear security triumphed over the ideal of nuclear disarmament. There was also lack of political or strategic incentives for NWS to carry forward their disarmament obligations under Article VI of NPT.

    Ironically, the very issues which dominated the nuclear strategic landscape during the decade - dangers of nuclear terrorism, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan’s nuclear security, the A.Q. Khan network, were all in fact responsible for triggering the ‘late push’ as it were on nuclear disarmament towards the end of the decade. President Obama has been quoted as asserting that “it will be naïve for us to think that we can grow our nuclear stockpiles … and be able to pressure countries like Iran and North Korea not to pursue nuclear weapons themselves.” In his April 5, 2009 Prague speech, Mr. Obama termed nuclear terrorism “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” The January 4, 2007 article by the four veterans of US defence and foreign policy in the pages of the Wall Street Journal notes similar such stark realities.

    While issues like nuclear terrorism, Iran and North Korea have forced the NWS to make appropriate ‘political’ noises regarding nuclear disarmament, their perceived strategic requirements have eventually triumphed. In order to get the New START ratified, the Obama administration for instance pledged $80 billion over the next decade to modernise the US nuclear arsenal as a sop to Republican sceptics who were not enthusiastic about the treaty. They were eventually brought on board in a significant political and foreign policy triumph for Mr. Obama who became the first Democratic president to achieve a major arms control success. Rigid doctrinal and postural requirements were also not sufficiently diluted. The April 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which many hoped would take forward President Obama’s activism in some greater measure, does not for instance contain references to no first use or such confidence building measures. The NPR does contain a “strengthened negative security assurance” not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT and are in compliance with its provisions.

    If the promise of the newly ratified New START by the US Senate and the Russian Duma is realised in full measure, arms control could hope to have a good decade ahead. The preamble of the treaty envisions the bilateral US-Russian process to eventually include the other nuclear weapon possessing countries in a mutual spiral of reduction. Countries like China and France, among others, have remained non-committal about such a possibility, though welcoming the current bilateral US-Russia process. China specifically continues to modernise all the elements of its armed forces at a rapid pace. The US NPR also notes that “any future nuclear reductions must continue to strengthen deterrence of potential regional adversaries, strategic stability vis-à-vis Russia and China, and assurance of our allies and partners.”

    The last two years of the previous decade demonstrated the limitations of even visionary leadership - even if of a politically charged variety, and of civil society activism, in striving to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. It seems that these efforts will continue to face difficulties in surmounting the cold logic of nuclear deterrence, still warm two decades after the end of the Cold War.

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