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Global Zero and Nuclear Disarmament Activism

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 19, 2011

    The Global Zero Summit held in London on June 22-23, 2011 brought together over 100 government representatives and prominent private individuals to push forward its agenda of striving to aim for a world free of nuclear weapons, to be achieved over four phases by 2030. The first phase from 2010 to 2013 envisages reduction of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1000 nuclear weapons each and the beginning of multilateral negotiations. During the second phase between 2014 and 2018, US and Russian arsenals are to be reduced to 500 weapons each. Negotiations on a Global Zero accord are to occur in the third phase (2019-2023), and finally “complete the phased, verified, proportionate dismantlement of all nuclear arsenals to zero total warheads by 2030.”

    The campaign launched in December 2008 was started by Americans Bruce Blair, a former member of the US nuclear weapons establishment, and Matt Brown, a former Democratic politician from Rhode Island. Since then, serving as well as many out-of-office political leaders and officials and the general public alike have pledged support to the campaign’s vision. At last count, 405,421 people had signed the Global Zero pledge online expressing support for the cause. As US Ambassador to Britain Louis Susman put it, “in less than three years, Global Zero has established itself as the world’s foremost movement for one of the world’s foremost challenges.” President Obama has been an early supporter, informing the second summit in February 2010 that achieving a world without nuclear weapons is one of his administration’s “highest priorities”. UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon asserted at the same meeting that “Global Zero is not just a slogan - it is a tangible goal that can and must be achieved.”

    The film Countdown to Zero produced by Lawrence Bender, who also produced Al Gore’s Oscar-winning climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and released in May 2010 further generated a popular buzz. Among other prominent supporters include the wife of the late King Hussein of Jordan, Queen Noor and Valerie Plame, a former senior CIA operative. Other organisations involved in similar causes like the London-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) have welcomed the Global Zero campaign, noting that the support for the campaign “indicates the increasing extent of the demand - from political, military and cultural leaders - for urgent action to achieve global nuclear disarmament.”

    India has pledged support for the vision of the Global Zero movement, with Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in his message to the London conference asserting that “India has been steadfast in its support for global, non-discriminatory, verifiable nuclear disarmament.” He added that “public awareness and support is vital to generate and sustain an irreversible momentum until we reach our cherished goal of a world without nuclear weapons.” Amb. Shyam Saran in his speech at the London conference stated that despite the limited scope for success for past nuclear disarmament efforts, there was a greater chance of Global Zero succeeding because of a combination of factors associated with nuclear terrorism, and the “continuing unravelling of the international non-proliferation regime, based on the NPT, partly due to the failure of its nuclear weapon state parties to honour their commitment to undertake nuclear disarmament and partly because several of its non-nuclear weapon states parties have been engaged in clandestine proliferation.” Amb. Saran also welcomed Global Zero’s stress on multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament, which provides a framework for the ‘reconciling’ of perceived nuclear threats among states possessing nuclear weapons. On nuclear terrorism specifically, Amb. Saran informed the London Summit that India is “particularly sensitive to this danger because of well known developments in our own neighbourhood.”

    Past non-governmental nuclear disarmament efforts were supported by ‘peaceniks’ primarily belonging to the left of the political spectrum, religious groups like the Roman Catholic Church and others who have often cited the ‘immorality’ associated with threatening mass annihilation in case nuclear deterrence fails. Organisations like the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs have highlighted the dangers posed to the health and well-being of populations as a result of nuclear weapons use. Carl Sagan’s 1983 book Nuclear Winter specifically portrayed the environmental hazards associated with nuclear use. Aspects relating to costs associated with nuclear weapons and their impact on developmental efforts in countries like India have been highlighted by organisations like the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP).

    It is pertinent to note that the overriding factor driving the current non-governmental activism for nuclear disarmament is the purported danger associated with nuclear terrorism and “dark” proliferation to countries like Iran, in the words of former US Ambassador to Germany Richard Burt. Valerie Plame, one of the prominent supporters of Global Zero, asserts that “the rise of terrorism and their unquestionable desire to acquire nuclear weapons for their own nihilistic purposes has fundamentally altered the equation.” The sub-text of the movement, according to Plame, is "making sure the bad guys don't get the bomb." Ted Daley, whose 2011 book Apocalypse Now is being widely cited by proponents of Global Zero asserts that “perpetual possession means perpetual proliferation”. It is also pertinent to note that the 2009 Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi is titled Eliminating Nuclear Threats. That report however talks of a two-phase approach to achieve nuclear disarmament to include a ‘minimization’ as well as an ‘elimination’ phase. It envisages the reduction in the roles and numbers of nuclear weapons in the former phase till about 2025, and an open-ended latter phase wherein nuclear abolition could be achieved.

    Despite the success of the Global Zero campaign in getting a large number of people on board, the politics surrounding the New START ratification in December 2010 prominently displayed the challenges in realising Global Zero’s vision. In order to win over Republican sceptics, for instance, the Obama administration agreed for an $85 billion modernisation plan for the US nuclear arsenal spread over the current decade. The nuclear cuts agreed to under the terms of the treaty (1500 nuclear warheads on 800 deployed as well as non-deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers) are intended to be achieved seven years after the treaty enters into force. Given the fact that New START entered into force in February 2011, the most prominent bilateral arms control measure is far off the ambitious targets enunciated by Global Zero. The enormity of the challenge is evident when it is kept in mind that these numbers are to be achieved from the currently large inventory of nuclear warheads in possession of the US and Russia. The US, for instance, revealed in May 2010 that it possessed 5113 active warheads. US administration officials like Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, have however remarked in April 2011 that “Zero is not the Holy Grail. The journey and each step along the way is just as important if not more important than the destination.”

    Nuclear weapon possessing countries meanwhile are continuing their efforts to strengthen their arsenals, including by initiating steps to build the next generation of ballistic missile submarines as in the case of the US, among other measures. The April 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review affirms that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces.” A June 2011 study by Global Zero conservatively estimates that the nine nuclear weapons powers (including North Korea) would spend over $1 trillion in nuclear weapons-related expenditure over the next decade. Bruce Blair, a co-founder of the movement, terms the sceptre of “two huge nuclear arsenals [US and Russia’s] locked in mutually reinforcing hair-trigger alert” as “residual deterrence” which is the “the residue of minds trapped in the past”.

    Though Global Zero’s ‘umbrella activism’ involving current and past policy practitioners and the general public alike can be expected to gain further momentum in the near future, its continued vitality may however be captive to the pressures of the timeline within which its vision is intended to be achieved.