The need for disarmament and eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons was enshrined in the Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yet, the nuclear weapon holding states gave little more than lip service toward that goal.
To be sure, there have been large reductions in strategic weapons through bilateral agreements between the US and the USSR followed by Russia. Yet, despite these reductions, four decades later, there are still thousands of weapons split between the two countries which have made little qualitative difference in the overall scenario.
Few other countries pursued them during the Cold War standoff. It was only Israel and South Africa who had actually developed nuclear weapons during this period other than France, the United Kingdom, and China - already recognized as nuclear weapon states under the NPT.
However, the collapse of the old order and the subsequent unilateral military actions of the US contributed to the drive to acquire nuclear weapons by a number of countries - India, Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly Iran - all located in conflict zones. It is also clear that all these countries have taken this route to mitigate their own security concerns. This is true even for North Korea, an easy whipping boy and poster child for "irrationality."
Gen. John Wickham, former US Army Chief of Staff and Commander of the US forces in Korea said in a recent Arizona Daily Star article that "North Koreans understandably are paranoid about security and they feel increasingly isolated." He should know. These words could also equally apply to Iran.
I would argue that achieving global zero would not be feasible unless the security concerns of all nations are addressed. Wolfgang Ischinger, a Global Zero Commissioner, said in a recent interview that "the atomic bomb is a great leveler. That's why a world free of nuclear weapons is only feasible if there is conventional disarmament as well." I agree.
While this perspective is necessary in order to be realistic, it should not keep us from embarking on the project itself. The same reasoning could be applied to people who are worried that "zero" cannot be verified. There is also a historical precedence with a single country possessing nuclear weapons in the kiloton range, which is what might be expected from a rogue state or non-state actor's bomb in the future.
In the interim, the focus should be on deeper cuts in the US and Russian arsenals to get down below 1000 warheads to be followed by other weapon holding states declared, or otherwise, in a step by step manner as proposed by many. It is not necessary that they be sequential. Regional disarmament may be possible at the same time, especially in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula as we move toward an eventual global zero.
The great majority of the world's nations are signatories to the treaty banning chemical weapons, which were known as a poor man's nuclear weapon. The important thing is to similarly delegitimize nuclear weapons as soon as possible and start a gradual dismantlement of the design and manufacturing complexes. One should note that the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force more than a decade ago and it would be many more years hence before the stockpiles are completely destroyed. But its production and use are banned in a verifiable manner.
A convention banning further production of nuclear weapons and components would make it unnecessary to retain the large weapon complexes in both US and Russia. It would be possible to maintain the shrinking stockpile with a much smaller enterprise charged simply with maintaining the safety of the weapons.
Recent experimental results from the US stockpile stewardship program have reportedly determined that the so-called aging problem with the plutonium pits will not be an issue in the next hundred years. This should definitively negate the arguments of the advocates of a return to testing. None will be needed. Now, there may be other issues with the weapons performance in the next ten or twenty years, which we need to find out quickly. In this regard, why not think about a joint US-Russia effort to work out the physics issues and build confidence at the same time?
Subrata Ghoshroy is a Research Associate with the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. He was formerly a Senior Defense Analyst with the Government Accountability Office.
Related Materials from Atlantic-Community:
- Global Zero: Nuclear Abolition: Now or Never?
- Wolfgang Fischer: The Case for Limited Disarmament
- Thomas Speckmann: A Nightmare: Obama Wants Nuclear Disarmament