A World Without Nuclear Weapons Six Wrong-Headed Cliches about Disarmament

With President Obama's Prague speech on "global zero" and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference scheduled for May 2010, nuclear disarmament is a pressing issue that is unfortunately plagued by old stereotypes.

A French nuclear submarine on patrol.
Reuters

A French nuclear submarine on patrol.

By Oliver Thränert


The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a Cold War relic.

Wrong. The treaty that came into force in 1970 was largely the work of the superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union However, the NPT also serves the national interests of the nuclear have-nots, whose main concern is to prevent dangerous nuclear arms races in their regions.

Currently, in the wake of the renaissance of atomic energy, nuclear technology for both peaceful and military applications is becoming accessible to increasing numbers of states. Thus the NPT is more important than ever. It guarantees at least three things:

1) Transparency

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) carries out more than 2000 inspections in nuclear installations annually. The aim is to prevent the misuse of such technology for military purposes. Through these inspections, the Vienna-based agency is able to obtain a clearer picture of peaceful nuclear programs. States parties that already ratified the Additional Protocol to the IAEA Safeguards are subject to more comprehensive notification requirements and are now obliged to report on the complete spectrum of their nuclear activities, including research and development projects. The IAEA inspectors have improved access rights and are even authorized to take environmental samples at any place of their choosing.

Unfortunately, around half of the signatories to the NPT have not yet implemented the protocol. These countries must be convinced to join. However, in the total absence of IAEA inspectors there would be a great deal of uncertainty as to whether atomic programs, declared peaceful, were not being secretly abused for armament purposes. Furthermore, it could prove easier for terrorists to obtain access to fissile material. It is only on the basis of the IAEA inspectors that states are forced to compile transparent material inventories and implement safety measures that make it harder to secretly steal plutonium or enriched uranium from nuclear installations.

2) Formation of International Coalitions

The NPT is the precondition for the formation of international coalitions against potential nuclear proliferators. Without the NPT the formation of the E-3 plus 3 -- the coalition of France, Great Britain, Germany, the United States, Russia, and China established to counter the threat of Iranian nuclear armament -- would have been much harder, if not impossible. These states pursue different interests in respect of Tehran, however they are united in their determination to uphold the non-proliferation norm. Without the NPT many of the major powers would probably support the nuclear weapons programs of states that they are favorably disposed toward, while other major powers would attempt to combat such developments. This would lead to a considerable increase in international instability.

3) Political Style

The NPT is frequently described as the cornerstone of the entire international non-proliferation regime. And rightly so. It would be virtually impossible to uphold the treaties on the banning of biological as well as chemical weapons if it was not for the NPT. In its absence, the concept of limiting access to the world's most dangerous weapons by cooperative, diplomatic means, would be completely lost.

Thus the NPT proves to be far from a relic of the Cold War. On the contrary -- in a globalized world where dual-use technologies can easily be used for military purposes and are becoming increasingly accessible -- it is indispensable.

The NPT is in Crisis Because the Nuclear Powers are not Disarming Enough.

True, in a limited sense. In fact, the NPT is built on three main pillars. In addition to the non-proliferation norm -- i.e. the permanent relinquishment of nuclear weapons by over 180 states -- the treaty also commits the nuclear powers that are the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, and China, to serious nuclear disarmament within the framework of general disarmament for which all states are responsible. The third pillar is the free access to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

For some time, many non-nuclear-weapons states have complained of an imbalance in the emphasis placed on these three pillars by the major powers. Above all, the Bush administration had been heavily criticized for continually indicting potential norm violators such as Iran or Syria, while appearing to neglect the issue of its own disarmament. In fact the Bush administration showed little interest in disarmament treaties. However, it reduced the United States' arsenal of nuclear weapons to a level deemed necessary by Washington, resulting in the decommissioning of several thousand warheads. In his April 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama announced a general change of course: the American goal is now, called "global zero," is to eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide. (The international community confirmed this vision, with the UN Security Council approving a historic resolution in a unanimous vote on September 24, 2009.) As a first step on this new course, Washington and Moscow are working on a new treaty on the limitation of strategic nuclear weapons to be concluded by the end of 2009.

Aside from this, NATO has already implemented a concept of minimum nuclear deterrence. While at the height of the cold war the United States had more than 7,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons on a range of different carriers stationed throughout Europe, today only approximately 200 American airborne bombs remain in Europe.

But is there actually any empirical connection between nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament? In the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan and Michail Gorbachev finally began to massively reduce the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals in the course of the INF (intermediate range weapons) and START (strategic weapons) treaties, countries such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran, Libya, and North Korea, began their nuclear programs. The determining factors were ambitions of supremacy (Iraq), security needs (Iran in respect of the then wartime enemy Iraq), prestige (Libya) or the pursuit of a form of life insurance policy and the extortion of economic aid (North Korea). Whether Moscow or Washington made progress in terms of nuclear disarmament was irrelevant to these countries. Even today, no one would seriously maintain that Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would relinquish nuclear weapons or a corresponding option simply because the United States and Russia had reduced their numbers of nuclear weapons.

However, there is a political connection between disarmament and non-proliferation: The greater the progress in disarmament, the easier it will be to convince previously reluctant countries at the forthcoming NPT Review Conference in May 2010 to take the measures necessary to strengthen the treaty -- such as the implementation of the IAEA Additional Protocol.

The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Cannot Come into Force Because it has Not Been Ratified by the United States .

Also true, in a very limited sense. In 1996 the UN General Assembly voted for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which forbids all nuclear weapons tests as well as so-called peaceful nuclear explosions. The test ban is seen as an important symbol of nuclear disarmament by many non-nuclear-weapons states. In order that the treaty be enacted under international law it has to be ratified by 44 countries listed in a treaty annex which are in possession of nuclear power stations or research reactors.

Naturally, the United States is part of this group. The Clinton administration submitted the Test Ban Treaty to the United States senate for ratification. However it rejected the treaty in October 1999 by 51 to 48 votes. The Bush administration rejected a renewed submission to the senate. In contrast, President Obama is soon to undertake a new attempt. Although the Democrats now have a majority in the senate, at least seven Republicans must support the Test Ban Treaty in order to reach the required two-thirds majority. Even if this is achieved, the Test Ban Treaty would still be a long way from enactment. Further states such as China, India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Israel still have to submit their instrument of ratification. Following a US ratification the political pressure on these countries would increase enormously, however this would be a long way from guaranteeing their agreement.

Bejing's intention is to keep open the nuclear test option in order to develop its nuclear weapons arsenal and strengthen its position as a nuclear power. The situation is similar in the case of India, where indications have been mounting that a supposedly successful hydrogen bomb test in 1998 failed to yield the expected results. In order to check the design of its hydrogen bomb it is possible that further tests will be required. As long as India fails to enact the Test Ban Treaty, ratification on the part of Pakistan is ruled out. Islamabad's decision is strictly linked to India's actions. In light of their uncooperative behavior, test ban ratifications on the part of Iran and North Korea are unlikely. And even Israel is hardly likely to ratify, having fought shy of all multilateral arms control treaties to date. As on site inspections are also inscribed in the Test Ban Treaty, Israel will be required to radically alter its policy of rejecting such monitoring measures out of a fear of revealing military secrets; however, this is not to be expected.

In conclusion, an American ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would be at best a political signal from Washington that disarmament is to be taken more seriously again. However, in no sense would this go hand in hand with an enactment of the treaty.

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