Gareth Evans: The challenge of getting to zero

A keynote address by Gareth Evans, Co-chair, International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, at the public forum, Who Will Stop Nuclear Next Use, organized by Nautilus Institute at RMIT on Sunday 20 October 2009.


Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans

The challenge of getting to zero: The role of the Australia-Japan International Commission in Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

Gareth Evans: Well, thanks Richard. Thanks for the generous introduction. Thanks to all for being here and Nautilus Institute for bringing us together. Thanks particularly to giving me the privilege in sharing a platform with Rolf Ekéus, who has been a wonderful warrior for disarmament and multiple other global public policy courses over many years now, someone for whom I have the utmost affection and respect. And it is great to be here with him sharing this platform today.

Rolf also was, of course, a member of the Canberra Commission in ’96. And I think the single thing the Canberra Commission is going to be most
remembered for, quite properly, is just a three sentence mantra at absolutely the core of its conclusions, which Rolf hinted at, but I think it is worth spilling out again. Those three sentences were as follows:

“So long as anyone has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as anyone possesses nuclear weapons, they are bound, one day, to be used, by accident or miscalculation if not by deliberate design. And any such use would be catastrophic for our world as we know it.”

That is the core of the story in three sentences. And the truth of the matter is that we did survive the Cold War years by sheer dumb luck. It is really an absolute miracle that we got through that extraordinary period, each side bristling with weapons aimed at each other without something going very baldy wrong.

And we simply can’t assume that that dumb luck is going to continue in the future. The truth of the matter, in terms of the risks, the threats that are
out there, is that they are very substantial indeed.

Four things. One, we have the existing nuclear arms states possessing between them now 23,000 nuclear warheads, each with a destructive capacity many times Hiroshima and Nagasaki over.

Ten thousand of those weapons are actually operationally deployed, 3000 of them have some kind of launch ready status, 2000 of them are still extraordinarily on a hair trigger alert, launch on warning, giving the president of Russia, the president of the United States, in the event of information coming in that a nuclear attack is being mounted from the other side, somewhere between four and eight minutes to make the decision to respond.

And it is not just a matter of flocks of geese confusing radar operators in this day and age. We do, of course, have the potential for a very, very sophisticated cyber-attack, cyber-simulation, and God knows how much more sophisticated that stuff is going to get in the future.

We also know now that a number of the presently nuclear arm states don’t have anything like the sophistication in their own command and control arrangements as the United States and Russia still, to a reasonable extent, do.

So, you have got on huge continuing problem just at that level. Secondly, of course you have got the problem of proliferation, which has now come back and stared us in the face since India and Pakistan joined Israel among the three big countries now outside the NPT acquiring weapons back in the late ’90s. And now with the issues in Iran, North Korea, and the potential possibly for a cascade of further proliferation, if we don’t find a way of holding the line.

We have got the problem of terrorist capability, which can’t be sneezed at post 9/11. We know about the intention that is out there from various millenarian groups. The capacity to translate that into nuclear attack is probably a bit more limited than some of the more alarmist accounts would suggest, but it is nonetheless real.

The technology is out there. We know from the A.Q. Khan story how possible it is to get a hold of this material through back channels. We know that it is possible to assemble a Hiroshima scale device in the back of a large truck. We know it is possible to drive it into the center of any large city in the world and explode such a device with hundreds of thousands of deaths and casualties following.

It is not a huge probability, but it is certainly a possibility, and it is out there and we have to try and deal with it. And the final issue, of course, that
is making the world a rather alarming place at the moment is the probability of very substantial increase in civil nuclear energy. Whatever the merits of that are – the NGO community differs on that subject – it is unquestionably going to result, probably, in a doubling of at least civil power reactors around the world within the next 20 or so years. And that is going to mean, particularly if a lot more countries get into the business of manufacturing their own fissile material, many more opportunities for proliferation.

So, the question is, in this sort of environment, what on Earth can we do about it politically, apart from just generally fulminating on occasions like

Well, basically, the initiatives and the effort has to come from three different levels. It has to come, obviously, top down for a start. Russia and the United States possess between them 95 percent, about 22,000 of the 23,000 weapons – more than 95 percent of those that are out there. And if we are going to get real leadership in a dramatic move towards abolition, it has got to come in the first instance from those two countries.

But secondly, there has got to be peer group movement as well. There has got to be leadership and energy and input momentum developed by the great mass of other countries, the non-nuclear weapon states, the less nuclear powers, who all have to going to make a major contribution if we are going to get not only effective non-proliferation measures put in place, but, again, serious moves toward disarmament.

And the third thing that has got to happen is the development, again, of a significant civil society movement from the bottom up. Governments we know all too well are occasionally capable of doing the right thing, but usually only after all other available alternatives are exhausted. And it is the role and responsibility of civil society to keep government’s honest in this respect, to make clear what the role is, what the responsibilities are so far as these great issues of policy. And without that pressure from below, there are not too many governments that will do the right thing.

So, where does this Japan-Australia nuclear commission fit in in a world which has had many such commissions and panels of this kind? It is essentially to try and energize a global political debate at a high level, in essence to energize that constituency of governments out there, not only the United States and Russia, who collectively must act, and must act effectively, if we are going to get movement.

The notion that you can do this with just a handful of countries showing the way is a complete misperception. You are not going to get negotiations moving or consummated in Geneva on the fissile material issue. You are not going to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty actually fully ratified by all the necessary countries. You are not going to have the IAEA board of governors making the right decisions. You are not going to have the Security Council doing what it has to do
unless you have got buy in from many more countries than just that small handful at the center.

And the real role, if you want to put it in a nutshell, of this commission that I am co-chairing with my Japanese Foreign Ministerial colleague is to energize that sort of global constituency, hopefully at the same time having an impact on what Russia and the United States do. And the Commission has already met in both Moscow and Washington with that object in mind. And also, we hope, of course, to energize the civil society constituency and give you the ammunition to work away, to gnaw away, and to burrow away at these issues up from below.

What may make a difference as far as this Commission is concerned, compared with many others in the past, I think are several factors, if I can just mention them very, very rapidly.

First of all, there is the timing. We do have a sense that for the first time in modern history we are actually riding a wave rather than resisting a tide, and it is a good place to be in terms of articulating a way forward.

I think the Commission itself is very representative in its composition, its membership, quite high level with people like Bill Perry the former US Secretary of State and one of the famous gang of four whose op-ed was so important, as Rolf had said, in energizing a new sense of momentum out there a couple of years ago.

We have got people like Gro Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, also on the Commission, a hugely influential figure worldwide, and many others of that stature and standing.

So, it has got the representative and the leadership quality about it in terms of its membership. It has got the timeliness as I said. And I think it has got an attitude to the resolution of these problems that will actually prove quite helpful, because what we are trying to do is chart a course on this which is very realistic, very pragmatic, as well as idealistic. We are certainly not letting the beacon stop shining in terms of the ultimate objectives, but we are very, very conscious of the constraints that are out there in the real world on all the major policy issues that are going to have to be wrestled with. And we are trying to craft the report in such a way that indicates that we are well aware of that, but there are still ways through it.

And again, finally in the way in which we write the report, it won’t just be pragmatic as well as idealistic, but I am trying to write it at the moment in a way that is genuinely accessible to a non-specialist technical audience.

The trouble is… The Canberra Commission was very good in this respect. You can’t quite say that of many of the other reports that have been produced, which are basically wonks talking to other wonks and going right over the heads of most of the policy makers whose views, whose imagination really, has to be captured, and whose attention certainly has to be captured by what we are saying.

The final thing to say in that context is we are going to write the report in a way that will be very action oriented, not just a laundry list of should, should, shoulds, but, yes, you should within this timeframe, and with this kind of priority, try to achieve this kind of result and use this as a foundation for something
next. So, very action-plan oriented.

I can’t say much about what the recommendations of the report are going to be. We are still in the process as a commission of wrestling with them. But, let me give you in just three or four minutes, because I want to allow plenty of time for questions, a sketch of some of the major themes that we will be coming through.

We are organizing the action plan, essentially, around a timeframe of short term, medium term, and long term. The short term we are defining as the next four years, through to 2012, medium term, through to 2025, and the longer term, beyond that. 2025 perhaps doesn’t sound too medium. It sounds a long way away, but given the pace at which these things move, given the complexity of the issues, it is actually a pretty short time to be doing what we want to do in that frame.

But, in the short term, the immediate priority is obviously next year’s NPT review conference, and the Commission is going to come up with a very sharply defined package of priority measures that we believe should be agreed at that conference.

One is obviously a set of measures to strengthen the NPT regime itself, particularly the compliance verification enforcement side of it, and the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency, is the relevant institution. We will have very specific things to say about that.

But, what we also want the NPT conference next year to do is to come up with a rearticulation of basically an action plan for disarmament. Not just focusing on the non-proliferation side, but on the disarmament side to try to get everyone signed up to a set of propositions about what should happen in the way forward, rather similar to the famous 13 Practical Steps of 2000, which were a big step forward in getting the weapons states in particular to recognize their responsibilities, but which slipped off the agenda during the rather desolate Bush years that followed. And the last review conference, as most of you will know, there was no agreement on anything at all. We want to recapture that momentum on the disarmament side as well as the non-proliferation side.

Other things to try and do in the short term, of course try and move on this fissile material treaty in Geneva – about which we can talk in more detail presumably later on in the day if people are interested that – the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is crucial to try and get those votes in the US Senate, and in turn, the other holdout countries to ratify and bring it finally to force.

It is crucial to get some real momentum sustained in the US/Russia bilateral disarmament talks, which are going on this year, and for which the atmosphere looks good. But they are still only going to, at best, reduce the number of strategically deployed weapons down to 1500, which will still leave the total number of warheads existing in the US arsenal well over 8000, so we have got some distance to go with equivalent numbers on the Russian side.

It is crucial that we begin in that same context, at least to prepare the ground for multilateral disarmament phase, bringing in the other key players, China, and France, and the UK, as well as, of course, India, Pakistan, and Israel. And that is going to be a labor of Hercules. It is going to take a long time, but we have got to prepare the ground for that with studies and dialogue, and the Commission will have lots to say about that.

We also need to, in the short term, really make some progress on the issue of nuclear doctrine. The question about what the role, what the salience, of nuclear weapons are. Barack Obama has foreshadowed this in his Prague speech as one of the big things that has to happen. The world has to change its psychology – the sort of thing that Rolf was saying as well in his opening speech – change the psychology about nuclear weapons to de-legitimize them and get to a stage where they’re much, much reduced in their degree of acceptance as core to countries’ security planning.

To do that will amount to a major change because the United States itself, dating particularly since the last strategic posture review, has got an approach to nuclear weapons essentially of keeping the options open for using them for anything at all, not just to deter other people using nuclear weapons against it or its allies.

And what we hope, of course, is that in the context of the present posture review – which is due for completion early next year – is that the US, apart from addressing a lot of other very specific things about the operation of its nuclear forces, will in fact take the step, at the very least, of signing up to a proposition that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons so long as they exist on the planet is to deter the use by others.

If the US does lead the way in that respect – because most of the other nuclear weapon states have not made a similar declaration or made a similar commitment – this will be extremely important in generating the kind of momentum that we need. This of course has very direct and immediate resonance for the debate about
extended deterrence: Japan, Australia, other US allies… This is an issue the Commission is wrestling with. It’s quite sensitive because there is still quite a bit of sentiment there and in a number of places that really nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, should be kept available to deal with non-nuclear threats as well as nuclear ones.

That’s an issue which the Commission is wrestling with. I think there’s a fair chance that we’ll eventually decide that it’s just an impossible position to be in to be arguing for a world without nuclear weapons without even being prepared to take the first step of saying that the sole purpose of these things should be to deter nukes. Whatever you think about the viability and the legitimacy of that deterrence doctrine itself, at the very least we ought to be able to agree that that’s as far as deterrence doctrine should go for the foreseeable future. I don’t think Australia will have any trouble with that kind of statement at all: whether others will remains to be seen.

That’s all the short-term. The medium-term is really where the disarmament action has to really gain momentum and what we’re arguing for is a world – by 2025, 15 years out from next year – where we haven’t got to zero; we don’t think that will be realizable in that time frame, it’d be wildly optimistic – but we will at least have reached what we are going to, I think, call the “minimization” point. Very, very low numbers of nuclear weapons compared to those that exist at the moment, widespread acceptance of a doctrine of sole purpose that I just described or, better still, a doctrine of no first use which is a sharper version of sole purpose and actual deployments of those weapons which are wholly consistent with that doctrine and certainly launch readiness in a state as wholly consistent with it.

It would be great if the doctrinal stuff and the deployment stuff and the launch readiness stuff could be addressed much, much sooner than 2025 and notionally it can be – the numbers stuff is going to take much longer – but what we are saying is that the target objective is to get to that kind of status by then. Then the longer term – post 2025 – is… the task there is of course to move to the final evolution: to move from the minimum point to the actual zero. I don’t think the Commission is going to feel able to articulate a particular target date for this.

Others have been braver, in the NGO community worldwide, but we think the geopolitical conditions that are going to have to be satisfied, as well as the technical conditions about verification and so on that are going to have to be satisfied, are just so complex and so mind-bogglingly big at the moment that it would justify credibility to say that all these things are going to slot into place or could slot into place by a certain date. Importantly, I think it is critical that we be as a Commission very, very clear about what those conditions actually are and to still map a course to the final outcome.

It has been the case that some of the groups, including the “gang of four” and the US and others who say are with them, have been a little unwilling to do more than focus on getting to the minimization point – the “base camp” if you like, on the “climbing a mountain” analogy; the “vantage point”, to use the terminology of the gang of four. They’ve really been a bit inclined to say, “Well, the mountaintop after that is really so shrouded in mist we can’t say anything specific about it.”

I think the view that the Commission will take is, it might be still some distance away, that mountaintop, but can’t leave it shrouded in mist. We have to let the sunlight very, very sharply focus on it. It has to be a beacon to which we aim and to which we motivate ourselves and generate the maximum amount of continued practical effort to get there. Lots of things we can do in that respect; that’s more detail than I’ve got time for now, I’ll shut up and let you get on with questions but let me just say one final thing.

Although the task is huge – there’s absolutely no doubt about it, there are so many different pieces that have got to come together – I, for one, remain optimistic
as I do on so many international fronts, that progress is possible and the ultimate goal is achievable. Certainly, in this respect, I think it is very encouraging that everything we know about global public opinion might have been a bit complacent about this issue.

It might not be very energized and mobilized on this issue – that’s your job, amongst others, to change that – but when “scratched,” when actually asked in global opinion polls: “Do people want a world without nuclear weapons, do they want to see them eliminated?” It is extraordinary, every single global opinion poll that’s been done, including a very important one at the end of last year, comes up with extraordinarily positive figures that every country in which this is tested around the world…

Even Pakistan! Where people love nukes! The Government certainly does, the military certainly does and the population has been imbued with a sense that they’re needed for strategic parading and so on with India. So, the mood is there. The mood is there to be captured and I think the final word, as so often, deserves to be with Dwight Eisenhower, US President, who I think is being underappreciated for some of the very sensible things he said along some of the other things he did and in particular is underappreciated for that wonderful remark of his that: “I think people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it!”

I think that is the story that’s there to be told so far as nuclear weapons are concerned and I’d say our collective responsibility to advance it. Thank you!

Background information

Gareth Evans is the co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.

He presented this speech as a keynote address at a public forum on nuclear disarmament, Who will stop nuclear next use? The forum was organized by the Nautilus Institute at RMIT. It was held on Sunday 20 September 2009 at RMIT Storey Hall.