The Present Moment in the Task of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

A keynote address by Ambassador Rolf Ekéus, Chair, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, at the public forum, Who Will Stop Nuclear Next Use? This public forum was conducted by Nautilus Institute at RMIT on Sunday 20 October 2009.


Rolf Ekeus and Richard Tanter

Rolf Ekeus and Richard Tanter

Rolf Ekéus: Nuclear weapons are tools for destruction. Their use kills immediately and kills over time. Their use causes irreparable devastation and environmental degradation.

Any nuclear weapons use would be out of proportion to any foreign policy objectives. None of the various doctrines for use developed over the years really serves any political or material purpose, whether they are based upon limited nuclear war, flexible response surgical strikes or mutual assured destruction.

For our contemporary existence, there is no rational argument for actual use. The matter of launching a nuclear attack is thus exclusively a problem of deep moral complexity, a challenge to human decency and the survival of mankind. Consequences of use is not only to inflict terrible suffering on others, but the effects of nuclear war are coming back to the user in the form of environmental devastation, accompanied by the hatred of the victims.

We all know that use of only limited portions of exiting nuclear weapon stocks (<0.1%) could create devastation of large parts of the globe. Thus, already in the mid-eighties, a UN commission of scientists warned that even such limited use could result in a Nuclear Winter, a global disaster for food production and human survival. The recent International Panel on Climate Change has confirmed that earlier finding. Thus the creation of Nuclear Weapons has made it possible for the first time in human existence, for mankind to commit suicide.

The legality of the use of nuclear weapons has been addressed by the International Court of Justice, which has ruled that weapons use violates laws of war in all the aspects of the principles of proportionality and non discrimination.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, is still the major multilateral nuclear disarmament Treaty, while we are waiting for the Convention Banning Nuclear Weapons. The Parties to the Treaty have entered into a partnership, based upon the shared view that both requisition and retention of nuclear weapons are harmful to international peace and security. But, if you take a closer look, you will find that the Nuclear Weapons States joined the Treaty first of all because of their concern that proliferation of nuclear weapons constitutes a threat to international peace and security. The primary concern of the non-nuclear weapon states on the other side, and nuclear weapons is that the retention and existence of nuclear weapons constitute the primary threat to international peace and security.

These contradictions between the Parties have hardened, as the Nuclear Weapons States have made clear that they are not ready to abolish nuclear weapons maintaining that the weapons are helpful to security, while the non-nuclear weapons states hold that nuclear weapons are harmful to security.

However, in spite of the insistence of the Nuclear Weapon States Parties to the NPT to retain their nuclear arsenals, none of them is inclined to make use of nuclear weapons with its mass killing potential and its unforeseeable environmental consequences. There is no rational argument for actual use.

The question is then – Why is it so difficult for Nuclear Weapons States to take decision to forego these weapons? The answer to this question can be given with one word – deterrence.

There is a widespread belief in nuclear deterrent doctrine as a fundamental for international security, not only among nuclear weapon states, but also among some non-nuclear weapon states. That belief is explaining the reluctance of nuclear weapons states to reduce and eliminate their arsenals. It is also causing certain non-nuclear weapon states to try to obtain a capability of producing and storing nuclear weapons or at least to preserve the option of becoming a nuclear weapon state.

The rational for nuclear arsenals under the deterrence doctrine is to prevent their use.

Even if an innocent observer would say that the best way to prevent use would be to get rid of the weapons, the answer would be that if you had gotten rid of your weapons, you could not deter the ‘other’ and prevent him from use.

A dilemma with deterrence, based on deployed nuclear weapons, is that it can be credible only if there were belief that there were a significant possibility that nuclear weapons would be used with short delay and that there were both a technical and political/psychological readiness to do so.

Therefore, in addition to alert status of the weapons doctrines, military practices and training, targeting and postures must be structured to make actual use possible – and in addition, a mental and moral readiness to inflict disaster and suffering of almost unthinkable magnitude on an adversary.

Furthermore, deterrence can have an impact only on reasonably rational actors or opponents. What we have learned from actions by terrorists in modern times, is that there are international terrorists with destructive and suicidal agendas on whom nuclear deterrence would have no effect whatsoever. Some may even welcome an opportunity to make the ultimate sacrifice.

As was stated by the four American Statesmen and security specialists, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and William Perry in their path-breaking article in Wall Street Journal 2007, the end of the Cold War had made the doctrine of deterrence, between the two major nuclear weapon states, obsolete. However they could not conclude that deterrence concepts do not continue to be a relevant consideration for many states in other security constellations. They could point out that the lack of a structural approach corresponding to what had existed between the United States and the Soviet Union, makes the reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence purpose becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective. Considering the security situation in East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East one is bent to agree.

However if, instead of bilateral deterrence situations, we considered the notion of extended deterrence, questions of alliances must be considered. Alliances can serve as means of preventing nuclear proliferation. Two major States, Germany and Japan, appear not to have been tempted to give up their non-nuclear posture, thanks to the American nuclear umbrella. The question is what would happen if the USA decided to eliminate, abolish, its nuclear weapons? Would that have an impact on Japan’s non-nuclear posture? And what would be the consequences for NATO, which still is a nuclear alliance thanks to the extended deterrence, courtesy of the United States? Clearly, a full answer could only be given, considering changes in the related security constellations. It could definitely be stated that neither Russia nor China would be a realistic threat against Germany respective Japan.

It is difficult to see how the possible end of extended nuclear deterrence, due to nuclear abolition, could in any way have a negative impact on any of the allies of the United States. The development since the early 90’s in the military sphere, concerning both quantity and quality as regards conventional, non nuclear capabilities, demonstrates that the relative superiority of the United States has increased radically. In the absence of nuclear weapons, which could serve as a strategic or even tactical, equaliser against the US, America would be, even more than today, the world’s dominant power in military terms. This should made America’s friends and allies even more secure. Of course, Russia on the other side, facing such a contingency, and in the wake of the radical diminishing of size and quality of its armed forces, could be tempted to resist a dismantling of its nuclear force in order maintain leverage and international clout.

The vision of a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, launched by Shultz, Kissinger, Nunn and Perry, implied that global nuclear security in the long run cannot be resting upon nuclear deterrence doctrines. It is remarkable that the two foremost nuclear practitioners of nuclear deterrence, former US Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, after years of reflection, have come to the conclusion that in the end, only elimination of nuclear weapons could be a strong enough guarantee against their use. The political and practical impact of these revelations have been limited as they materialised first when the protagonists had retired from active service.

The Canberra Commission where McNamara served as a commissioner came to the conclusion in its report in 1996, that as long as nuclear weapons exist, they sooner or later will be used. The Commission stated that the only military utility that remains for nuclear weapons is in deterring the use by others. That utility implied the continued existence of these weapons. Consequently, the utility would disappear completely if nuclear weapon were eliminated.

Here is the philosophical/logical challenge: The usefulness of nuclear weapons – namely the threat of their use‚ is identical with the disease – the ‘threat of use’!

In defense of the utility of nuclear weapons it has frequently been stated that if these weapons had not existed during the Cold War, the two major states, the United States and the Soviet Union, would have entered into a (conventional) third world war with each other. This is a highly questionable proposition as a Stalinist or post-Stalin Soviet Union, exhausted and close to economic and social breakdown after the devastating war with Germany could not have been in a position to start a new war in Europe. Equally improbably is if that the USA and its allies would have initiated a third war in Europe. In fact, the Cold War was an ideological confrontation between two systems and was won, not by armaments, but by the strength of the principles and practices of democracy and human rights. As the American diplomat and scholars George Kennan had prophesied already in 1948, the Soviet Union was bound to collapse under its own contradictions – the system’s inherent decay. Thus his recommended and later adopted policy was “it is enough to contain – not attack”.

As a matter of fact the existence of nuclear weapons did not prevent major wars with engagement of nuclear weapon states, like the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Thus the abstention from the use of nuclear weapons by the two major military powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, even in situations of serious debacle of their own forces, has demonstrated that the reluctance to escalate to nuclear conflict is strong enough to put into question the credibility of deterrence.

The situations where actual use has been contemplated have been the result of strategic and tactical misinterpretations, and brought the parties (USA and the Soviet Union) close to catastrophic nuclear conflict, most notable during the Cuba crisis 1962. Therefore deterrence postures like high alert or launch on warning cannot serve as a guarantee against catastrophic use.

With these insecurities in mind and with regard to both alliances-based deterrence or bilateral assurances by the USA vis-a-vis Japan and Australia, the question is if such extended deterrence would not be both safer and more reliable, if it were based upon a superior American conventional force in continuation with the army, naval and air capabilities of the allied states.

Efforts to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, including moves towards nuclear disarmament have, after some initial successes during the 90’s, effectively stalled, starting with the setback in 1998 with India and Pakistan nuclear tests and in 1999 with the rejection by the US senate of the proposed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). With that gloomy background, the initiative by the Four statesmen in 2007 came as something of a vitamin injection for the non-proliferation and disarmament community. It has opened a political space in the US, and encouraged the new Administration to demonstrate a clear profile, manifest in President Obama’s speech in Prague in April this year, and most recently in September 2008 with the bold initiative of calling a Security Council meeting on summit level, presenting a number of proposals included in a binding Security Council resolution on disarmament and non-proliferation.

Especially important for the survival of the international non-proliferation regime is the reaction to these initiatives by the major non-aligned States, parties to the NPT, considering their world-wide influence especially on matters of non-proliferation significance.

The unfortunate US/India deal and Iran’s continuing enrichment activities have been putting severe strains on the non-aligned solidarity with the NPT. The US/India deal has been especially damaging offering to India, a non-NPT states, nuclear rights and privileges without any correspondence to what has been offered to the ordinary NPT-parties, and without requirements and duties corresponding to what the NPT nuclear weapon states themselves are obliged to undertake according to Article VI and other provisions of the NPT, including observing a test ban. Consequently India is now the only nuclear weapons state with all the rights of an NPT Party but without any of the obligations of such a Party. Some major non-aligned States considering their delicate security situation could also contemplate challenging the NPT in the long-term expectation to receive favourable treatment as India. However these States have generally welcomed the disarmament initiative by the Vision and the new signals by the US Administration.

A sensitive point, however, for the non-aligned states has been proposals for multilarisation of the nuclear fuel cycle, effectively limiting their access to a purely national fuel cycle. At the present this is a matter more of principle than practicality. A concern is also that the multilarisation of the nuclear fuel cycle could be seen as adding another element of discrimination to the non-proliferation regime, namely between states already with a national fuel cycle, mainly largely developed states, and states without, including of course the developing states, parties, the NPT.

The most important immediate task in the diplomatic field should be to create conditions for a reasonable outcome of the NPT Review Conference in May next year. The American administration must here take a lead. There is no lack of good and practical proposals in the field of disarmament. Here I can only mention the United States / Russian Federation relations. These two states, with by far the largest arsenals, must return to the practice of negotiating fully functional and verifiable treaties on reduction of their strategic nuclear arsenals to substantially lower levels, that is concluding now a new legally binding verifiable agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which expires in December 2009. The two sides should also seriously engage in negotiations on limiting and ultimately eliminating non-strategic nuclear weapons, starting with transferring them from deployed status and putting them in centralized, highly protected storages. A full accounting of these weapons should also be made. This would for NATO necessitate an adjustment of its nuclear posture, but should in all be welcome by the European partners of the United States. A full accounting and transparency would make possible a start of negotiations for the reduction, and ultimately the elimination of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

The three other nuclear weapons states the UK, France and China should be engaged in discussions on reductions. The matter of verification of nuclear weapons reduction and elimination should start early, addressing both technology and questions of how to deal with the weapons material in secure and safe manners.

As regards the multilateral treaty arrangements, the immediately most urgent task is to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force. The American Senate has to go first with a ratification. China has indicated it will follow and so has Indonesia. Egypt should be encouraged to sign and ratify the Treaty but may decide to continue to hold out awaiting the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. Such a zone could take care of Egypt’s concerns both as regards Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons and Iran’s presumed research for a nuclear weapons capacity. Politically, it appears that the realisation of such a zone will have to await the outcome of the effort to secure the outstanding questions of Israel’s relations with the Arabs, specifically the Palestinian question.

The capacity for international verification of the CTBT, especially seismic detection and nuclear forensics methods, has so much improved since 1999 when the US Senate rejected ratification of CTBT, that it today would be impossible for opponents to the ratification to seriously maintain that the Treaty is non-verifiable.

The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva should negotiate and swiftly conclude verifiable Treaty on halting the production of fissile material, Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), as it has agreed upon in principle. A problem in this context could be how to regulate the existence of existing stocks of fissile material, in a manner which could be considered fair by all parties concerned. After years of political neglect since president Reagan in the 80’s stated ‘Trust but Verify’ it is now time to start serious considerations of verification multilateral agreements on disarmament of nuclear weapons. No doubt improved IAEA safeguards would be crucial but far from enough for such an endeavour. Special organisational arrangements for nuclear weapons verification should be linked to the UN Security Council as was proposed in 1993 by an Independent International Commission chaired by former US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bandy. One could consider setting up an international expert committee tasked to identify the magnitude of the problem. In addition to de-arming from the experiences of the USA-Russian verification negotiations, the experts could make use of i.a. the results of the joint British/Norwegian work on problems of nuclear verification, The natural forum thereafter for detailed exploratory work on political level, to be followed by diplomatic negotiations, could be the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The Security Council should systematically be kept informed about the progress of the Conference on Disarmament given that the Council with the resolution on President Obama’s initiative, made clear that nuclear disarmament and proliferation are elements of international peace and security and thus the responsibility of the Council.

Much on this agenda has been part of the international discourse over the years, including the ‘thirteen steps’ of 2000 NPT Review Conference, and elaborated upon by the Canberra Commission as well as by the Blix Commission. What is new today is the engagement by the new American Administration and president Obama personally, and the inspiration provided by the four statesmen, who have ventured to open the complex issues for international consideration.

About Ambassador Rolf Ekéus

Ambassador Rolf Ekéus is the Chair of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

He presented this speech 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.