Eliminating All Nuclear Weapons More Realistic than Selective Non-proliferation

Because there’s something in it for everybody. The current global nuclear weapons-control regime operates on a dangerously untenable false premise: that only ‘responsible’ nations can or should be allowed to make and maintain arsenals of nuclear warheads. At first blush, it may seem highly rational: only those who will behave responsibly should have the most dangerous weapons; but, then, upon further examination, who is qualified to make that judgment?

Probably not one nation not specifically seeking to expand the “nuclear club” to include itself would entrust to an autonomous international body the adjudication of who is responsible enough to have the right to add more nuclear weapons to the global stockpile. Certainly, the US tends to oppose allowing any external body to judge its own level of inherent responsibility or sovereign rights. And international law, at present, forbids the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But, the existence of nuclear weapons, and the special privileges that accrue to any nation that possesses them, mean even a strict global ban with the possibility of harsh sanctions and even military strikes to prevent proliferation, do not serve as adequate deterrent: there is, in effect, a supreme incentive to achieve the status of “nuclear-armed”, and so become a global power.

Obviously, we are all better off if no further nations obtain nuclear weapons, but the aforementioned false premise on which we base our non-proliferation efforts is not adequate to achieving non-proliferation. It’s most salient problem areas can be nutshelled as follows:

Does the ‘responsibility’ of nations depend on current government ideology, the nation’s nuclear history, evidence of a willingness not to use them under any circumstances (in which case, why possess them?), the individuals in power, the nature of the political system over which they preside, the frequency of peaceful transitions of power, or just the will of those who already possess the weapons?

Don’t nations positioned outside the nuclear club’s population of favorites have a clear motivation, on both security and enhanced-sovereignty grounds, to develop nuclear weapons and join the club? If the use of nuclear weapons is a war crime, on what pretext do any of the nuclear-armed states maintain them? And worse: the US, the only nation to have used them in war and which under the administration of George W. Bush actively pronounced its right to use them in war, even in “pre-emptive” strikes, seeks to forbid their use by others by the Cold War logic of “mutually-assured destruction” (MAD).

Total denuclearization has one important flaw, which must be overcome through comprehensive cooperative negotiation: no nation will be willing to fully dismantle its arsenal and/or disperse its nuclear-weapons know-how, because it will always be assumed the others are keeping a secret stash of weapons. This is, of course, the guiding logic for allowing the extant nuclear arsenals to remain in place and under ‘responsible’ maintenance and secure upkeep.

Trust is the fundamental problem in the nuclear component of global diplomacy. And no seasoned diplomat will allow her nation to forego a necessary and comprehensive defense solely on the basis of giving unreconsidered trust to other nations. National security apparatus are notoriously possessive of their inherent (though arguably not ‘God-given) right to keep secrets, and all counter-proliferation efforts work on this assumption, that the keeping of secrets is so vital to security regimes that even the most law-abiding and upstanding diplomats will lie to protect their nation’s defenses.

So, trust in diplomacy relies not on blind human confidence, but on procedures of strict verification, which allow for credible modes of evaluating and confirming risk. For this reason, Pres. Obama said in an historic speech in Prague that he knows that total denuclearization may not occur “in my lifetime”; noting that it would be naive to think global denuclearization an easy task, he also took the most intelligent realpolitik approach, which is that only with a credible system aimed at total elimination of nuclear weapons, can there be a real scaling back of proliferation risks or the risk of such weapons’ use.

One proposal would be that each of the current nuclear-armed states ascribe to a system of shared guarantees about the security of their weapons:

1. Failsafe Protocols: nuclear-armed states would agree that strict, multi-redundant failsafe protocols be in place so that no one or two or three-person teams could launch nuclear weapons without a multi-party policy review involving truly independent arms of government. This would promote the creation of checks and balances that decentralize power and democratize even authoritarian regimes, and would lessen the risk of efforts to undermine the non-proliferation regime.

2. Transnational Maintenance and Security: the most successful methods of maintaining in secure isolation and protecting against seizure, looting or black-market transfer, would be implemented with the help of those states most advanced in their techniques of upkeep and secure isolation.

3. Commitment Not to Launch: an enforceable commitment not to launch any nuclear-armed missiles or other nuclear devices except in direct response to a proven and catastrophic nuclear attack by a national government is required. This would allow a global “stand down” that would preclude the possibility of nuclear war, but only if the commitment were legally binding, verifiable by inspection-and-report and uniform.

4. StART Roadmap: A Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is needed, first between the United States and the Russian Federation, the two most heavily-armed nuclear powers, with a second round including all subsequently nuclear-armed states. The roadmap to a global StART would require efforts to unmask secret weaponization programs, along with commitments for participating states not to attack one another.

5. Cooperative Incrementalism: The eventual goal of total denuclearization would be reached as participating nations mutually confirm and report serious strides toward the dismantling and safe disposal of their nuclear arsenals and fundamental armament materials. A repository secure enough to contain all weapons-grade nuclear fissile material and spent fuels in 100% isolation for a minimum of 100,000 years would be required, and could be constructed in concert by all participating nations.

6. Incentives to join Global StART: none of the currently nuclear-armed nations or nations suspected of or proven to be in development stages (including all nations using or exploring nuclear power production) would be permitted to forego participation in the Global StART process of universal denuclearization. Incentives and intensive cooperative diplomacy would be necessary to make the plan viable across the globe.

Ultimately, such a strategy is more logically coherent and strategically beneficial than the current paradigm of selective non-proliferation, which only enhances the vast power gap between nations whose influence on the global stages is significantly enhanced by possession of nuclear weapons and those who forego weaponization, either voluntarily or for lack of resources or strategic leeway.

What we are seeing now in Pakistan is a good example: there is no guarantee that selective non-proliferation will not lead to cooperative black-market mechanisms that facilitate the spread of nuclear-weapons technology. Pakistan acquired the technology this way, and some of its black-marketeers may have further spread the technology they purchased. Pakistan is now experiencing severe political destabilization and the Taliban has taken over areas just 100 km from the capital.

Selective non-proliferation makes this sort of situation possible. The flaws in selective non-proliferation have been radically exacerbated by the Bush-era policy of developing new pre-emptive “mini-nukes” and proclaiming the intention to use them agaisnt nations that neither possess nuclear weapons nor have threatened the US directly. This means that without aggressive diplomatic action to counter the influence of those paradigmatic faultlines, the incentive to proliferate will hold.

Only in a global cooperative StART regime can other nuclear club member states reasonably expect Pakistan’s government to let them safely liberate, disperse and secure, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons before they fall into the hands of an amoral fundamentalist militia bent on the destruction of all who disagree with their ideology. We are now facing a global crisis situation in Pakistan, where these issues are no longer theoretical or diplomatic, but an immediate security issue for states where more than half the world’s population resides.

Pres. Obama has arranged for talks with Russian pres. Dmitri Medvedev to effect a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the end of this year. A group of ‘6 powers’ —which includes the United States— has invited Tehran to talks to prevent the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear research program. This new focus on global diplomacy to institute a system of denuclearization is a necessary first step to saving ourselves from the unacceptable pitfalls inherent in selective non-proliferation policies.

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