Skip to content

A nuclear-weapons-free world: Champions, detractors, and the urgency of getting to zero (Part 1)

January 30, 2009

The abolition express is rolling

What a difference a year or two can make. These days nearly everyone to the left of John Bolton prefaces discussions of nuclear policy with at least a nod toward the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world. Even those who don’t especially want to eliminate nuclear weapons in this century (more about them in part 2) make a show of endorsing the general idea before systematically attacking the specific proposals that would actually move us in the right direction.

Through most of the years of the Bush administration, the international community was desperately trying to salvage what it could of hard-won arms control and disarmament agreements, and dismissed all talk of abolition as wishful thinking. Merely saving the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from total collapse seemed like a Promethean task. NGOs who reminded diplomats that the nuclear-weapon states had committed themselves to an “unequivocal undertaking” to nuclear disarmament at the 2000 NPT Review, or tried to engage them in a serious conversation about the 13 “practical” steps that went along with that pledge, would get the kind of uncomfortable stare usually reserved for those afflicted with Tourette syndrome.

Now it seems like a week doesn’t go by without a declaration by someone with serious political or diplomatic credentials that the need for global nuclear disarmament is self evident and urgent. (See Michael Christ’s blog entry, “Look Who’s Talking.”)

First and foremost has to be the new US President, Barack Obama, whose campaign platform contained a pledge to work for a world without nuclear weapons, and who has carried that goal over into the administration’s foreign policy agenda, published on the White House website days after his inauguration.

Some credit for this new abolitionist spirit among mainstream politicians and diplomats has to go to George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry who, on January 4, 2007, penned the first of two Wall Street Journal articles that shook up the mainstream arms control community and made abolition a legitimate agenda item at international conferences and in the pages of respectable foreign policy journals. NGOs that had been carrying the abolition torch for decades grumbled at the irony (Kissinger was an architect of Cold War deterrence strategy, after all), but no one could deny that a sea change had occurred.

Here’s what the Gang of Four said two years ago:

Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be… a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations.…We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal…” (1)

Their call has been endorsed by a majority of former US secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers.

Ronald Reagan’s original partner in seeking a nuclear-weapons-free world, Mikhail Gorbachev, wrote in response to the first Journal article: “It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security; in fact, with every passing year they make our security more precarious.”

Not to be outdone, some British decision makers promptly came out as abolitionists themselves. In June 2007, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the UK, told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “What we need is both vision—a scenario for a world free of nuclear weapons—and action—progressive steps to reduce warhead numbers and to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy. These two strands are separate but they are mutually reinforcing. Both are necessary, both at the moment too weak.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown took this a step further in January 2008, stating that Britain “will be at the forefront of the international campaign to accelerate disarmament amongst possessor states, to prevent proliferation to new states, and to ultimately achieve a world that is free from nuclear weapons.”

The UK, of course, is moving full steam ahead to replace its Trident program but, that inconvenient fact aside, a group of former foreign secretaries and a former NATO secretary-general echoed the views of their US counterparts in a London Times article published on June 30, 2008.

“Substantial progress towards a dramatic reduction in the world’s nuclear weapons is possible,” wrote Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord David Owen, Lord Douglas Hurd, and Lord George Robertson. “The ultimate aspiration should be to have a world free of nuclear weapons. It will take time, but with political will and improvements in monitoring, the goal is achievable. We must act before it is too late, and we can begin by supporting the campaign in America for a non-nuclear weapons world.”

That “campaign in America” got a big boost when presidential candidate Barack Obama stated his own position during a now-famous speech in Berlin in July 2008:

This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.… It is time to secure all loose nuclear materials; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to reduce the arsenals from another era. This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Even Obama’s Republican opponent, John McCain, said he shared Ronald Reagan’s “dream” of a nuclear-weapons-free world, though he sounded less convinced it was possible. Still, he said it.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said it, too, and in the process he endorsed the important missing piece. The Nuclear Weapons Convention, he told the UN First Committee in October, is “a good point of departure” to “revitalize the international disarmament agenda.”

And there’s the rub. These new abolitionists, for the most part, are more comfortable talking about incremental first steps than comprehensive frameworks. Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking nuclear weapons off alert, banning production of fissile materials, and further reducing the size of existing arsenals, are all familiar ideas with broad support outside the neo-con community. When the US President says he is opposed to the production of new nuclear weapons, something new is clearly on the table, although the language of deterrence still seems to have a hold on Obama, who talks of the need to have lots of “reliable” nuclear weapons as long as others do. That’s the kind of circular reasoning abolition’s detractors make hay (i.e., reliable replacement warheads) with.

“In some respects,” Shultz and company wrote in the second of their two Journal articles in January 2008, “the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very tall mountain. From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can’t even see the top of the mountain…We must chart a course to higher ground where the mountaintop becomes more visible.”

The roadmap to the top of that mountain already exists, at least in draft form. It’s the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention produced by the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation (INESAP), and IPPNW. The NWC – the focal point of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) — is the “good point of departure” to which Secretary-General Ban referred, and it has been a working document of the United Nations for more than 10 years. Commencing negotiations on an NWC – something the US and Russia could start to organize and promote early in the Obama presidency – should be the goal of everyone who takes the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free world seriously.

The number of self-proclaimed abolitionists has swelled even further with the launch in December of Global Zero, a public outreach campaign the goal of which is “to achieve a comprehensive agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide through phased and verified reductions.” More than 100 political, military, business, and celebrity heavyweights have already endorsed Global Zero, including Richard Branson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Zbigniew Brzezinkski, Jimmy Carter, Michael Douglas, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara, Queen Noor, Jonathan Schell, and Desmond Tutu.

US Senator Dianne Feinstein of California may have given the clearest, most straightforward advice of all to the incoming leader of the world’s largest nuclear superpower:

The bottom line: We must recognize nuclear weapons for what they are—not a deterrent, but a grave and gathering threat to humanity. As president, Barack Obama should dedicate himself to their world-wide elimination.”

With this kind of momentum, you’d think we should have no trouble achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world, if not overnight, certainly by 2020, which is the target date set by Mayors for Peace. Well, not if Chris Ford, Baker Spring, and, sad to say, Robert Gates have anything to say about it.

Next: Some heavy hands are definitely on the brakes

1) George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, Sam Nunn. A world free of nuclear weapons. Wall Street Journal. January 4, 2007:A15.
2) Mikhail Gorbachev. The nuclear threat. Wall Street Journal. January 31, 2007:13.
3) Margaret Beckett. Speech to the Carnegie Endowment Non-Proliferation Conference. Washington, DC. June 25, 2007.
4) Gordon Brown. Speech at Chamber of Commerce in Delhi. January 21, 2008.
5) Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen, George Robertson. Start worrying and learn to ditch the bomb: It won’t be easy, but a world free of nuclear weapons is possible. The Times of London.
June 30, 2008.
6) Barack Obama. A world that stands as one. Berlin. July 24, 2008.
7) Ban Ki-Moon. The United Nations and security in a nuclear-weapon-free world. Address to East-West Institute. New York. October 24, 2008.
8) George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, Sam Nunn. Toward a nuclear-free world. Wall Street Journal. January 15, 2008:A13.
9) Dianne Feinstein. Let’s commit to a nuclear-free world. Wall Street Journal. January 3, 2009:A13.

%d bloggers like this: