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Note to Security Council: The conditions for a nuclear-weapons free world already exist

September 24, 2009

How do we “create the conditions” for a world without nuclear weapons?

The UN Security Council has resolved to do just that, at the urging of a nuclear superpower no less. SC1887, which lists a few concrete early steps toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons along with a lot of proposals related to proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and nuclear energy development, was adopted unanimously in the opening minutes of the special summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament chaired by President Obama, who brought the US-drafted resolution to New York with him and deftly shepherded it through the process like the community organizer he remains at heart.

UN Security Council summit on nuclear disarmament. UN Photo/Mark Garten

UN Security Council summit on nuclear disarmament. UN Photo/Mark Garten

While underscoring the difficulty of the task as he has whenever he has broached the subject, Obama said plainly that ridding the Earth of nuclear weapons is the responsibility of “a world that understands that no difference or division is worth destroying all that we have built and all that we love.” And he dug up yet another quote from that iconic abolitionist Ronald Reagan (because the post-Reykjavik Reagan is so quotable): “We must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the Earth.”

“That,” Obama said, “is our task.”

So as much as I want to believe we’re finally moving in the right direction, I’m still left wondering what conditions have to be created for the elimination of nuclear weapons that don’t already exist. Is it not enough, as President Obama himself said this morning, that a single nuclear weapon exploded in a major city would kill hundreds of thousands of people and “badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life?” Or that 100 bombs could kill tens of millions outright and damage the global climate so severely that a billion more would die from a nuclear famine? Or that 1,000 or more nuclear weapons —less than 5% of the world stockpile — could render the Earth itself unfit for life?

From the perspective of what these things can do, the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons have already been created in spades by the weapons themselves, haven’t they?

Apparently not, if we heed the cautions of France and the UK and those in the US who worry that the world might not be safe enough yet to forego the so-called benefits of deterrence. So what more is needed? Ironclad guarantees that Iran will remain a non-nuclear-weapon state and that North Korea will return to non-nuclear status? A terrorist-proof cage around fissile materials? Peace in the Middle East? Rooting al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and the Taliban out of Pakistan? The cessation of all armed conflicts? Removing  the code for aggression from the human genome?

As usual, it seems like there are two kinds of people in the world: those who see the inherent (and inherently intolerable) dangers posed by nuclear weapons and who want to make the world safe from them; and those who believe the capacity to inflict catastrophic damage (as long as only the right people have it) makes an unsafe world marginally safer. For at least some of the more outspoken proponents of the latter position, this is little more than a formula for keeping nuclear weapons forever, since there will always be more conditions to create.

President Sarkozy of France, who has 348 nuclear weapons at his disposal, can therefore argue that the “conditions” for eliminating them are not merely a negotiated agreement with the other nuclear-weapon states to do the same, but “international stability,” regional security in the Middle East and North Asia, and a whole host of non-nuclear security challenges that need to be resolved first. Like other countries with heavy investments in nuclear energy, France also wants to make sure that disarmament and non-proliferation measures don’t impede the global expansion of the nuclear power industry. Since no one quite knows how to do that, slowing down the pace of disarmament buys some time (and overlooks that all of that time is borrowed).

Then there’s British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (160 warheads), who declared “we are sending a united unequivocal and undivided message across the world today that we, as leaders of nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states, are together committed to creating the conditions for a world free from nuclear weapons.”  As a significant step toward this end (in some bizarro UK is my best guess), Brown pledged that in 2020 — “technical analysis” and “progress in multilateral negotiations” permitting — Britain would deploy only three new Trident submarines instead of the anticipated four. He called this “the absolute minimum credible and continuing nuclear deterrent capability.” How much closer to zero will the UK will be ready to go by 2045? Stay tuned.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, one of the first summit speakers, was blunt: “It doesn’t seem plausible to speak of a safer world,” he said, “as long as the proliferation of another kind of weapons stays in its perennial position, second place on our international agenda. This Council fails in its historic mission every day that it turns a blind eye to the rampant arms race.”

Austrian President Heinz Fischer told the summit he had a different approach and a different expectation in mind.  “Austria supports the idea of a Nuclear Weapons Convention equipped with a sophisticated verification mechanism,” he said. “The words enshrined in Article VI of the NPT have to be taken seriously. There have been positive developments, yes, but Nuclear-Weapons-States must do more.”

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, said his country  “can speak with the greatest persuasiveness in urging nuclear weapon-states towards nuclear disarmament and non-nuclear states to avoid the temptation to acquire nuclear weapons.” For those who find such a sentiment from Japan unsurprising, keep in mind that Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan just replaced a government that only a few weeks ago was demanding reassurances about extended deterrence from the US, opposed a no-first-use policy, and was expressing anxiety about the possibility that a US-Russian START agreement might bring the number of strategic weapons down too low for Japan’s comfort.

(Anyone who would like to read all of the statements read by heads of state during the summit can find them conveniently archived at Reaching Critical Will.)

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has made nuclear abolition one of his highest priorities, and his words to the Security Council — part reprimand, part challenge — deserve to be quoted at length:

The need for action is clear.

“Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair trigger alert. More states have sought and acquired them. Nuclear tests have continued. And every day, we live with the threat that weapons of mass destruction could be stolen, sold or slip away.

“As long as such weapons exist, so does the risk of proliferation and catastrophic use.

“So, too, does the threat of nuclear terrorism.

“Now—some might dismiss the goal of nuclear disarmament as utopian. The cynics say, ‘Stop dreaming. Be realistic.’

“They are wrong.

“Nuclear disarmament is the only sane path to a safer world.

“Nothing would work better in eliminating the risk of use than eliminating the weapons themselves.”

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