Dismantling the global nuclear infrastructure

About the author
Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics.

Over the last couple of years, a new anti-nuclear movement has emerged led by former politicians and officials of the Cold War era. They want to rid the world of nuclear weapons and they have put forward proposals for achieving this that largely consist of business left unfinished when they were in power. If they are to succeed in their ultimate goal, they need to be complemented by an anti-nuclear movement composed of citizens and politicians of the emergent global era who could develop a new set of proposals aimed at challenging outdated ways of thinking about nuclear weapons.

Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School of Economics (LSE), and convenor of the human-security study group that reports to the European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier SolanaThis new movement was launched in an article in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007 signed by George P.Shulz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. A follow-up article in January, 2008 outlined more detailed proposals for reaching their goal. Mikhail Gorbachev responded enthusiastically in the Wall Street Journal (January 31 2007) and subsequently organised a series of meetings within the framework of the World Political Forum, which he founded. The initiative was also taken up by politicians of a similar standing from other countries such as Britain (Malcolm Rifkind, Douglas Hurd, David Owen and George Robertson in The Times June 30 2008), Italy (Corriere della Sera July 24 2008), Germany (Helmut Schmidt, Richard von Weizäcker, Egon Bahr, and Hans Dietrich Genscher in the International Herald Tribune 9 January 2009), and Poland (Aleksandr Kwasniewski, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Lech Walesa in Moscow Times 7 April 2009). In December 2008, the Global Zero campaign was launched calling for a ‘a legally binding verifiable agreement, including all nations, to eliminate nuclear weapons by a date certain.' Its signatories are a roll call of famous names, including many who vigorously defended nuclear weapons in the last years of the Cold War, like Richard Burt, Reagan's nuclear adviser, or Zbigniew Brzezinski, the arc of crisis theorist, as well as most of the above.

The proposals that have been put forward for reaching the goal of a nuclear-free world, so far, have largely involved different variants of the following set of approaches:

  • Reduce and de-alert US and Russian nuclear weapons. These account for 95% of the world's nuclear warheads so it makes sense for any reductions to start with them. Actually, numbers have steadily declined through a series of agreements since the end of the Cold War and the most recent agreement to further reduce numbers was signed by President Obama and President Medvedev on Obama's first visit to Moscow. Since a certain proportion of these weapons consist of land-based or submarine-based ballistic missiles ready to be launched within a few minutes, the world would clearly be a bit safer if these were put in what the jargon terms ‘responsive mode' with a little more warning time and decision time.

  • Control and reduce stockpiles of nuclear warheads and nuclear materials. There is an enormous amount of nuclear detritus left over from the Cold War; not all of it is accounted for and some is insecure and weakly controlled. With new preoccupations about terrorism, there are great fears about access for non-state actors or for illegal trade in these materials. So much greater accountability, transparency and security are needed.

  • Strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and implementing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The NPT, which is designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, is up for review in 2010. Strengthening the NPT would mean taking the disarmament pillar of the NPT more seriously and enhancing monitoring of civilian programmes. The CTBT was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996 but it will not enter into force until a sufficient number of potentially nuclear capable states have ratified the treaty.

Not only would these proposals reduce the risks of nuclear accident, mistake, or theft but they would also contribute to a web of treaties and transnational mechanisms for monitoring and verification, which would further enmesh states in a multilateral network that in itself would reduce the likelihood of nuclear threats. They would be a way of reaching what Senator Nunn at a conference on ‘Overcoming Nuclear Dangers' held in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome in April, 2009, referred to as the ‘base camp' before ascending to the summit of a nuclear free world.

But how would such a summit be climbed? Most of these proposals have their origins in the period when the new anti-nuclear activists were politicians and when their main concern was to reduce the risks of the nuclear arms race while preserving the capabilities of existing nuclear powers. This was the essence of what were then known as ‘arms control' rather than disarmament measures. Reductions of American and Russian nuclear warheads will still leave both countries with enough nuclear capacity to destroy the world several times over. The NPT and the CTBT are designed to constrain the development of nuclear weapons by new powers but, in effect, legitimise existing arsenals. Indeed, it could even be argued that by implicitly endorsing the nuclear status of great powers, they represent an incentive for emerging powers like Iran or North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. The proposals for securing and limiting nuclear stockpiles are likewise designed to prevent nuclear capacity getting into the wrong hands while protecting the stockpiles of existing nuclear powers. But they cannot, of themselves, prevent the manufacture of weapons grade materials by Iran, say, or, a further example, the export of nuclear know-how by rogue elements in Pakistan.

Arms control proposals are based on a geo-political statist understanding of the world. The possession and implicit threat to use nuclear weapons is associated with an absolutist view of state sovereignty. The possession of nuclear weapons implies an absolutist prerogative on the part of states to risk the lives of its own citizens on a massive scale not to mention citizens in other countries without any prior public debate or discussion. The use of nuclear weapons would constitute an unimaginable violation of human rights and hence the implication of their possession is that states have the right to inflict such an unimaginable violation. In Europe, where most nuclear weapons are still American, it is not even European states that have this absolutist character, it is the American President alone who is allowed to risk the lives of European citizens. The problem with arms control proposals is that they treat nuclear weapons as thought they were part of the normal armoury of states - they naturalise nuclear weapons. And yet we cannot ascend to the top of the mountain without changing those fundamental assumptions and without rethinking the implications of possessing nuclear weapons in to-day's globalised world.

The geopolitical framework of arms control proposals is totally at variance with the changing character of sovereignty in a global era. Nowadays we tend to think of sovereignty as conditional - both on relations with other states and respect for multilateral rules of the game and on domestic consent and respect for human rights. It is rather odd, indeed anachronistic, that we have negotiated bans on land mines or cluster munitions on the grounds that these type of weapons inherently violate human rights and international humanitarian law on account of their indiscriminate nature - and yet we treat nuclear weapons as though they were legitimate. If we are to reach the summit, we need to put forward proposals that reframe the issue of nuclear weapons as a humanitarian issue and that require courage and leadership on the part of politicians if they are to support them. It is easy enough to be in favour of ridding the world of nuclear weapons while supporting the maintenance of national nuclear weapons since the final goal depends on global agreement. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Il Jong would probably be in favour of the global zero declaration, if asked. The difficult part is how to reach that global agreement.

Beyond the impasse

I have three proposals. First of all, the threat or use of nuclear weapons should be criminalised. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be treated as a war crime or a crime against humanity and should be included in the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. This was proposed by NGOs in the Peace Caucus pressing for the treaty, which established the International Criminal Court, and was supported by the Non-Aligned Movement and by India in particular. In addition the ICRC (the Red Cross) favoured a general prohibition on weapons that ‘cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering' or are ‘inherently indiscriminate' (i.e. cannot discriminate between combatants and non-combatants) - something which is already part of international humanitarian law. As Chinkin and Singh make clear in their opinion on the Trident replacement, the threat or use of nuclear weapons violates international humanitarian law because of the ‘intransgressible' requirement that a distinction be drawn between combatants and non-combatants. The final statute establishing the International Criminal Court (the Rome Treaty) however made no reference either to nuclear weapons or to biological and chemical weapons, although it did refer to expanding bullets, poison weapons, poisonous gases and analogous materials, relegating all other weapons to a possible future annex. Now is the time to revive this proposal. The 1996 International Court of Justice advisory opinion, which found nuclear weapons to be illegal except (on the basis of the Chairman's ruling) in the case of the survival of the state (an implicit endorsement of the state's absolutist prerogatives), should also be revisited.

Secondly, nuclear weapons should be eliminated area by area. In other words, the idea of nuclear free zones should once again be promoted. There are already nuclear free zone treaties in Africa and Latin America and many countries have declared themselves nuclear free. Those who were active in the campaigns against nuclear weapons in the 1980s will remember the movement to establish nuclear free cities. In particular, it ought to be possible to call again for a European nuclear free zone. That would mean getting rid of American tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, the British and French nuclear weapons and Russian weapons based in the European part of Russia. (Interestingly in the article by the former German politicians they do call for the removal of American tactical nuclear weapons from Germany - a proposal that departs from the multilateralist arms control proposals that the ex-politicians have tended to favour). Egypt has proposed a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East and this should also be explored further.

My third proposal is specifically directed at Britain. It appears rather absurd to most of us that Britain has been represented by the Iranian regime as the dominant agent directing the current wave of unrest in the aftermath of flawed elections. What it means is that Britain is still considered an important power among the hardliners in Iran. Why should not Britain use this perception to offer a bargain? Britain could offer to give up its independent nuclear deterrent provided Iran gives up uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing?

It is often said that nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. That is true; but the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons does not reside in a single individual but in social infrastructure that involves a complex combination of specific skills, knowledge and equipment. And only states have the capacity to build such infrastructures. Nowadays, the big fear is that terrorists will get hold of nuclear materials and this could be hugely dangerous in places like Pakistan or Central Asia. But terrorists could not construct their own infrastructure; they would need access to states. Thus the best way to prevent this from happening is indeed to dismantle the global nuclear infrastructure in a way that allows extensive international monitoring and verification.

Perhaps the most important task is to break the link between nuclear weapons and great power status - something that would involve a profound change in global public discourse. But this cannot be achieved just by the advocacy of well-meaning former politicians who are still steeped in statist thinking. We need a new generation of politicians, diplomats and citizens who fully understand what has happened in today's world, where nuclear weapons are fast becoming a metaphor for military power in general. In to-day's world, the US has lost power both economically and politically as a result of military spending. Military force has proved ineffective in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it has become evident that as with nuclear weapons - you can destroy, but you cannot persuade anyone to act in the way you want them to act. Nuclear weapons only represent power if you believe they represent power. Change the mind-set, and that era is at an end. What we need now is proposals that cannot easily be accepted and that force a meaningful debate.