The nuclear-weapons opportunity

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 August 2009

The nuclear bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 is marked around the world every year on this date in memory of the tens of thousands of victims and as an awful warning of the horror of this form of weaponry. But sixty-four years after this terrible event - and, propitiously, a year before the next five-year review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) - there are at last some positive signs of progress on nuclear disarmament.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch hereSuch progress is long overdue. The spread of nuclear-weapons states since Hiroshima (and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945), the vastly increased power of these weapons, and the failure of many previous attempts to contain and reduce their number - all these factors make a decisive move towards a nuclear-free world imperative (see "The nuclear-weapons prospect", 4 June 2009).

The nuclear step-dance

There were opportunities in the mid-to-late 1940s (the Baruch plan and the Gromyko plan), but these were lost in the mutual suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early cold-war years. The shock of the Cuban missile-crisis in October 1962 created the next spur to progress: the results included the passing of the limited test-ban treaty, several nuclear-free-zone negotiations and above all the signing of the non-proliferation treaty (1968; it came into force in 1970).

This advance was in turn lost with the advent of the multiple-warhead nuclear missiles of the late 1960s and early 1970s; the early bilateral negotiations between Washington and Moscow (leading to the SALT agreements) failed dismally to keep pace with the new weapons.

In the late 1980s there was again some limited achievement, notably the intermediate-nuclear-forces (INF) agreement which cleared the Cruise, Pershing 2 and SS-20 missiles out of Europe. In some ways this was one of the most progressive developments because the INF treaty actually got rid of modern rather than obsolete weapons, and also established some rigorous inspection and verification measures.

Even so, as the cold war ended tens of thousands of nuclear warheads remained. The early 1990s saw some welcome nuclear downsizing, but all the main nuclear powers were intent on preserving and modernising their arsenals, albeit at lower levels.

This situation has persisted. The first half of the 2000s saw little change in either policy or mood - the George W Bush administration had other concerns, and Vladimir Putin's Russia regarded its nuclear arsenal as one of its few  claims to great-power status. But in the mid-2000s signs of a shift were emerging, notably statements from high-level former offici policy-makers (and nuclear negotiators) such as Henry Kissinger and George Schultz to the effect that the world needed to move towards a greatly diminished number of nuclear weapons (and perhaps with the ultimate aim of eliminating them altogether).

The gathering mood-shift

Most of these comments came in the context of the work of initiatives such as the Canberra Commission and the Middle Powers Initiative. But the single factor that has given substantial impetus to the prospect of serious nuclear disarmament is the election of Barack Obama as United States president, and the early attitude of his administration. The president's own speech in Prague on 5 April 2009 that focused partly on the idea of a nuclear-free world, qualified by acknowledgment that he did not expect it in his lifetime, is an indicator of a striking change in political discourse. More broadly, what makes the current moment so interesting is that the US is at the centre of an unusual combination of attitudes that together favour progress (see Andrew Mack, "America, Russia, and a nuclear-free world", 6 July 2009).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcomingIn policy terms, President Obama wants to secure the ratification of the comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty (CTBT) by the US Congress; an effective fissile-material cut-off treaty; and further negotiated nuclear cutbacks with Russia.

A number of diverse factors lies behind this change. The re-entry to Washington of some serious expertise in the wake of Obama's election, after the rigorous exclusion of any arms-control specialists from the Bush administration, is vital. The figures concerned were sidelined for almost a decade, but they have retained their commitment through the arid years - encouraged by the conversion of some emblematic cold-war combatants (such as General Lee Butler and the late Robert McNamara) to advocacy of nuclear disarmament, and fuelled by their personal knowledge of the extreme dangers involved and the sheer luck with which (in October 1962 especially) the world had avoided nuclear catastrophe.

Another group which supports movement is more concerned with the dangers of a proliferating nuclear world, especially in the middle east, south Asia and southeast Asia. Their concern in part lies with the risk of paramilitary groups acquiring nuclear weapons (see Shaun Gregory, "The Terrorist Threat to Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons" [West Point, CTC Sentinel, July 2009]); and in part because a future nuclear power such as Iran could seriously limit America's power-projection. In this line of thinking, a nuclear-free world would be one in which the United States, as the world's most powerful conventionally-armed state would politically, as well as militarily, call the shots.

There are also less obvious factors underlying the shift in attitudes. In the two decades since the end of the cold war, the nuclear-weapons laboratories in the United States and other nuclear countries have lost much of their political influence. Similarly, the largest defence companies have moved away from working on nuclear delivery-systems such as long-range bombers and ICBMs, and are simply not so interested in lobbying on these issues.

Perhaps least recognised of all is that a new generation of armed-forces officers in the United States and elsewhere has grown up in a military environment in which nuclear weapons have lost most of their salience. These systems dominated much of the military thinking of the cold-war era, but they seem so much less relevant now.

The next review

These developments are far from amounting to a uniform recognition that nuclear weapons are becoming obsolete. There are still many players, not least middle-ranking powers such as Britain and France, where elites believe that they must hold on to their nuclear arsenals even at the cost of limiting their capacity to argue for controlling proliferation (see "The politics of security: beyond militarism", 2 July 2009).

What is still lacking at the highest levels is, above all, the imaginative awareness that the nuclear age has given the human community an unprecedented capacity to destroy itself; and that this capacity must be overcome if humanity is to survive. Wisdom, in short, must evolve faster than the technology of destruction.

In a sense the height of the cold war was a period in which there was a small risk of tipping over the precipice into a nuclear holocaust (see "The nuclear-weapons gambit", 13 April 2006). The risk may not have been great (although certainly was greater than believed at the time) but the disaster would have been near-absolute. Now the danger is much more like a slippery-slope towards a proliferating world. The peril of all-out global nuclear war may be much diminished, but the risk of a near-imperceptible slide into an environment of "small nuclear wars in far-off places" could all too easily increase.

The prospects for progress are finely balanced. The attitude of the Obama administration is an unequivocal factor of optimism. It is, unsurprisingly, already under attack from the usual sources (see Douglas J Feith & Abram N Shulsky, "Why Revive the Cold War?", Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2009); but there are many voices in support of Obama's approach.

The NPT review conference takes place over a four-week period in New York in May 2010. This event presents possibly the best opportunity for decades for real progress towards a nuclear-free world. What happens between now and then, not least in relation to Barack Obama's efforts and his need for strong support from countries such as Britain, could determine whether the opportunity is lost or grasped. By the sixty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world will know.

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