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Fighting a prevailing Cold War mentality

Next week is the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Climbing down the nuclear ladder is an undeniably complex task, but one the world’s politicians must continue to rise to.

The US Congress is entering its home stretch this week, as it works its way through five more hot and humid days before its month-long summer recess begins on Friday.  Likewise, in Europe, many institutions have already wound down for their traditional August break.  This is a chance to step out of the political fray, take stock and refocus.

The first half of 2013 has held some developments for future nuclear arms control, involving varying degrees of hope, interest and frustration from all sides. 

In the US, Congress has continued to lock horns over the country’s defense spending, including over how many billions of tax dollars to invest in the modernization – or “life extension” – of its B61 nuclear bombs, around 180 of which (from a total of approximately 400 reportedly up for renovation) are currently stationed in Europe under the NATO nuclear sharing arrangement.  Separately, President Obama announced in his speech on 19th June at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, his intention to pursue “bold reductions in US and Russian tactical weapons in Europe” and move beyond Cold War nuclear postures with Russia – although his Administration still appears to be feeling out exactly what that means in practice.  Some clarity in the UK in the Autumn would be very welcome.

In Britain, the release of the Trident Alternatives Review on 16th July sparked a burst of media and party political debate in the U.K. immediately before the Parliamentary recess – a debate which looks set to resurface in the autumn months.  The general media response, and in particular a Financial Times editorial, appeared to hand victory in this particular battle to those in favour of the status quo.

The next set piece in this debate will be the publication of the Liberal Democrats’ proposed policy on this in a week or two, which will be debated at their party conference in mid-September. And towards the end of 2013 the Trident Commission, set up by BASIC and co-chaired by Lord Browne of Ladyton (Des Browne), former Labour Secretary of State for Defence; Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative Defence and Foreign Secretary; and Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and Shadow Foreign Secretary, will be publishing its findings after two years of evidence and debate.

In Germany, the government pledged to maintain its fleet of Tornado aircraft capable of carrying NATO’s B61 bombs, until somewhere between 2025 and 2030.  This decision will serve to postpone, but not circumvent, the question which the German public and parliamentarians are now asking of how much longer NATO nuclear weapons will be housed in Germany. Last week BASIC published a report by former diplomat, Ted Seay – previously a US representative on arms control at NATO – which suggested that such efforts to extend the lives of existing European aircraft assigned to the nuclear mission were, to put it mildly, expensive and courageous, with a sting in the tail that could threaten the fabric of NATO itself.

In the Middle East, the election of Iranian centrist Presidential candidate, Hassan Rouhani, sparked much debate among Western observers over the potential implications and opportunities for the nuclear non-proliferation agenda. The results of the election prompted a US bipartisan letter of support, signed by almost a third of the House of Representatives, for renewed diplomatic efforts to find a solution to tensions over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. 

Elsewhere, Egypt’s political turmoil has compounded doubts over how to move forward on establishing a weapons of mass destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. Until now, Egypt had played a strong regional leadership role in the debate. But in the current environment, even with new Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy’s  pedigree in nuclear arms control, Egypt’s policy-makers are likely to have pressing domestic issues to settle.

And in Russia, disagreements over Syria and controversy over Edward Snowden threatened, at one stage, to distract from much-needed trust building between Russia and the US – and, in turn, the prospects of moving the bilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation discussion forward. US threats to withdraw from the next summit thankfully appear to have been just a trial balloon.

This push and pull of international developments, and day-to-day wrangling over budget lines, domestic party politics and semantics, are all critical to bringing incremental changes in global nuclear weapons policy.  But mired as we are in this daily complexity, we may at times risk losing sight of the bigger picture we must collectively strive to achieve; and, in the process, we may be missing opportunities to help us get there.

Turning to mutual security

Next week marks the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a stark reminder of how far the world has come in the nuclear weapons debate.  Today, over 98% of countries around the world have signed up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which aims to both prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and to move towards disarmament in those countries which currently possess them. The NPT is often criticized for being a discriminatory treaty; a source of conflicting interpretation.  But given the context, it is also arguably one of the most remarkable treaties in the history of the international community, given its level of ambition.

And yet, we seem unable to truly raise our sights beyond the historical legacy of a nuclear arms race that, theoretically, should have ended with the Cold War a quarter of a century ago. President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate touched on an aspiration for progress.  And his call for a shift away from Cold War nuclear postures could have been an opportunity for real leadership – had it not been followed by a reaffirmation that US nuclear reductions are dependent on reciprocal moves by Russia. 

Climbing down the nuclear ladder is an undeniably complex task.  And there are clear arguments against the US going it alone, which would certainly have wider, unwanted destabilizing effects.  But the fact is that the US and Russia currently possess enough nuclear weapons between them to destroy civilization as we know it many times over.   Regardless of your perspective on the military utility of nuclear weapons, it is hard to see that there would ever be a practical justification for that level of capability. 

Quite simply, we will never find ourselves in a situation where that number of nuclear weapons will conceivably be needed.  So both the US and Russia continue to invest their much needed resources in maintaining large stockpiles of weapons which serve no military utility, for the sake of historic, symbolic nuclear parity and so-called strategic stability. 

Equally, in Europe, this self-perpetuating Cold War era thinking prevails with the maintenance of NATO nuclear weapons on European soil.  Some have asked the very valid question: if NATO nuclear weapons did not currently exist in Europe, would we choose to bring them in now?  And the answer is, no.  We would find other, more credible ways to reassure allies in NATO and operationalize Article V of the NATO Treaty, which stipulates that “an armed attack against one or more [NATO country] shall be considered an attack against them all”.  But with nuclear weapons in place, it is hard to see beyond them to consider what the alternative options might be.

The point is not simply that we need to make a wholesale leap away from nuclear weapons and move on.  It is that, as signatories of the UN Non-Proliferation Treaty, we need to start reframing the debate around our collective vision of a significantly reduced role of nuclear weapons in the world. We need to look forward to the opportunities to take steps, as well as backward  at worst-case scenarios, to better inform us how to achieve that.  

The need for assurance remains, as does the need to encourage Russia in meaningful nuclear reductions.  How we choose to look at and approach the issue is crucial.  US, Russian and NATO diplomats are considering technical measures which could build confidence between the parties. But in the end real progress will depend upon open, forward-looking debate which does not consider nuclear weapons policy-making in isolation, but rather links it with our common interests and quest for mutual security. We have to develop innovative ways to incentivize partners to either engage or to look creatively at alternative paths to deliver these shared objectives. 

About the author

Rebecca Cousins is Program Director for BASIC in Washington D.C., before which she was a career diplomat with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  She was recently awarded an MBE for her role in the UK's consular in-country response to the 2011 Japan earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear incident.

Rebecca's column on openSecurity explores perspectives on nuclear weapons policy and disarmament.

 


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