This article first appeared in the 11 June 2009 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
The irony of the fuss about North Korea stamping its foot and showing off its nuclear capability and Iran gearing itself up to do the same is that we are closer to ridding the world of nuclear weapons than we have ever been, writes Richard Whelan.
That is not to understate the dangers or dismiss the fears of Iran’s neighbours, particularly Israel, and concerns among North Korea’s neighbours, Japan included.
The straws have been in the wind for a while, and Barack Obama has set himself the task of pulling them together. During his recent visit to the Czech Republic, Obama formally set out the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons as a central element of US nuclear policy. This possibility was building before Obama took power. A significant change came when the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons was endorsed by US political heavyweights in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007. Former US secretary of state George Schultz, former secretary of defence, William Perry, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and the former chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Sam Nunn, lent support for disarmament. In 2008, they were joined by most living former secretaries of state and secretaries of defence.
The UK and Norwegian governments then began to develop the means of verification to rid the world of such weapons. Japan and Australia have set up a commission on the possibility of nuclear disarmament and bodies like the International Institute for Strategic Studies are working on ways to determine practical steps to achieve this. Two issues have brought about the change of heart by many politicians and analysts. For almost a decade, the diplomatic and strategic communities have been worried by the intersection of technological development, the spread of nuclear weaponry and nuclear materials and some terrorists’ desire to cause mass slaughter using nuclear weapons.
These well-grounded fears have been magnified by the likely extension of nuclear power and the wider availability of fissile material, the basic building block for a nuclear weapon.
There are over 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world, 95 per cent of which the US and Russia account for. With nearly 3,000 tonnes of fissile material spread across 40 countries, there is enough material to produce 250,000 nuclear weapons.
An article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine by Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal sets out what many see as the steps to achieving zero nuclear weapons.
“First, the US and . . . other powers state that the objective of having nuclear weapons is solely to counter possible nuclear attack from others, not for defence against more conventional weapons. The ‘logic of zero’ then dictates that as nuclear weapons are reduced, so does the perceived need for them. Secondly, the US reduces its nuclear arsenal to no more than 1,000 weapons.
“Thirdly, the US works with the international community to put in place a comprehensive nuclear control regime that would go well beyond the present Non Proliferation Treaty regime’s control of nuclear materials. This would . . . provide a watertight verification system to enable the world to move from a few thousand nuclear weapons to eventually tens and then zero.”
The control regime will be difficult. Before nuclear states will accept going to zero, they need to be sure the controls will stop anyone breaking the rules. It is unfortunate the anti-nuclear lobby has not condemned Iran and North Korea more strongly.
If the international community does not tackle these states, how would it constrain and punish a violator of a zero nuclear world? States that guard their independence won’t be told what to do, but they can be persuaded if their interests are served.