Today, the situation is different. The Iranian nuclear program, the crisis surrounding North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the threat of an arms race between China, India and Pakistan have returned nuclear arms control to the focus of international security policy. The Global Zero initiative by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn – political veterans who are beyond any suspicion of starry-eyed pacifism – has once again drawn attention to the disarmament obligations of the established nuclear powers. U.S. President Obama ran with the idea, agreeing with the Russians to resume negotiations on reducing strategic nuclear arms.
Time is tight, however. The worldwide arms control system hangs in the balance. Early next year, the signatory states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be meeting to salvage whatever they can. Preliminary talks are making little headway. It also remains to be seen whether U.S.-Russian negotiations on a follow-up agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will lead to substantial disarmament. In the meantime, both sides are working to perfect their nuclear weapons systems. And while President Obama has offered to finally ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, this is seen more as an overdue move than a strategic turnaround. Without commitments on the part of major nuclear powers to reduce their arsenals, the dam of nuclear non-proliferation threatens to burst. The consequence would be a nuclear arms race in some of the world’s most troubled regions, the Middle East and South Asia.
Nukes as Life Insurance?
Despite lip service to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, there is little to indicate that their appeal as a political and military trump card has waned – on the contrary. Rising powers such as China and India seem to regard the bomb as a measure of their political clout. The same holds true for Russia, who sees its position as a major power is founded on its energy resources and nuclear weapons. The degree to which Russia’s thinking is still caught up in the Cold War balance of terror can be seen in its harsh response to U.S. plans to station a missile defense system in eastern Europe. Russia staunchly upholds the principle of mutually-assured destruction and strongly opposes U.S. plans that might lead to a devaluation of its nuclear arsenal.
Nuclear weapons also remain a useful way to offset inferiorities in conventional forces, making them especially interesting as a deterrent for states on a collision course with major powers. Witnessing the respective fates of Iraq and North Korea is likely to have amplified the nuclear ambitions of other states. While the U.S. invasion was toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime with relative ease, Kim Jong-Il was quick to break the news that North Korea was already in possession of nuclear weapons and demonstrate suitable delivery systems. For the North Korean ruler, the bomb is a defensive shield, a means of threatening neighboring states, and a tool for extorting diplomatic and financial concessions – truly an all-purpose weapon.
Is the role of the nuclear bomb in the new multipolar world therefore mainly that of an insurance policy against military intervention? Iran has also been said to want the bomb as a way of deterring the United States from an armed regime change. That may be true. The question remains, however, whether completely different motives might not also be at work. Having nuclear weapons would underscore Iran’s ambitions as a leading power in the Middle East. At the same time, the regime would be able to work aggressively toward changing the regional status quo without fearing military sanctions. Israel would be particularly endangered – not necessarily by a direct Iranian nuclear strike, but by continued attacks by Hezbollah, Hamas and the like, who operate with Iranian backing and arms. An Iranian bomb would also be a highly unsettling proposition for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and a nuclear arms race would be pre-programmed.
A similar contest threatens to develop between Pakistan and India. While not only the West is concerned that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamists, the country’s political elite sees India’s military dominance as a challenge and is seeking a strategic alliance with China, a further country that is uncomfortable with India’s ascent to the status of a major nuclear power. At the same time, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal reflects the dilemma of addressing the nuclear arms of states that have declined to sign the NPT. A policy that applies double standards to that which constitutes acceptable behavior for individual countries ultimately undermines the non-proliferation structure as a whole.
Signs of newly-awakened interest in a nuclear option can even be found in South America. That especially holds true for Brazil, a country that setting out to underscore its status as a major regional power in military terms as well. A further fear is that terrorist networks could obtain nuclear material in order to destabilize entire countries with “dirty bombs”.
Nuclear Anarchy is no Longer a Distant Nightmare Scenario
The above developments could spiral out of control in a multipolar world. Nuclear anarchy is no longer a distant nightmare scenario, but one that has come within the realm of the possible. A contributing factor in this regard is the newly-awakened interest of many countries in nuclear energy. It is safe to assume that such interest can also encompass the option of acquiring the expertise and nuclear material to build a bomb. Either way, the existence of a strict distinction between the civilian and military use of nuclear technology is a myth. Complete control over all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle can hardly be guaranteed. It is also doubtful whether the production of fissile material suitable for weapons will ever be prohibited. Promoting the wider use of nuclear power in the name of climate protection is thus also risking the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Talks between the United States and Russia over a successor to START are vital to injecting new dynamism into nuclear disarmament. Yet they can only be the first step. The future of the non-proliferation regime depends on whether the international community will succeed in putting an end to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs through diplomacy. It will also be essential to avoid a conventional arms race that would further validate the logic of nuclear deterrence. The Unites States and Russia will need to take the lead in this regard as well.
What Must Germany Do?
During the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany made an important contribution to the cause of disarmament. The peace movement deserves credit in that respect, and we can build on that tradition. The withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe is a worthwhile goal that could serve as the cornerstone for a new order in European security. It should be the subject of negotiations between NATO and Russia. Germany must also take a more active role in preparing for the NPT review conference. With its continued close trade relations with Iran in the technology sector, Germany has a great responsibility in the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Time is also of the essence here. Broader offers of political and economic cooperation must therefore be coupled to broader sanctions to increase the internal and external pressure on the Iranian regime. The German government should take advantage of its good relations to Moscow and Beijing to promote concerted action by the international community vis-à-vis Iran. If it does not succeed, we will truly be in for heavy weather.
Ralf Fücks is co-president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation
This article has been originally published in German on SpiegelOnline.