Global Zero or Nuclear Anarchy?

This Photo by Dr. Case is subject to a Creative Commons License.

March 9, 2010
By Ralf Fücks

“Japanese-German Dialogue on Non-Proliferation: Strengthening Multilateral and Regional Security Cooperation“   
Tokyo, March 8, 2010

By Ralf Fücks, Co-President of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung

Japan is the only country in the world that has suffered from a nuclear attack. Today, security and stability in Asia are at risk because of a potential nuclear arms race between countries from the Persian Gulf to North Korea. Japan has good reasons to show strong engagement in nuclear disarmament policies. A few weeks ago, Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and Japan’s foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, named these issues key priorities for the Japanese and German governments.

After the end of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament slipped out of the limelight of international politics. While the fear of a nuclear showdown between the United States and Russia disappeared, nuclear arms control seemed to have lost its urgency. This has now changed dramatically. The Iranian nuclear program, North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and the threat of an arms race between China, India and Pakistan have created a sense of alarm: the more states that succeed in acquiring the bomb, the higher the risk that limited armed conflicts will escalate into a nuclear inferno.

The Global Zero initiative by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn – political veterans who are above any suspicion of starry-eyed pacifism – has once again drawn attention to the disarmament obligations of the established nuclear powers. There are some signs of hope that nuclear arms control will be given the political priority it deserves. The United States and Russia are negotiating a follow-up agreement to the START treaty. President Obama has announced plans to host an international disarmament summit in April, and the members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty will gather in New York City in May in order to review and reaffirm the agreement.

Nevertheless, the worldwide arms control system hangs in the balance, and this year will be a very important one for its future.  Even a complete breakdown of nuclear arms control is not beyond question. As the continuing nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea threaten to kick-off regional nuclear arms races, President Obama’s push to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty is stalled in the Senate. The Russian-American negotiations on a new START agreement are pending. Without commitments on the parts of major nuclear powers to reduce their arsenals, the dam of nuclear non-proliferation is threatening to break. Non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have the one without the other.

How to revive the Non-Proliferation Treaty

To move things forward, we need a broad international agreement on the guidelines for further diplomatic action:

  1. “Global Zero” is a vision we should adopt in our hearts and minds. However, to gain political relevance, we have to transform visions into action plans.
  2. Therefore, the next and most important thing is to avoid another failure at the NPT Review Conference. This time, there won’t be another five years to repair the international nuclear arms control system. But how do we define “success” with regard to the gathering in New York? There still is neither an agreed-upon agenda nor a set of targets shared by the main players in the framework of the NPT.
  3. Pending treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) need to be ratified and put into force.
  4. Nuclear proliferation is just short of passing a “tipping point,” when the spread of nuclear weapons exceeds the capacity to rein them in. If we want to prevent that slippery slope into nuclear anarchy, the established nuclear powers need to prove their credibility and political will in reducing their own stockpiles.

An important step in building mutual trust would be a “Single Purpose Declaration” by all atomic powers that states the only purpose of their nuclear arsenal is to deter a deadly attack on themselves or their allies.

It’s not too late to revive global nuclear governance. But that will require more than just good will. In fact, the arms control regime is eroding for a multitude of reasons:

  • The Bush Administration believed in American military supremacy instead of self-restriction through multilateral agreements.
  • Russia sees its conventional military capabilities falling behind those of NATO and China. As a result, Moscow seems more likely to build its regional and global ambitions on its nuclear power. Therefore, we can expect Moscow to be engaged in reinforcing the NPT – but doubts remain as to how far Moscow is ready to participate in a “Global Zero” effort.
  • So far, the international community has failed to deal effectively with nuclear armament of Non-NPT-states like India and Pakistan and to stop the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. North Korea is involved in ongoing proliferation activities, as it was the case with Pakistan. Without their assistance, there would be less reason to worry about Iran. And if we cannot prevent Iran from going nuclear, we may see Turkey, Egypt and Saudi-Arabia wanting to go nuclear, too.

Why do states go for the nuclear bomb?

Why do states go nuclear or at least try to develop the capabilities needed to build the bomb within a short period of time?

Apparently, nuclear weapons are perceived as a useful way to offset inferiorities in conventional forces, making them especially interesting for marginalised states (a term used by Volker Stanzel, German Ambassador to Japan) which are 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 to suitable delivery systems. For the North Korean ruler, the bomb has the function of a defensive shield, a means of threatening neighbouring states and a tool for extorting diplomatic and financial concessions – truly an all-purpose weapon. This is why there is little reason to expect the current regime to step back from its nuclear program: it’s the only asset they have to exploit.

Using the bomb as a shield is an even more convincing idea for states, who themselves are aiming at regional hegemony, at promoting terrorism and at employing militant proxies to attack other states. It may allow them to carry out an aggressive regional policy without risk of military sanctions. If this reminds you of Iran, you may be right.

Most of us agree that we must avoid a military answer to the Iranian threat. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would open Pandora’s Box. So we have to get serious in our efforts to deal with Iran by a smart mix of incentives in case of cooperation, sanctions in case of non-cooperation and support for the Iranian opposition. And if this strategy fails, the US and Europe should be ready for a “deter & contain” – strategy, including security guarantees for neighbouring states who feel threatened by a nuclear Iran.

The German foreign minister, in line with the Green Party, is advocating the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German territory. Of course this should happen in a negotiated fashion with the United States and our European partners. But getting rid of some 20 remaining US nuclear weapons on German soil will not make a big difference if it is not linked to the elimination of all sub-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. Russia still employs about 2000 tactical warheads which can be used to exercise political pressure on neighbouring countries. The most promising strategy to convince the Russian Leadership to get rid of their nuclear arsenal may be to offer them membership in NATO, as was recently proposed by General Naumann and other prominent members of the German Security community. Such an offer would be in line with the idea of shared security between Russia, Europe and the US, and it would confirm that there is no contradiction between NATO-enlargement and Russia’s security.

From civil to military use of nuclear technology: a slippery slope

It makes little sense to worry about nuclear proliferation and to be silent on the topic of atomic energy. Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, calls nuclear power plants “atomic bomb starter kits”. He stresses that there is no strict separation between civilian and military use of nuclear power. He also claims that many of the countries that seek civilian nuclear energy do this for exactly that reason: to acquire the option for military capabilities. And he is right in that.

With the argument of fighting climate change, the nuclear energy industry and some governments are pushing for a so-called “renaissance” of nuclear power, despite the unresolved question of nuclear waste management and despite the fact that no nuclear power plant on this planet has been built without massive public subsidies.

But the controversy on atomic energy is not only about safety, nuclear waste and costs. 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 can be effectively prohibited, especially when it comes to enrichment, reprocessing and fast breeder technology. And the case of Iran has proven that anything can be hidden from inspections for a long time.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we really want to risk the spread of nuclear technology around the world, enabling more and more states to acquire the skills and materials to build the bomb – especially when there are safer and cheaper alternatives available?

Germany, under Green government participation, put into law the phase-out of nuclear power in Germany ten years ago. Even the recently elected conservative-liberal government is not talking about a renaissance of nuclear power at home, even though they would like to extend the lifetime of newer reactors for a couple of years.

Germany, with other countries that also gave up nuclear energy, may seem to be swimming against the tide. But I’m quite confident that in fact we are pioneering the next industrial revolution, which will create a new generation of resource efficient technologies and make renewable energies the next big thing after the internet revolution. Germany is already a leader in wind, solar, biogas and energy efficiency. Other countries are catching up – by the way China last year became the world’s new wind super power. We just won’t need nuclear energy in the future, particularly not at the price that we may have to pay – in terms of cash and risks!

This article is based on a speech given at the conference “Japanese-German Dialogue on Non-Proliferation: Strengthening Multilateral and Regional Security Cooperation“ in Tokyo on March 8th, 2010.

Japanese-German Dialogue on Non-Proliferation, March 2010 / Japanisch-deutscher Dialog zur Non-Proliferation, März 2010

Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books.