Nuclear Disarmament Disarmed
Gareth Evans, at project-syndicate.org, Sep. 25, 2012
SINGAPORE – US President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy landscape is
littered with deflated balloons. Soaring speeches, high hopes, and great
expectations have yielded minimal returns.
Across the Islamic world – from North Africa to Iraq, Afghanistan, and
Pakistan – we see fragile relationships, unhappy transitions, unresolved
conflicts, and outright attacks on the United States, despite Obama’s
case for a new beginning, movingly articulated in his June 2009 speech
in Cairo. Israel, deaf to Obama’s urging, is further from reconciliation
with Palestine, and closer to war with Iran, than it has ever been.
Likewise, for all the effort put into improving America’s most important
bilateral relationships – those with China and Russia – ties with both
countries have become increasingly tense, owing most recently to the
Kremlin’s intransigence over Syria and official Chinese behavior in the
South China Sea.
But the balloon that has deflated the most may be the one that Obama
sent aloft in Prague in April 2009, when he made the case for rapid and
serious movement toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
A good start was made with the US-Russia New START treaty to limit
significantly strategic-weapon deployments, the largely successful
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, and the
productive, US-hosted Nuclear Security Summit. But, over the last year,
the spirit of optimism that energized these developments has, sadly,
This month, a group of former prime ministers, foreign and defense
ministers, and military, diplomatic, and scientific leaders from 14
countries met in Singapore as the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for
Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). They expressed their
profound disappointment at what they described as the “evaporation of
political will” evident in global and regional efforts toward nuclear
Apart from another reasonably productive Nuclear Security Summit in
Seoul in March 2012, the news on the disarmament front over the last
year has certainly been bleak. Further US-Russia arms-reduction
negotiations ground to a halt long before the American presidential
election season began. Meanwhile, no other nuclear-armed state has
expressed the slightest interest in bilateral or multilateral reduction
negotiations until the two major powers, which currently hold 95% of the
world’s stockpile, make further major cuts.
Cautious initial moves by the US to modify its nuclear doctrine – toward
accepting that nuclear weapons’ “sole purpose” is to respond to nuclear
threats, and not any other kind – have gone nowhere. Negotiations to
“de-alert” the 2,000 nuclear weapons that remain at absurdly dangerous,
Cold War-era launch readiness have never really started.
There are also no signs of movement on bringing into force the
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). And there has been zero
progress on breaking the negotiating stalemate on a new treaty to ban
production of fissile material for nuclear weapons; negligible progress
on a conference to create a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East
(a key outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference); and actual
acceleration of nuclear-weapons programs in India, Pakistan, and China.
So who is to blame? Some charge the Obama administration itself with
sending mixed signals or worse: The US, they note, has modernized its
own nuclear arsenal, developed new ballistic-missile defense and
conventional weapons systems, and been too willing to accommodate its
European and Northeast Asian allies’ nervousness about limiting the
nuclear dimension of the extended deterrence umbrella under which they
But it is hard to ignore the huge constraint that an intensely partisan
and negative political environment in the US has imposed. Republican
intransigence has precluded US ratification of the CTBT, which would be
a big international circuit-breaker; almost killed the New START treaty
at birth; and has caused the bar for further negotiations with Russia
and China to be set almost impossibly high.
Nor is there any sign that any of these positions would be modified
should Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, become president.
International concerns have been compounded – certainly for the APLN
leaders – by the shrillness of Romney’s statements on China and Taiwan,
as well as his extraordinary identification of Russia as America’s
“number one geopolitical foe.”
There are those who will say that it is naïve to want a world free of
nuclear weapons, much less to think that it can be achieved. But it is
not naïve to be concerned about the most indiscriminately inhumane
weapons of destruction ever invented – 23,000 of which still exist –
with a combined destructive capability of 150,000 Hiroshima bombs. And
it is not naïve to believe that non-proliferation and disarmament are
inextricably connected: that so long as any state retains nuclear
weapons, others will want them.
The genuinely naïve – or ignorant – position is to believe that
statesmanship and foolproof controls, rather than sheer dumb luck, have
enabled the world to go almost seven decades without a nuclear-weapons
catastrophe. It is not naïve to believe that nuclear deterrence is both
fragile operationally, and of thoroughly dubious utility in sustaining
the peace. Nor is it naïve to believe that even if nuclear weapons
cannot be un-invented, they can ultimately be outlawed.
Obama cannot be faulted for trying. Even deflated balloons are better
than a devastated planet.*