If You Want the Peace of the Dead, Prepare for Nuclear War

The world faces two existential threats: climate change, and nuclear
Armageddon. Action on both is required urgently. Tackling the first
will impose significant economic costs and lifestyle adjustments,
while tackling the second will bring economic benefits without any
lifestyle implications. Those who reject the first are derided as
denialists; those dismissive of the second are praised as realists.
Although action is needed now in order to keep the world on this side
of the tipping point, a climate change-induced apocalypse will not
occur until decades into the future. A nuclear catastrophe could
destroy us at any time, although, if our luck holds out, it could be
delayed for another six decades. The uncomfortable reality is that
nuclear peace has been upheld, owing as much to good luck as to sound
stewardship. Because we have learned to live with nuclear weapons for
66 years, we have become desensitized to the gravity and immediacy of
the threat. The
 tyranny of complacency could yet exact a fearful price if we
sleepwalk our way into a nuclear Armageddon. The time to lift the
spectre of a mushroom cloud from the international body politic is
long overdue.

Nuclear weapons are strategic equalizers for weaker sides in conflict
relationships, but they do not buy defence on the cheap. They can lead
to the creation of a national security state with a premium on
governmental secretiveness, reduced public account- ability, and
increased distance between citizens and Governments. There is the
added risk of proliferation to extremist elements through leakage,
theft, state collapse, and state capture. In terms of opportunity
costs, heavy military expenditure amounts to stealing from the poor.
Nuclear weapons do not help to combat today’s real threats of
insurgency, terrorism, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and
corruption. As they said in the streets of Delhi in 1998: “No food, no
clothing, no shelter? No worry, we have the bomb.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the risk of a Russia-United States
nuclear war has diminished, but the prospect of nuclear weapons being
used by other nuclear-armed states or non- state actors has become
more plausible. As a result, we find ourselves at a familiar
crossroads, confronting the same old choice between security in or
from nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has kept the nuclear
nightmare at bay for over four decades. The number of countries with
nuclear weapons is still in single figures. There has been substantial
progress in reducing the number of nuclear warheads. However, the
threat is still acute with a combined stockpile of more than 20,000
nuclear weapons; of these, 5,000 warheads are launch-ready and 2,000
are in a state of high operational alert.

The NPT enshrined multiple bargains. The non-nuclear countries agreed
among themselves never to acquire nuclear weapons. They entered into a
deal with the nuclear weapon states (NWS) whereby, in return for
intrusive end-use control over nuclear and nuclear-related technology
and material, they were granted favoured access to nuclear technology,
components, and material. The non-nuclear countries struck a second
deal with the NWS by which, in return for forever forswearing the
bomb, the NWS would pursue good faith negotiations for complete
nuclear disarmament. Article 6 of the NPT is the only explicit
multilateral disarmament commitment undertaken by all NWS.

Those agreements are now under strain due to a five-fold challenge:

1.     The five NPT-licit nuclear powers (Britain, China, France,
Russia and the United States) have disregarded NPT obligations to

2.     Three nuclear-armed states lie outside the NPT: India, Israel,
and Pakistan.

3.     As an intergovernmental agreement, the NPT does not cover
non-state groups, including terrorists.

4.     Some NPT members may be trying to elude their non-proliferation
obligations, while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
has withdrawn from the NPT and tested nuclear weapons.

5.     Many countries are interested in nuclear energy owing to rising
environmental anxieties and fossil fuel price, raising issues of
safety, security, and weaponization.

The disquieting trend of a widening circle of NPT-licit and extra-NPT
nuclear weapons powers has a self-generating effect in drawing other
countries into the game of nuclear brinkmanship. Adding to the five
sets of concerns is the sorry state of global governance mechanisms
for nuclear arms control. The Conference on Disarmament cannot even
agree on an agenda. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not yet
entered into force and a fissile material cut-off treaty is no nearer

After more than a decade in the doldrums, the nuclear agenda was
re-energized by a coalition of four United States national security
policy heavy weights—William Cohen, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and
William Perry—and given fresh momentum with President Barack Obama’s
Prague Promise in April 2009 to aim for the peace and security of a
world without nuclear weapons. The Washington Nuclear Summit looked
closely at the safety and security requirements of nuclear programmes
and materials. The 2010 NPT Review Conference was a modest success.
Commissions such as the International Commission on Nuclear
Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and campaigns like Global Zero have
helped to mobilize key constituencies. Russia and the United States
have negotiated, signed, ratified, and brought into force a new
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (know as START II) to cut back nuclear
arsenals by one third, limiting each to 1,550 deployable warheads.

Yet, there is a palpable and growing sense that START II could mark
the end of nuclear disarmament progress, instead of being the first
step on the road to abolition. There is little evidence of significant
demand for disarmament by domestic political constituencies in the
nuclear-armed states. Tellingly, not one country that had an atomic
bomb in 1968 when the NPT was signed has given it up. Judging by their
actions rather than the rhetoric, all are determined to remain
nuclear-armed. They are either modernizing nuclear forces and refining
nuclear doctrines, or preparing to do so. For example, even after
implementing START II, the United States will retain a cache of
reserve warheads as a strategic hedge available for rapid uploading,
should the need arise, and also build three new factories for
increased nuclear warhead production capacity. To would-be
proliferators, the lesson is clear: nuclear weapons are indispensable
in today’s world and for
 dealing with tomorrow’s threats.

Reflecting the technical state of 1968 when the NPT was signed, Iran
insists on its right to pursue the use of nuclear energy for peaceful
purposes—to the point where it would be a screwdriver away from
developing the bomb. The world is at a loss on how to stop Iran from
crossing the weapons threshold and how to persuade, coax, or coerce
the DPRK from stepping back into the NPT as a denuclearized member in
good standing.

Japan is the emotional touchstone in the discourse as the world’s only
victim of the bomb. The United States has a special responsibility to
lead the way to nuclear abolition as the only country to have used
atomic bombs, and as the world’s biggest military power. The A-bomb
was developed during the Second World War by a group of scientists
brought together for the Manhattan Project under the directorship of
J. Robert Oppenheimer. Witnessing the first successful atomic test on
16 July 1945, Oppenheimer recalled the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad
Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into
the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” Birth and
death are symbiotically linked in the cycle of life. Oppenheimer also
recalled the matching verse from the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the
shatterer of worlds.”

The same duality is omnipresent in every aspect of modern day
Hiroshima. The citizens of Hiroshima, in rebuilding their city, have
consecrated it as a testimonial to social resilience, human
solidarity, and nuclear abolition. Once again a beautiful, scenic, and
thriving city, Hiroshima lives by three codes: transformation from a
military city to a city of peace; to forgive and atone, but never to
forget; and, never again.

The case for abolition is simple, elegant, and eloquent. Without
strengthening national security, nuclear weapons diminish our common
humanity and impoverish our soul. Their very destructiveness robs them
of military utility against other nuclear powers and of political
utility against non-nuclear countries. As long as any country has any,
others will want some. As long as they exist, they will be used one
day again by design, accident, or miscalculation. Our goal, there-
fore, should be to make the transition from a world in which the role
of nuclear weapons is seen as central to maintaining security, to one
where they become progressively marginal and eventually entirely
unnecessary. Like chemical and bio- logical weapons of mass
destruction, nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented, but like them,
nuclear weapons can also be controlled, regulated, restricted and
outlawed under an inter- national regime that ensures strict
compliance through effective and
 credible inspection, verification, and enforcement.

The common task is to delegitimize the possession, deployment, and use
of nuclear weapons; to require no first use and sole purpose
commitments; to reduce their numbers to 10 per cent of present
stockpiles (500 warheads each for Russia and the United States, and
1,000 among the rest) by 2025; to reduce the high-risk reliance on
them by introducing further degrees of separation between possession,
deployment and use, by physically separating warheads from delivery
systems and lengthening the decision-making fuse for the launch of
nuclear weapons; to strengthen the authority and capacity of the
International Atomic Energy Agency; to establish a multilateral fuel
cycle; and to toughen up supply- side restrictions.

Because the NPT has been subverted from a prohibition into a purely
non-proliferation regime, the time has come to look beyond it to a
better alternative that gathers all the meritorious elements into one
workable package in a nuclear weapons convention. This will not
self-materialize merely because we wish it so. Nor will it ever
eventuate if we always push it into the distant future. There are many
technical, legal, and political challenges to overcome, but serious
preparatory work needs to be started now, with conviction and

Those who worship most devoutly at the altar of nuclear weapons issue
the fiercest fat- was against others rushing to join them. The most
powerful stimulus to nuclear proliferation by others is the continuing
possession of the bomb by some. Nuclear weapons could not proliferate
if they did not exist, but because they do, they will. The threat to
use nuclear weapons, both to deter their use by others and to prevent
proliferation, legitimizes their possession, deployment, and use. That
which is legitimate cannot be stopped from proliferating.

Critics of the zero option want to keep their atomic bombs, but deny
them to others. They lack the intellectual honesty and the courage to
show how non- proliferation can be enforced without disarmament, to
acknowledge that the price of keeping nuclear arsenals is uncontrolled
proliferation, and to argue why a world of uncontrolled proliferation
is better than abolition for national and international security.

The focus on non-proliferation to the neglect of disarmament ensures
that we get neither. The best and only guarantee of non-proliferation
is disarmament. If we want non- proliferation, therefore, we must
prepare for disarmament. Within our lifetime, we will either achieve
nuclear abolition or have to live with nuclear proliferation and die
with the use of nuclear weapons. It is better to have the soft glow of
satisfaction from the noble goal of achieving the banishment of
nuclear weapons, than the harsh glare on the morning after these
weapons have been used.

About the author
Ramesh Thakur is Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation
and Disarmament, and Professor of International Relations, at the
Australian National University. He previously was the Senior Vice
Rector of the United Nations University at the rank of Assistant
Secretary-General. His next major project isThe Oxford Handbook of
Modern Diplomacy.

Professor Ramesh Thakur
Director, Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament
ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy
Hedley Bull Centre, Bldg 130
Canberra ACT 0200
Tel: +61-2-6125-0912
0447-727-797 (m) ramesh.thakur@anu.edu.au http://apcd.anu.edu.au