Nuclear Disarmament in a Time of Globalization


Nuclear weapons occupy the highest rung on the ladder of military cowardice. They are long-distance devices of mass annihilation. They destroy indiscriminately – men, women and children. They draw no lines between soldiers and civilians. Those who make the weapons, who deploy them, who order their use and who press the buttons to send the missiles on their way have virtually no connection with the victims. They are simply human instruments in a chain of activities leading to massive devastation.

The only arguably sane use of nuclear weapons is deterrence, and deterrence is largely an unproven theory. General George Lee Butler, a former commander-in-chief of the United States Strategic Command, who was in charge of all US nuclear weapons, has expressed his deep concerns about deterrence. “Nuclear deterrence,” he wrote, “was and remains a slippery intellectual construct that translates very poorly into the real world of spontaneous crises, inexplicable motivations, incomplete intelligence and fragile human relationships.” When one examines carefully the shortcomings of nuclear deterrence – its requirements of near-perfect communications, rational behavior in a time of crisis and willingness to commit mass murder – it is reasonable to conclude that reliance on nuclear deterrence for security is as insane as the threat to destroy civilization with nuclear weapons.

In recent times, there has been a high degree of concern for nuclear terrorism, but nuclear terrorism has been practiced by the nuclear weapons states for decades. If terrorism is the threat or use of violence to achieve political goals – especially if it results in injuring or killing innocent people – then the nuclear weapons states are by definition terrorists. It is ironic that nuclear weapons are more potent tools in the hands of non-state actors than in the hands of powerful countries. Non-state actors in possession of a nuclear weapon would not be constrained by threats of retaliation. If terrorists are suicidal and cannot be located anyway, they certainly cannot be deterred from initiating a nuclear attack. In this sense, nuclear weapons are a great equalizer in the hands of extremists, and for this reason it is clear that the nuclear weapons states must do everything in their power to prevent these weapons, or the materials to make them, from falling into the hands of such extremists. The nuclear weapons states, however, appear more committed to maintaining their own nuclear arsenals than to assuring that nuclear weapons do not proliferate to non-state terrorist groups that could cause them irreparable harm.

The only way to assure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda is to take dramatic steps to reduce nuclear arsenals, dismantle the nuclear weapons, and place the remaining weapons and weapons-grade fissile materials under strict and effective international controls. The nuclear weapons states have not been bold in attempting to control the spread of nuclear weapons; they have acted as though time is on their side rather than on the side of those committed to waging war against them. The irony of this is that the nuclear weapons states, even with arsenals of nuclear weapons that number in the thousands, cannot deter a group such as Al Qaeda from using nuclear weapons against them. Their only hope is to prevent such groups from obtaining these most destructive of all weapons.

Nuclearism and Globalization

Nuclearism is one of the early manifestations of globalization. The United States went global with its nuclear threat almost from the day it first created nuclear weapons. Within three weeks of testing the first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, the US used nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It did so not only to destroy those cities and punish Japan, but also to send a message to the world and particularly to the Soviet Union. The message was, “This is what we are capable of doing and willing to do with our devastating new weapons; don’t cross us or we could use them on you.” It was a powerful message, and also an incentive to nuclear proliferation. It would take the Soviet Union just four years to test its first nuclear device.

Very early in the Nuclear Age, the US began testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, including in the Trust Territories that had been assigned to it by the United Nations. In doing so, it continued the pre-war pattern of colonial dominance. Over the decades of the Nuclear Age, all of the nuclear weapons states have performed their nuclear testing on the lands of indigenous peoples, leaving the hazardous radioactive residue of testing in their backyards.

Another dimension to the globalization of the nuclear threat was the development of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), allowing for the destruction of nearly any place on the globe in 30 minutes or many places simultaneously. Even today, the US and Russia each still have some 6,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Of these, some 2,250 each are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments.

The US and USSR, now Russia, as well as other nuclear weapons states, also appropriated the global commons for their nuclear forces. The nuclear weapons states continue to use the oceans, humankind’s great common heritage, for their submarine-launched nuclear forces. They agreed not to place nuclear weapons on the ocean floor, but with the availability of submarines, the ocean floor is clearly not a necessary or even useful option for them.

Another aspect of the globalization of nuclearism is the spread of the US nuclear umbrella to its allies throughout the world, particularly in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. By extending its nuclear umbrella, the US has made many more countries complicit in relying upon nuclear weapons for their security, albeit reliant upon US nuclear weapons rather than developing their own.

Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear proliferation is the flip-side of nuclear disarmament. It is also the globalization of nuclear arsenals. The existing nuclear weapons states have nearly all justified their development of nuclear weapons on the basis of nuclear deterrence. The US created nuclear weapons because it was concerned about deterring a possible Nazi nuclear bomb. The Soviet Union developed its nuclear arsenal to deter the US. The UK and France developed their nuclear arsenals to have independent deterrent forces against the Soviet Union. China sought to deter both the Soviet Union and the US. India sought to deter China, and Pakistan sought to deter India. North Korea would undoubtedly justify its nuclear weapons, if indeed it has them, as being necessary to deter the US. South Africa, which faced global hostility due to its policies of Apartheid, developed a nuclear arsenal to deter the US and Russia. It subsequently gave up its nuclear weapons. Israel, which continues to face both regional and global hostility, developed a nuclear arsenal to give it greater degrees of freedom in relation to the US and Russia and well as to deter hostilities by non-nuclear weapons states in its region.

The US-led war against Iraq was justified initially on the basis that Iraq might be developing a nuclear arsenal and could potentially transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. Although it turned out not to be true that Iraq was developing a nuclear arsenal or even that it had links to Al Qaeda, this fear provided the justification for the first counter-proliferation war in history.

US Double Standards Have Stimulated Proliferation

From the outset of the Nuclear Age, the US has had a double standard when it comes to nuclear weapons. It has always relied on these weapons for its own security, yet sought to deny these weapons to other states except when it suited its purposes. In the

late 1960s and early 1970s, Israel developed a nuclear arsenal. At best it can be said that the US turned a blind eye to this development. In sharp contrast to the US attacking and invading Iraq because it might have nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, the US, in line with its geopolitical strategies, has never even criticized Israel for its nuclear proliferation. This double standard has created an impetus to the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the volatile Middle East.

India’s position, for decades, was that it would not develop nuclear weapons if the nuclear weapons states fulfilled their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to achieve nuclear disarmament. India made clear pronouncements that it was not willing to live without nuclear weapons in a world of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”. Three years after the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995 and there was still no significant breakthrough by the nuclear weapons states toward achieving nuclear disarmament, India conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests and announced that it was developing a nuclear arsenal. Pakistan followed immediately in doing the same.

When Mr. Bush named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil, he put these states on notice that they were in the sights of the US. When he then went on to attack and invade Iraq to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, Bush’s actions sent a message to Iran and North Korea, among others, that they had better consider developing a nuclear deterrent force against the US. They may have already had such thoughts before the Axis of Evil speech, but there can be no doubt that such provocative language, coupled with military action, can only act as a stimulant to develop a strong deterrent force. The Bush posture toward the states designated as an Axis of Evil stands in strong contrast to the manner in which his administration virtually ignored the nuclear proliferation activities of Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan. Khan, whose activities have been described as a nuclear Walmart, received only a slap on the wrist from the Pakistani government, allied with the US in the so-called war against terrorism.

Nuclear Disarmament

In the post-Cold War period, there has been some progress toward nuclear disarmament, but it has been excruciatingly slow as measured by the need, obligation and opportunity. Current global nuclear stocks are down from a Cold War high of some 70,000 nuclear weapons to approximately 30,000. The vast majority of these, some 97 percent, are in the arsenals of the US and Russia.

The need to dramatically reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons lies in the danger of these weapons proliferating to other states or falling into the hands of non-state extremist actors. The enormous danger of these weapons in the hands of groups like Al Qaeda should be sufficient to motivate serious efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament. So far it has not done so. The need does not exist to maintain large nuclear arsenals or, for that matter, any nuclear weapons in a world where nuclear weapons states are trading with each other rather than threatening war.

The obligation of the nuclear weapons states to achieve nuclear disarmament is set forth in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, when the treaty was extended indefinitely, the parties agreed to “systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons.” Five years later, at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the parties agreed on 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament. These steps included ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, negotiations for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, preserving and strengthening the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, making disarmament measures irreversible, and an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI.”

The opportunity to achieve nuclear disarmament in the post-Cold War world has been largely squandered. Bill Clinton was presented with the greatest opportunity of any leader in the post-World War II period to put an end to the dangers of the Nuclear Age. Clinton didn’t seem to grasp the opportunity that had been laid at his feet. He was largely indifferent to the issue, and this resulted in only minimal progress during his eight years in office. He did, however, support ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and did hold negotiations with Russia on START III, but these negotiations did not result in a new treaty.

If the Clinton approach to nuclear disarmament can be described as benign indifference, the US under the Bush administration can be thought of obstructionist in its approach to nuclear disarmament. It has been an obstacle to virtually all of the 13 Practical Steps agreed to at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. The Bush administration has opposed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, put up barriers to negotiations for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (in order to pursue missile defenses and space weaponization), and entered into an agreement with the Russians that makes nuclear reductions completely reversible. This agreement, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Agreement (SORT), specifies reductions of the US and Russian deployed strategic arsenals from levels of about 6,000 each to between 1,700 and 2,200 each by the year 2012. However, the treaty doesn’t require that the weapons taken off deployed status be irreversibly dismantled. As a result, many US weapons will go into storage and be available for redeployment in the future. It is likely that the Russians will do the same, and these weapons will also be available for possible theft by terrorist groups. The reductions do not have a timeline and only need to be completed by 2012. After that year, the treaty will no longer be in effect. So far as it impacts nuclear disarmament, the treaty is largely fraudulent. It gives the appearance of disarmament, but the substance isn’t there.

In addition, the Bush administration has been pressing for research on new nuclear weapons that will be more usable, a new bunker busting nuclear weapon (the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator) and mini-nukes (low-yield nuclear weapons) that are about one-third the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. They have also begun deployment of missile defenses that have led Russia to pull out of the START II agreement. Despite their funding of research on new nuclear weapons and their opposition to the 13 Practical Steps, a US delegate to the 2004 Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, John Bolton, told the assembled parties to the treaty that they shouldn’t focus their attention on Article VI of the treaty with its nuclear disarmament provisions. “We cannot divert attention from the violations we face,” he said, “by focusing on Article VI violations that do not exist.”

Need for US Leadership

The world currently faces a tragic dilemma: preventing nuclear terrorism requires significant nuclear disarmament and international control of nuclear weapons and materials, but to achieve this will require US leadership, which is currently non-existent. Since the US continues to rely upon its own arsenal of nuclear weapons for security, it cannot effectively provide leadership toward nuclear disarmament. In the Bush administration’s secret, but leaked, 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, they stated: “Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends. They provide credible options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and large-scale conventional force. These nuclear capabilities possess unique properties that give the United States options to hold at risk classes of targets [that are] important to achieve strategic and political objectives.”

Initiatives for Nuclear Disarmament

At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we are initiating a campaign to chart a new course in US nuclear policy that we call Turn the Tide. It is an Internet-based campaign that seeks to awaken US citizens to the need to change US nuclear policy and spur them to communicate with their Congressional representatives and candidates as well as the president and presidential candidates and to cast their ballots based on positions on nuclear disarmament issues. The campaign is based on the following call to action:

1. Stop all efforts to create dangerous new nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

2. Maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

3. Cancel plans to build new nuclear weapons production plants, and close and clean up the toxic contamination at existing plants.

4. Establish and enforce a legally binding US commitment to No Use of nuclear weapons against any nation or group that does not have nuclear weapons.

5. Establish and enforce a legally binding US commitment to No First Use of nuclear weapons against other nations possessing nuclear weapons.

6. Cancel funding for and plans to deploy offensive missile “defense” systems which would ignite a dangerous arms race and offer no security against terrorist weapons of mass destruction.

7. In order to significantly decrease the threat of accidental launch, together with Russia, take nuclear weapons off high-alert status and do away with the strategy of launch-on-warning.

8. Together with Russia, implement permanent and verifiable dismantlement of nuclear weapons taken off deployed status through the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

9. Demonstrate to other countries US commitment to reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons by removing all US nuclear weapons from foreign soil.

10. To prevent future proliferation or theft, create and maintain a global inventory of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials and place these weapons and materials under strict international safeguards.

11. Initiate international negotiations to fulfill existing treaty obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for the phased and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.

12. Redirect funding from nuclear weapons programs to dismantling nuclear weapons, safeguarding nuclear materials, cleaning up the toxic legacy of the Nuclear Age and meeting more pressing social needs such as education, health care and social services.

While this campaign is essential, it is a strategy from within the country. It is also necessary to bring pressure to bear on the US and other nuclear weapons states from the international community. The countries of the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden) have been doing admirable work on this at the United Nations and at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conferences and Preparatory Committee meetings. These countries were largely responsible for putting forward the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. I should also mention the Middle Powers Initiative, a coalition of eight international non-governmental organizations, which has provided strong support and encouragement to the New Agenda countries.

Another important new initiative to move forward the nuclear disarmament agenda is the Emergency Campaign of the Mayors for Peace. Under the leadership of the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this campaign has set forth a Vision 2020, calling for the initiation of negotiations for complete nuclear disarmament in 2005, the completion of these negotiations in 2010 and the elimination of nuclear weapons by the year 2020.

Breaking the Silence

Nuclear weapons pose a threat to humanity’s future, and yet most of us are silent in the face of this danger. It would not be possible to research, develop, deploy, threaten and use nuclear weapons if so many were not silent. The threat of nuclear genocide, even omnicide, has become global. Before the spread of the weapons themselves becomes global, we must break the culture of silence and conformity that allows the continuation of the nuclear threat to all humanity.

In some ways, we have attributed god-like characteristics to nuclear weapons. Their power far exceeds that of ordinary weapons. They are credited in the US with bringing World War II to an end. It is hard to forget the emotional celebrations that took place in the streets in India and Pakistan when they tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Here is a poem in which I have tried to capture the sense of the godliness that has been ascribed to nuclear weapons by many people in the nuclear weapons states.


When the bomb became our god
We loved it far too much,
Worshipping no other gods before it.
We thought ourselves great
And powerful, creators of worlds.
We turned toward infinity,
Giving the bomb our very souls.
We looked to it for comfort,
To its smooth metallic grace.
When the bomb became our god
We lived in a constant state of war
That we called peace.

But nuclear weapons certainly are not gods, nor are their possessors. These weapons are false idols, and they threaten their possessors as well as their targets. They may be powerful, but their power is only that of destruction. They have neither the power of creativity nor of construction. They threaten the future of humanity, and they corrode the souls of their possessors.

We are approaching the 60th anniversary of the creation and first use of nuclear weapons. Time is not on our side, and we can take little comfort in the fact that nuclear weapons have not been dropped on other cities since they were used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this era of globalization, the threat of nuclear annihilation is itself global. To counter this threat, we must globalize prohibitions in law and morality to the possession, threat and use of the nuclear weapons. We must end the double standards that suggest that some may have nuclear weapons while others may not. There are no safe hands in which nuclear weapons may be placed.

The singular threat that nuclear weapons pose can only be ended by people everywhere breaking the silence and demanding that the nuclear weapons states fulfill their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty for the total elimination of these weapons, and persisting in their demands until the goal is achieved.

DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.


More articles by:

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). 

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