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Expert Wade Huntley sees several possible steps toward disarmament in 2009 - photo by Martin Dee
Expert Wade Huntley sees several possible steps toward disarmament in 2009 - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 1 | Jan. 8, 2009

Real Nuclear Disarmament

By Wade Huntley
Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research, Liu Institute for Global Issues

Eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons: this ideal goal, as old as the nuclear age itself, has often seemed utopian. But history-making progress toward that goal may be the “next big thing” in global arms control and nonproliferation efforts.
The past decade has not been kind to this aspiration. North Korea tested a bomb, and Iran was exposed to be seemingly seeking one, too. The Bush administration sought to expand the variety and utility of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Much of the world’s nuclear materials remained poorly secured and, after September 11, the problem of preventing nuclear terrorism became a primary concern.

But behind the headlines, some key trends point to a reversal of fortune. Under the 2002 Moscow Treaty, U.S.- and Russian-deployed arsenals will soon number around 2,000 warheads each, less than 10 per cent of Cold War peaks. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) now includes all the world’s non-nuclear states, and beyond North Korea and Iran concerns over new nuclear aspirants drop off quickly.

As important, there has been a discernable shift in thinking. In January 2007, a group of prominent U.S. ex-officials and experts, including previous Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, called for “setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons” and mapping the first steps to achieving it. The overture revolutionized thinking in Washington and elsewhere in the world; President-elect Obama has stated his support for this goal unequivocally, and numerous other advocates will be staffing key positions in his government.

Several major steps are feasible in 2009. Concurrent with the nuclear posture review that the Obama administration will develop in its first year, immediate U.S. unilateral actions could include ending new warhead development (already resisted by Congress), adopting a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, and seeking Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban (CTBT) signed by President Clinton.

In the context of resuscitating U.S.-Russia relations, these two countries could quickly extend the verification provisions of their 1991 arms reduction treaty, agree to take nuclear missiles off their hair-trigger “alert” postures, plan further reduction of deployed warheads to 1,000 each, and examine seriously the idea of multilateral ballistic-missile defense systems proposed by Presidents Bush and Putin in 2002. These steps would help commence negotiations for a new treaty to end all states’ production of nuclear explosive materials. This progress would presage negotiated, verifiable weapons reductions among all nuclear-armed states, including the three non-NPT states (India, Pakistan and Israel) -- also helpful, in the case of Pakistan, to alleviating growing concerns over the security of its existing nuclear stocks.

These measures would reduce incentives to other countries to seek their own nuclear weapons and help mend the divisions with most non-nuclear states on dealing with key nuclear arms aspirants. The Bush administration has already gained North Korea’s re-commitment to eliminating its nuclear capabilities. Iran is a tough challenge in the most volatile region of the world. But a renewed engagement of Iran, likely in some form next year, could produce a solution to the current conflict -- perhaps linked to proposals to create an international system to manage the nuclear fuel cycle for nuclear energy facilities worldwide. Success in these two cases, combined with strengthening the global regime overall, could cap further proliferation indefinitely.

Progress toward disarmament requires a global commitment. But many countries have been awaiting only U.S. leadership, which is why many steps could transpire quickly. Other tasks will take longer: establishing systems for verification and compliance, weaning states of their reliance on nuclear deterrence, and securing materials and know-how against access by non-state actors are complex undertakings. It will take time to persuade a few states, thought not yet nuclear-armed, to forever forsake that option. But the preconditions for commitment to these tasks are already in place. With diplomacy equal to the opportunity, we could see, by the end of the next decade, a new nuclear weapons convention which, like the landmines ban, would set the goal of elimination and map the path to its realization.

Nuclear knowledge cannot be forgotten -- we ate that apple.Perhaps that means we can never eliminate every last warhead. But we can readily envision a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons -- a “virtual disarmament” in which whatever devices remain are few and restricted enough to serve only to prevent any new threat from arising.That world may now be closer than it seems.

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Last reviewed 08-Jan-2009

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