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The future of nuclear weapons and the non-proliferation regime: the need to combine disarmament and arms control

Rafael Grasa
Lecturer in International Relations at the UAB and President of the ICIP
Rafael Grasa

Rafael Grasa

The new international context and the results of the twentieth Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference- which was reasonably successful in comparative terms and when taking the internal limitations of the NPT into consideration - make it impossible to restrict analysis and an interpretation of the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and nuclear weapons to the New York conference, its final documents, and to the implementation of the agreements reached, such as that concerning the Middle East. To put it differently, the central thesis of this paper is that sixty-five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forty years since the NPT came into force, two decades after the end of the Cold War, and nine years after 11/9, the subject of analysis - the future of nuclear weapons, and not just the state of the non-proliferation regime- must be considered in broader terms. Action must be taken to restore objectives not only in terms of arms control, but also in terms of disarmament. I will articulate this argument from three different angles.

First. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, when examining the three distinguishing features of the modern international system - the primacy of politics , bipolarity and nuclear weapons- nuclear weapons, unlike the other two, continue to play a very significant role in the international system and remain on the agendas of the great powers, both respect to domestic politics and in affecting the relations between them. It is helpful to consider a few examples which illustrate the truth of this statement. The first example is the central role played by nuclear weapons on the Moscow-Washington agenda. The strategic arms and the ratification process of the new START treaty is now underway, and the future of the anti-missile systems, result of the Bush administration's withdrawal from the ABM treaty and the legacy of "Star Wars, is of increasingly great import. Second is the current concern being given to proliferation, both vertical and horizontal, with the case of Iran being of particular interest in this respect. And , lastly, the growing concern for the security of nuclear material, and the risk of leakage of fissionable material in particular (the Washington Summit); and the increasing number of doubts among NATO countries regarding the North American tactical nuclear weapons deployed on European territory, a delicate issue included on the agenda for NATO's upcoming meeting this autumn.

In domestic terms, there are also problems and doubts in the United Kingdom and France regarding the renewal of part of their nuclear arsenals (submarines and missiles); the explicit concern expressed by many countries regarding the delay in the implementation of the comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty (CTBT); a growing interest in the establishment of areas free of nuclear weapons (almost half the planet currently has this status); and, last but not least, the concern regarding nuclear issues shown by the emerging powers and their incipient global diplomacy- as seen in the initiative by Turkey and Brazil on Iran- or demonstrated by the clear support given to the increasing demands for "security guarantees" and for an explicit declaration by nuclear states for a "no first use policy". In simple terms, nuclear weapons have reassumed a position of central import on the international agenda, and I believe this role will not change over the next decade,. This central role will not simply be expressed through concerns regarding nuclear proliferation, but will also take the form of logical multilateral growth, in contrast to the bilateral treatment of nuclear issues that prevailed during the Cold War.

Second, the main component of the nuclear non-proliferation regime– the NPT- is obsolete and clearly insufficient for the modern world, albeit of essential importance to the international system. The NPT's main success has been to contain horizontal proliferation. Only nine countries are currently nuclear states, including the five permanent members of the Security Council and signers of the NPT, three states that were never party to the Treaty (India, Pakistan and Israel) and one that withdrew from the NPT (North Korea). This is true in spite of the forecasts made forty years ago which suggested that there would be between 15 and 50 nuclear states in our modern day. The Nuclear Proliferation Treaty has clearly been a success among industrialised countries, with Japan, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Canada, Australia and Brazil eschewing nuclear weapons. However, the original agreement, which was written according to the international logic and order dominant during the Cold War, has been looked at critically for some time. The original treaty involves acceptance of the existence of five nuclear states, and a simultaneous commitment to non-proliferation based on three pillars or axes: non-proliferation (horizontal); nuclear disarmament (vertical non-proliferation of nuclear powers) and the promotion – or at least non-prevention - of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This is currently problematic in three respects. Even the peaceful use of nuclear energy- historically the least significant cause for concern- is resulting in apprehension due to the lack of strict controls that would affect all countries in the global nuclear fuel cycle equally, and the renewed interest in civil nuclear energy resulting from the energy and climate crisis, and the strategies used by nuclear companies. In simple terms, two components of the nuclear fuel cycle- uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of used fuel- are two critical processes for producing highly enriched uranium or plutonium. These are the essential ingredients used in building nuclear weapons. As a result, the development of new nuclear technologies- very well known among Western countries- is creating problems that are impossible to solve within the current context or framework , while also making it difficult to reconcile with article IV of the NPT . There is nothing in the treaty that can be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all countries to carry out research, produce, and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This right is being claimed by a numerous group of member states (especially those in the non-aligned group) and the opportunities that these technologies entail include an increased risk in terms of proliferation. In other words, without changing the context (new treaties and legal measures and new policies) and without adding new instruments, it is impossible to harmoniously maintain the objectives of the three pillars upheld during the Cold War. Non-proliferation, Nuclear disarmament and the non-prevention of the peaceful use of nuclear energy are currently mutually contradictory, as demonstrated in the results of the conference. Furthermore, the NPT is not attractive to new nuclear states such as India, Pakistan, and Israel. To become parties to the treaty, they would have to follow in the footsteps of South Africa and renounce their nuclear weapons, and the withdraw of North Korea could be repeated by other states in the future, such as Iran. In short, the NPT is an essential tool, but could still be developed further. It is currently completely inadequate in that it now forms part of the problem. A new convention on nuclear weapons (which includes non-proliferation) is necessary; a convention which would enable the revocation of the present treaty upon entering into force , and a convention that could be applied almost universally.

And, lastly, the path to follow is therefore towards disarmament, especially in the current multilateral context. Arms control- an instrument used a great deal during the Cold War due to the pragmatism implied in seeking partial objectives instead of the total and permanent elimination of broad weapons categories- is not sufficient, and even less so in a multilateral context. Arms control is and will be useful, but does not enable the context to be changed, or the creation of conditions that would promote new instruments and the formation of new policies to take place. If the context of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation is not changed from a bi-lateral to a multi-lateral dynamic, nuclear non-proliferation will become a dead end, in which inertia has a greater impact than the desire for change. This situation is already exemplified by the observed difficulty in finding ambitious control instruments, such as a total test ban, or the extension of a nuclear-free status to regions.

Nuclear disarmament's return to the center of the international agenda, done within the context of the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, is essential and non-state actors must set the agenda for doing so. So far, we have failed to be sufficiently concerned with this issue and, when fighting, have too often used old and well-worn tools in our battle, without learning from recent successful disarmament campaigns in the human security field. Initiatives such as Global Zero, led by influential people (some, however, like Kissinger being advocates of the role of nuclear weapons for decades) are not enough. A new discourse and a new means of implementing nuclear disarmament must be produced. It can no longer be argued, as done by E.P. Thompson in the 1980s, that we are living in an era on the verge of extermination. Instead, we must conceive that we are on the horizon of a more peaceful, fairer and freer world, and this world depends on placing nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the centre of the multilateral agenda.