Monday, November 24, 2014

The Nuclear Illusion

GENEVA – As delegates from 189 countries gather to prepare for the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, due in 2015, I am reminded of my first official briefing, as a young Australian minister back in the early 1980’s, on United States nuclear strategy. It was given to me, in the bowels of the Pentagon, by a man with a white dust jacket and a pointer who looked uncannily like Woody Allen.

He did not have much to say about the countless real human beings who would be vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled, or irradiated to death if a nuclear war ever erupted. The language was disengaged and technical – all about throw-weights, survivability, counterforce, and countervalue targets. But it was a dazzling account of the logic of nuclear deterrence and the mechanics of mutually assured destruction, which both the US and Soviet Union applied throughout the Cold War.

Thirty years later, our world is not one in which the governments in Moscow or Washington are likely to hurl swarms of nuclear missiles at each other (if it ever was). Nor is it a world in which China or the US would conceivably ever intentionally start a nuclear war against the other.

Even for India and Pakistan, the risk of misjudgment or miscalculation is much greater than that of deliberate nuclear warmongering. And, for North Korea – or Iran, should it ever build nuclear weapons – the risk of the regime initiating a nuclear attack is negligible, given that doing so would result in its certain (non-nuclear) incineration.

Not many delegates here in Geneva, even from the nuclear-armed states, would disagree with any of these assessments. But it is extraordinary how much of the disembodied calculus of my Woody Allen-lookalike still prevails in today’s nuclear policymaking.

Russia worries that its nuclear-tipped missiles, based largely in static locations, might be destroyed on the ground by a preemptive strike by long-range US missiles, and its retaliatory punch weakened by US ballistic missile defense. Though it can paint no scenario in which this would ever occur, it not only drags its heels on further arms-reduction talks, but insists on keeping a thousand or so of its strategic nuclear weapons on launch-within-minutes alert status.

Not surprisingly, the US refuses to de-alert its own nuclear missiles if Russia will not. So nearly 2,000 weapons of mass destruction still face each other on high alert, maximizing the prospect of a catastrophe through human or system error or cyber sabotage.

This deterrence logic produces a snowball effect. With Russia and the US holding 18,000 of the world’s current stockpile of 19,000 nuclear weapons, it is proving impossible to persuade any of the other nuclear-armed states to reduce their own (much smaller) arsenals until the Big Two make further drastic cuts to theirs.

China shares Russia’s concerns about US conventional and missile-defense superiority, and is increasing and modernizing its estimated 240-weapon stockpile. With China taking that course, India – outside the NPT but with 100 weapons of its own – feels the need to add to its own arsenal. And Pakistan then becomes even more determined to try to keep ahead of India.

The truth is that none of the nuclear-armed states, inside or outside the NPT, pays anything more than lip service to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. The continued seductive power of the Cold War logic and language of nuclear deterrence is the primary reason, though for some states it is clear that the testosterone factor – perceived status and prestige – also plays a role.

The uplifting pro-disarmament rhetoric of US President Barack Obama remains just that. No nuclear-armed state will set a timetable for a major reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, let alone their abolition. The size of their arsenals, their fissile material stocks, their force-modernization plans, their stated doctrine, and their known deployment practices all point in the same direction. All foresee indefinite retention of their nuclear weapons, and a continuing role for them in their security policies.

The implications of this stance are profoundly troubling. Concern about states in the Middle East and Northeast Asia joining the nuclear club is as high as it has ever been. But the foot-dragging by the nuclear states on disarmament is making it increasingly difficult to add necessary new muscle to the global non-proliferation regime.

This was obvious at the last NPT Review Conference in 2010, when efforts to mandate stronger safeguards, strengthen compliance and enforcement mechanisms, and inject new life into the control of fissile-material production all went nowhere. And that sentiment is alive and well in Geneva this week.

Of course, it is irrational for those whose ultimate objective is a nuclear-weapons-free world to support anything but the strongest non-proliferation measures. But bloody-mindedness is a natural and inevitable reaction when leaders see double standards – “my security concerns justify nuclear weapons, but yours do not” – at work on this scale.

Progress toward achieving a safer and saner world requires all of the nuclear-armed states to break out of their Cold War mindset, rethink the strategic utility of nuclear deterrence in current conditions, and recalibrate the huge risks implied by retaining their arsenals. It is time for them to recognize that in today’s world, nuclear weapons are the problem, not the solution.

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    1. CommentedJoseph Blower

      I take issue with the assertion "if it ever was".

      Of course it was. On several occasions there were close calls, at least one of which was only known to historians after-the-fact.

      And, make no mistake, the possible consequences of nuclear war could be devastating: with the risk of a nuclear winter (which was never adequately simulated, since the risk decreased as computers capable of running complex weather simulations were not yet available), humanity could literally have been returned to a new stone age.

    2. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      The true danger in nuclear weapons lies with terrorism where operating free of any pinpoint-able state responsibility, might feel free to do the unthinkable. These, as well as states that would try to use the threat of playing the nuclear card either for strategic advance or for the appearance of bravado, and could trip over their shoelaces during the game of chicken, are the extreme dangers. Especially as in both these categories there is likely a lack of the full range of safeguards due to limited technical advancement. Also, with single strong men or power struggles, there obviously lies the greatest danger of nuclear accident due to internal, as well as external, games of chicken. Putting this altogether, in the long term, Al Qaeda, and to a not much lesser extent, Hezbollah and Hamas -- and in the short term most definitely Iran and to lesser extent, North Korea -- represent a most clear and present threat.

      Einstein's focus, speaking and writing in his remaining years after WWII (even on his deathbed) calling for an honest, overriding international body to eliminate the nuclear doomsday threat. [He already saw what a political joke the United Nations was -- so much more the political cartel house that it has become today. The Third Reich almost did a better job with human rights, for example.] But he couldn't have the foresight to predict the looming threats that would someday evolve from the early chemical, biological, and data processing and electronics developments from his days. And the up-and-coming terrifying synergy from the secrets of the atomic-world, nanotechnology, which bring physics, chemistry, device electronics, and computer science all together at a fundamental level. The dangers opened up are so terrifying, in fact, that as probably a first in history, some years ago I understand, a group of American companies involved in the research themselves approached the US government asking that some regulatory agency should be set up. [For example: Carbon nanotubules (so far) seem relatively harmless as the diffuse right through your cells' mebranes walls like so many splinters. However, it take a surprisingly low concentration of buckmeister fullerene ("bucky balls") to destroy the brains of fish -- and presumably, people). And the possibilities are endless -- and so non-detectable until unstoppable...]

      So unfortunately, when there is a will, there is a way -- and today we see that there are vastly many ways that can slip through any national or international regulation or policing intervention. -- Like mud on the beach through the tightening fist of a child.

      In sum, the only hope is to work not just on international agreements and regulation, but on human nature itself. You can't change the ego, but you can direct it emotionally with the right environment, as well as intellectually in the clear understanding that self-preservation in a globalized, interdependent world means first and foremost, mutual responsibility.

      And the means? We have them -- (1) multimedia method local and Internet venues devoted to integral education, as well as some introduction into standard school curricula, (2) the use of the very convincing mass-media and social psychology developed to pump consumerism all these years -- but now directed into a massive Humanity self-help program.

    3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I mostly agree with the last paragraph. As the paragraph itself explains the problem is not nuclear weapons, or any other weapons but it is the mindset of the people all around the world.
      Countries even the whole world can be easily destroyed by conventional weapons, as we can see recently it could even be destroyed or at least paralysed by cyber attacks, or by financial, economic means, and we are very close to destroying ourselves through all of these means together and by destroying our environment as well for good measures.
      It is human nature, human thinking and attitude that needs changing, as otherwise we have no hope for a sustainable future.
      And there is only one tool for changing human nature: education.
      If people understood that "global world" means living in a fully integrated, natural system where each individual and nation are fully interconnected and they depend on each other as cells and organs in the same living body, then our whole human system, economics, finances, politics, all our relationships could be revised, rebuilt based on these natural principles.
      Humanity is part of the vast system of nature and as such has to adapt to it.
      We have all the necessary up-to-date, transparent, and scientific information we need to show it to each and every human being.

    4. Commentedm r

      Even accepting all or none of the arguments the writer professes of non utility of nuclear weaponry, being a nuclear state does offer untold clout and security, that is immeasurable and must been seen as reason for its being.
      From the haves, go not beyond the ever present vitriolic attacks on all fronts on Iran, that is nowhere near wanting or able to join the club (may be thus thrust her eventually to get one, just to justify having and maintaining one oneself), to Libya, that was crushed no sooner it went non- supposed nuclear or of being scared stiff of North Korean just because of the fact of its decrepit nuclear bomb.
      Nuclear threat just does not exist and we could well just ignore it and let it die a natural death, quietly. If we want to worry about nuclear fallout dangers, it is worthy to hold conferences on sub-nuclear (depleted) weapons.
      The word "nuclear" is thus just a stick to wield around or hit anyone at will and whimsy and talk about endlessly.

    5. CommentedNick Koblov

      If USA will continue to use their non-nuclear weapons to protect the "Democracy™" all around the world, the World will never feel save and continue use the logic of nuclear deterrence.