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Making nuclear disarmament happen

  • AUTHORGareth Evans, China Arms Control and Disarmament Association Conference on Arms Control and Strategic Stability
  • Aug 8, 2013

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA) Conference on Arms Control and Strategic Stability, Beijing, 8 August 2013


Most of us who get intensely involved in policy issues like nuclear disarmament have had at least some strong personal experience which helps explain our commitment. In my case, on this topic, I had two such formative experiences. One goes back to my youth, when as a young university student in 1964 making my first ever trip outside Australia, I stood at the atomic bomb site in Hiroshima in front of that slab of granite on which was indelibly etched the shadow of a human being incinerated by the nuclear blast which destroyed the city 68 years ago this week.

The other was when, as a young Australian minister 20 years later, in the early 1980s, I received my first official briefing, 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 – for those of you who watch American movies – uncannily like Woody Allen. This gentleman 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. His language was disengaged and technical – all about throw-weights, survivability, counter-force, and counter-value targets. The mechanics, and above all the mind-set, of mutually assured destruction, had completely overtaken any thought about what these weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised, actually did to real human beings.

The extraordinary thing is how much of that mindset still prevails among policymakers today, more than twenty years after the end of the Cold War.  We all know that, for all its faults and uncertainties, 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 U.S. would conceivably ever intentionally start a nuclear war against the other. Even for India and Pakistan, the risk of misjudgement 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.

But old habits of thought about nuclear weapons, and nuclear deterrence in particular, die hard, and ideas formed in the Cold War years have proved just as tenacious in Asia and the Pacific as they have in their Euro-Atlantic birthplace. Nuclear decision-makers almost everywhere, not least here in China, seem to be stuck in a Cold War time-warp, in which the only focus is on capability, not the much more positive story about intent; where the only scenarios that matter are the absolute worst-case ones, not those bearing any relationship to real world probability; and where the only language of analysis is arithmetical.

This is not a great time for optimists about nuclear arms control. After the high hopes most of us had three years ago that serious movement was at last under way, the record of achievement over the last three years has been depressingly minimal, as documented in the report on Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play, co-edited by Ramesh Thakur and me and published earlier this year by our Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University.[1]  Part of the problem is complacency, a sense by policymakers and publics that nuclear weapons are yesterday’s problem, with a failure to appreciate the huge risks – mainly these days associated with miscalculation, human and system error, and cyber and other sabotage – associated with the continued retention of any nuclear weapons by anybody. But the other core of the problem is the mindset – the Cold War mindset – that whatever risks there are with nuclear weapons they are worth taking, because nuclear weapons are a wonderfully effective deterrent against potential aggression.

So what can be done to break out of that mindset and get things moving again? The necessary starting point is to challenge, intellectually, the assumptions on which it is based. The arguments for the elimination of nuclear weapons – humanitarian, financial, and above all strategic – must be made, and remade over and again, if basic attitudes are to begin to change. They are that nuclear deterrence is at best of highly dubious utility, and at worst of zero utility, in maintaining stable peace. That nuclear weapons are simply not the deterrent or strategic stabiliser they may seem, whether the context is deterring war between the major powers, deterring large-scale conventional attack, deterring chemical or biological weapons attacks or deterring nuclear terrorism.  That they encourage proliferation more than they restrain it.  And that, whatever may have been the case in the past, in the world of the 21st century the risks of retaining them outweighs any conceivable benefits.  

I have developed these arguments in detail elsewhere,[2] and won’t try to do so again now. And that’s because I know very well  that, however persuasive these arguments may be when fully spelled out, they will not by themselves be enough to rid the world of nuclear weapons.  They are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for achieving ultimate elimination. They may get policymakers to the starting line, particularly if political pressure builds up from below, but they will not get them to the finishing line.  So let me focus, for the remainder of this address on the key practical steps that now need to be taken if we are to make disarmament happen.[3]

The first need for any credible strategy for disarmament is to keep objectives realistic. We must recognise that disarmament will not be achieved as a straight-line, continuous, process, but will need to involve two distinct stages, first “minimization” then “elimination”, with some inevitable discontinuity between them.  The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), in its 2009 report, took the view that a target date of 2025 could be set for the achievement of a minimization objective – optimistic, but not wholly unrealistic provided serious momentum started to build early. This would involve reducing the global stockpile of all existing warheads to no more than 2,000 (a maximum of 500 each for the U.S. and Russia and 1000 for the other nuclear-armed states combined), with all states being committed by then to “No First Use” – and with these doctrinal declarations being given real credibility by dramatically reduced weapons deployments and launch-readiness.[4]

As much as the Commission wanted to move quickly thereafter to elimination, it took the view that it was simply not credible to set a further specific timeline for getting from low numbers to zero. We recognized that there were three big hurdles still to jump over – psychological, technical and geopolitical – none of which made it possible to set a believable target date.[5]

The psychological hurdle is simply giving up the status and prestige that seems traditionally to have been associated with membership of the nuclear weapons club.

The technical hurdle, which applies universally, is verification and enforcement. Getting to zero will be impossible without every state being confident that every other is complying, that any violation of the prohibition is readily detected, and that any breakout is controllable. Those conditions do not exist at the moment, although important work is being done on verification by the UK, Norway and U.S. and this part of the problem may well be solved over the next decade or so. Enforcement, however, will continue to be a major stumbling block for the foreseeable future, with the Security Council’s credibility on this issue manifestly at odds with the retention of veto powers by the Permanent Five.

The geopolitical  hurdle is likely to be the biggest: the creation of an environment in the key regions of North East Asia and South Asia, and the Middle East, stable enough for no country to have any serious concern about existential threats even if not all sources of potential tension have disappeared. 

It is important not to overstate this position. Every possible diplomatic effort should continue to be made to soothe current tensions, anticipate potential flashpoints, build confidence and ultimately settle outstanding issues between potential adversaries, both for their own sake and for the positive contribution this would make to nuclear disarmament diplomacy. But we should not make any movement on nuclear disarmament conditional upon the resolution of regional conflicts, the settlement of major power tensions, or the achievement of real balance in the conventional military capability of relevant pairs of states. These developments should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing, and pursued simultaneously.

I believe there are ways of moving forward in each of the crucial pairs of relationships. In each case the key to progress, as in all diplomacy, is to try to understand the interests and perspectives of the other side, and to find ways of accommodating them without putting at real risk genuinely vital interests of one’s own.

As to the U.S and Russia, bilateral relations are currently at a very low ebb, as evidenced by the just-announced cancellation of next month’s proposed summit meeting, but they have recovered in the past, and will again. The key to recommencing serious further arms reduction negotiations, of the kind now proposed again by President Obama in his recent Berlin speech, will be for Washington to give Moscow an acceptable response to its concerns about ballistic missile defence systems and new long-range conventional weapons systems seriously diminishing its second-strike retaliatory capability – exaggerated though these concerns may be, and as absurd as any such anxiety might appear more than twenty years after the end of the Cold War.

A long menu of steps designed to break the two countries out of ‘Cold War autopilot’ mode has been usefully proposed in a report published in early 2013, Building Mutual Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region, co-authored by former UK Defence Minister Des Browne, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, and Munich Security Conference chair, Wolfgang Ischinger.[6] Its recommendations include specific cooperative strategies on missile defence, acceptance of legally-binding limits on the development and deployment of prompt-strike conventional forces, new confidence-building measures on conventional forces generally, reciprocal commitments to progressively removing strategic forces from prompt-launch status, and reciprocal cuts in tactical nuclear weapons. While initial responses to these proposals have not, again, been very positive on either side of the Atlantic, if momentum can be generated around all these elements over the next few years, the 2025 minimization target described by the ICNND is not out of reach.

As to the U.S. and China, the relationship with which we are primarily concerned at this conference, there are two general keys to ensuring that China does not break out of its current “minimal deterrence” posture, and eventually joins in a serious nuclear disarmament enterprise. The first is success in advancing the U.S.-Russia agenda just described above, because without major further reductions in the arsenals of the big two it will be artificial to hope that China will begin to reduce its own.  The second, perhaps more difficult for the U.S. to embrace, but crucially necessary, is for Washington to accept, at least tacitly, what it has not so far been prepared to, that its nuclear relationship with China is one of “mutual vulnerability”. As spelled out in the excellent recent report by Elbridge Colby and his colleagues at CSIS in Washington, this would mean in practice that the U.S. “should plan and posture its force and base its own policy on the assumption that an attempted U.S. disarming first strike, combined with U.S. missile defences, could not reliably deny a Chinese nuclear retaliatory strike on the United States”.[7]

It will be important in this respect for the U.S. here, as with Russia, to defuse concern about its growing missile defence and long-range conventional strike capability. As to missile defence, Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin have argued in a recent paper, I think plausibly, that the current multi-layered BMD system in the Pacific is adequate to counter North Korean missile launches, and that any further development of U.S. sea and land-based assets will be increasingly seen as having an anti-Chinese purpose and should not be pursued.[8]

As to China and India, just as China’s willingness to cooperate on nuclear tension reduction measures is largely contingent in practice on developments between the U.S. and Russia, so too is India’s cooperation largely dependent on developments in China. For example, just as China has made clear that it will not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) unless and until the U.S. does so, so has India made clear that it will wait upon China. There is no obvious way out of this impasse other than for India-China relations to improve to the point that neither believes to be remotely credible a major attack by the other – or at least  until both sides come to accept that, in the words to me of former Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, “it would be rank, suicidal stupidity to even think of any ‘nuclear’ solution to the issues that currently poison the air”. 

As to India and Pakistan, the basic problem is that many in Pakistan are consumed by belief in both India’s malignant intent and its conventional superiority. A willingness by India to ratify the CTBT, to accept a moratorium on the further production of fissile material for weapons use, and to freeze its own nuclear weapons production (perhaps conditional on Pakistan doing likewise)  – all of which could and should have been demanded of it by the Nuclear Suppliers Group as the quid pro quo for any supply of nuclear material or technology – would do much to improve the environment, and if Delhi’s relationship with Beijing were to continue to improve significantly, these ambitious objectives might not be totally unachievable.

As to the situation with North Korea, Pyongyang’s nuclear behaviour has been provocative, erratic, and irresponsible.  But it would be wrong to assume that it is completely irrational, or in any way suicidal. As someone who was involved as Australia’s Foreign Minister, albeit at some distance, in the negotiation and implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, I am less persuaded than some others that all the blame for the breakdown of that agreement belongs to Pyongyang, and I don’t believe it is completely impossible to think of another denuclearization agreement ever being reached.  

What is important is that all North Korea’s neighbours – including China –  while continuing to make very clear their displeasure at the indefensible elements of Pyongyang’s behaviour, stay calm and measured in their responses.  It is not clear that there are any other options than the familiar trio of containment, deterrence and keeping the door open for negotiations. It is important that we all keep trying to break down over time the siege mentality which has afflicted North Korea’s leadership, and pass up no dialogue opportunity.  More generally, what is crucial is that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capability not be used as an excuse by anyone in the region to walk away from a serious commitment to nuclear non-proliferation – and to disarmament. There are some troubling minority currents in this respect in South Korea, and even Japan, which must be resisted.

As to the position of those U.S. allies presently sheltering – or believing they are sheltering – under the umbrella of extended nuclear deterrence, undoubtedly what they could most contribute to making nuclear disarmament happen would be to make clear their acceptance of a much reduced role for nuclear weapons in their protection. The U.S. manifestly has the conventional capability, and will have for the indefinitely foreseeable future, to fully protect its allies against any possible security threat.  So long as South Korea, Japan, and others in the region (and key European allies) continue to insist that the nuclear option be kept open for a variety of non-nuclear threat contingencies they are contributing nothing to the achievement of a nuclear-free world.

I can make my final summary points very briefly. First, policymakers and publics must shake themselves out the complacency that has afflicted them since the end of the Cold War:  the risks of a nuclear holocaust, precipitated by human error, system error, miscalculation or cyber sabotage, is in fact higher now than it has ever been.

Second, while measures to address proliferation and nuclear security are extremely important, it is critical that we focus our primary policy efforts on getting serious movement on disarmament: when that is seen to be happening it will be much easier to get agreement on stronger measures against proliferation.

And third, if movement on disarmament is going to happen, it critically necessary for policymakers worldwide, and those who influence them, to escape from the Cold War time-warp that still enfolds so much of their security thinking. And here as elsewhere, major policy change will almost never happen without visionary, creative and politically risk-taking leadership.

Important examples of that confidence-building leadership which I hope we might discuss here – which might involve some internal political risk but certainly no security risk for the countries involved – would be for  China and India to move to ratify the CTBT without waiting for the US Senate, and for Japan and ROK to  openly support the US desire to declare that the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, is to deter nuclear attack.

Some of that necessary leadership spark was ignited by President Barack Obama in Prague in 2009 speech, and he has tried – so far with less success – to reignite that spark this year in Berlin. It is absolutely crucial that this momentum be maintained, and that other world leaders respond positively to these initiatives with initiatives of their own. And all of us attending this important conference must to everything we can, individually and collectively, to try to reinforce these messages with every relevant world leader that we are in a position to influence. If we want a safer and saner world we are going to have to work for it.


[1] Ramesh Thakur & Gareth Evans (eds), Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play,  Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, ANU, Canberra, 2013, accessible at cnnd.anu.edu.au

[2] Why Nuclear Weapons Must Be Eliminated, APLN/CNND Policy Brief, Policy Brief No.2, June 2013, accessible at http://a-pln.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Policy-Brief-No-2-Why-Nuclear-Weapons-Must-Be-Eliminated.pdf

[3] The following text is largely drawn from Gareth Evans, ‘Nuclear Deterrence in Asia and the Pacific’, in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies (forthcoming, 2013)

[4] ICNND (2009) Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers, paras 1.81-38. International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Canberra.

[5] ICNND (2009), paras 19.5-26

[6] Browne D, Ischinger W, Ivanov I, Nunn S (2013) Building Mutual Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region. European Leadership Network (ELN), London,  https://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/BMS_Summary_Report_FINAL.pdf

[7] CSIS (2013) Nuclear Weapons and U.S.-China Relations: A Way Forward,  p.18. Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington http://csis.org/files/publication/130307_Colby_USChinaNuclear_Web.pdf: the  Group’s members were divided on whether the U.S. should formally and publicly  acknowledge “mutual vulnerability”, largely on the ground that this might worry regional allies, but united on the substance.  This is also a recommendation of Arbatov A and Dvorkin V (2013) The Great Strategic Triangle. The Carnegie Papers http://carnegie.ru/2013/04/01/great-strategic-triangle/fvbx

[8] Arbatov and Dvorkin (2013), p.35.