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Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015 (Talking points)

  • AUTHORGareth Evans, Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament
  • Feb 16, 2015

Below are the Talking Points for launches by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans [1] of Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015 (CNND, Canberra, 2015), Geneva, Vienna, Washington DC, Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Moscow and New York, March-April 2015

Introduction and Background 

Five years ago there were real grounds for optimism among those of us who wanted to see serious movement toward a world free of nuclear weapons – the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised, and the only weapons capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it

  • in 2009 President Obama’s April Prague speech showed a US president intellectually and emotionally committed to nuclear disarmament, and determined to advance it: by negotiating New START treaty with Russia, securing ratification of CTBT by Senate, and flagging significantly reduced role for nuclear weapons in US nuclear doctrine
  • in 2009, the report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) identified a realistic global agenda for moving towards a nuclear weapon-free world
  • in 2010, buoyed by prevailing spirit, NPT Review Conference agreed on a quite substantial program of action items – not very adventurous when compared with ICNND recommendations, but a big advance on 2005 Conference which could agree on nothing
  • in 2010 the New START treaty was agreed with Russia, and Washington hosted first Nuclear Security Summit, addressing issue of nuclear material getting into hands of terrorists or other rogue actors.
  • But by the end of 2012 (when the first State of Play was published) optimism was fading fast, and has now – as at the end of 2014 – almost completely disappeared, for all the reasons documented in this updated report, and which I’ll take you through in this presentation.

There have been some rays of sunshine to alleviate the gloom, notably

  • successful first stage of the Iran negotiations;
  • emerging new international movement focusing on the horrific humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons; and
  • some modest achievements on the nuclear security front
  • but overwhelmingly the story has been one of paralysis, minimal forward movement and significant backsliding.

The most worrying development to me has been the significant re-emergence of old Cold War attitudes toward nuclear weapons, with an unthinking re-embrace of old assumptions about the deterrent utility of nuclear weapons and  their central importance in security policy – particularly evident in the language of Russia’s President Putin, and the unwillingness of US allies and partners in East Asia and Europe (spooked by Russian incursions into Ukraine, North Korea’s erratic intransigence, and China’s new foreign policy assertiveness) to accept any significant reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in their protection.

There has been a complete unwillingness to accept any argument about the inherent weaknesses of nuclear deterrence – essentially that weapons which are perceived to be unuseable don’t do much to deter anybody, and that nuclear weapons are so perceived in all but direct retaliatory situations because of

- the moral taboo associated with their use;

- the damage they cause (particularly in the context of countries in close proximity) to the user as well as the target);

- and the likely suicidal consequences of any resort to them against an adversary of equal or greater power.

And there has been an even greater unwillingness to accept the reality that, whatever their residual deterrent utility might be, the risks associated with their retention far outweigh any possible advantage:

- there may not be a large risk of deliberate use, or at least first use, of nuclear weapons by anyone, but we know (not least from constant new revelations about close calls in the Cold War years) ­ that there is an enormous risk of use  by misadventure or miscalculation or miscommunication – flowing from human error or system error, and much compounded now by the rise of cyber-sabotage capability.

- It is nothing more than sheer dumb luck that has avoided a nuclear weapons catastrophe since 1945, and we can’t assume that luck will continue.

It’s as if nobody has read (or if they have, they’ve completely forgotten) the pathbreaking analysis of those quintessential hard-headed Cold War reaslists, Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn and Perry, in their famous Wall St Journal articles of 2007, that whatever role nuclear weapons may have played in the past, in the world of the 21st century they were far more dangerous than beneficial, and it was time to get dead serious about their elimination.

So this is the background against which this report has been written, and is being launched around the world in the lead-up to the 2015 NPT Review Conference, starting in New York on 27 April.

Nature and Shape of Report. This updated edition of the CNND State of Play report is intended to be a comprehensive assessment of the progress, or lack of it, the world has made over the last five years in nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, security and peaceful uses, when measured against three sets of benchmarks”

the commitments and recommendations contained in the NPT 2010 Action Plan;

the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) 2010,2012 and 2014 commitments; and

the (much more ambitious) recommendations of the 2009 ICNND, which tried to translate the optimism engendered by the Obama Prague speech into a practically achievable step-by-step agenda for change.

Origins lie in recommendation of ICNND to create a ’report card’ mechanism  - on premise that this would be a useful information compendium, and to extent that it put a spotlight on backsliding, a advocacy tool for both governments and civil society organizations.   Others have picked up the challenge but it is probably fair to say that ANU Crawford School’s CNND report is the most comprehensive of the genre.  

Like its predecessor in 2013 – describing the State of Play as at December  2012 –  the report was written by  CNND’s Canberra-based staff and consultants, with strong input on numbers issues, especially, from SIPRI in Stockholm. And like its predecessor the report is in two parts – the bulk of it analytical, addressing the issues topic by topic, and with the concluding  section giving “traffic-light” evaluations – colour coded from red to green -  of all three of NPT, NSS and ICNND outcomes, with cross-references back to the main text.

Apart from updated figures, this edition has about 30% of new material overall – including substantial new sections, e.g., on missile defence and weapons in space, and expanded treatment of the humanitarian consequences movement and options for treaty-focused civil society campaigning.


Report Conclusions.  

I. The Disarmament Story

Disarmament Objective. All the present nuclear-armed states – including the five who, as members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, are committed to ultimate nuclear disarmament – pay at best only lip-service to that objective.  None of the nuclear-armed states has committed to any specific timetable for the major reduction of stockpiles – let alone their abolition. And on the evidence of the size of their weapons arsenals, their fissile material stocks, their force modernization plans, their stated doctrine and their known deployment practices, we have to conclude that all of them foresee indefinite retention of nuclear weapons, and a continuing role for them in their security policies. Steam gone from bilateral process that matters most – US/Russia – and no interest anywhere among nuclear-armed states in multilateral disarmament process.

Disarmament Principles – i.e., Irreversibility, Transparency, Verification – NPT 2010 Action 2).  Some continuing effort by UK and Norway, and US on developing verification measures, but nothing has happened to give any great confidence that dismantlement or other decisions will indeed be non-reversible, and negligible progress on transparency, with common reporting templates now agreed offering no new information. 

Generally little seriousness shown by P5 consultations process:  possible agreement on a glossary may be helpful in clarifying terms like ‘strategic’ v. sub-strategic or tactical, ‘deployed’, ‘reserve’, but that’s not much to show for nearly 6 years.

Numbers. Global stockpile still just on 16,400 weapons (or 10,300 if take out those notionally scheduled for dismantlement).  There has been progress in reduction if look at against numbers at height of Cold War, but this has ground to a halt in recent years. 

The New START process – of reducing deployed strategic weapons down to 1550 on each side by 2018 – has been  holding, despite all the tensions between US and Russia. But there is no obligation to dismantle those weapons,  and big modernization programs now under way in Russia and especially US - $355 billion over next decade, and up to $1trillion over 30 years: as price of New START, Sam Nunn “The President’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo”

Elsewhere, the UK has delivered ahead of time in its unilateral commitment to reduce its operational warheads to 120, but that about it when it comes to good news on numbers.The story is not at all a good one when one looks at the reality of stockpiles growing, not diminishing, in 4 Asian armed states; 

Doctrine. Tentative US moves toward ‘sole purpose’ ground to halt with volatility of situation in Europe and Nth Asia. Agreement on ‘NFU’ now out of sight.

Posture. New START apart,  no sign of reduced deployments  in any category – no reduction on tacticals in Europe, likely converse on Russian side; move to sea-based in Asia, aimed at enhancing survivability –but potentially destabilizing while getting there. Nor has there been any movement at all toward de-alerting: removing some 2000 US and Russian weapons from their present, highly dangerous, launch-on-warning alert status. The Americans say they will if the Russians will, but the Russians won’t.

Parallel Security Issues - i.e. ballistic missile defence, weapons in space, new conventional capabilityLegacy of US abandonment of ABM treaty in 2002 continues to be felt - continued development of systems serious inhibitor to further arms reduction negotiations w Russia, and any negotiations w China: major contributor to Russian adventurism w cruise missile testing putting at risk INF treaty.  Conventional weapons similarly – CPGS spooking both Russia and China: no serious willingness to engage in anything resembling new, more universal, CFE treaty

Political Will.  Humanitarian impact movement important, but still not enough evidence of traction where it counts. A growing number of governments have  attended the successive Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna conferences over the last two years, and late last year 155 of them signed on to a statement including the language “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”.

But none of the nuclear-armed states have committed themselves to any such position, and US allies and partners [with the exception of Japan and Singapore] – including, unhappily, Australia – have been unwilling to accept the expression ‘under any circumstances”, which of course denudes the majority statement of much of its force.   

Civil society movements – Global Zero, ICAN – trying hard but not many publics really listening/engaged. Scope for bringing reformist forces together under some treaty campaign banner – but hard thinking needed on where most productive to focus efforts - on spectrum of full NWC, possession ban, use ban, or NFU: all over the place at the moment.

II. The Non-Proliferation Story

Largely because of the intransigence of the nuclear –weapon states on disarmament, there has been very little movement over the last five years when it comes to significantly strengthening the non-proliferation regime, and little can be expected at the forthcoming NPT RevCon.

It may not be an especially rational response for non-weapon states to say that because of their anger at the weapon-states for not doing enough to make the world nuclear weapon free, they are not going to do anything either – but here as elsewhere in international relations, psychology often counts for more than substance

Compliance and Enforcement. Still no sign at all of progress on strengthening constraints against states withdrawing from the NPT, as North Korea has done.  And North Korea - whether think of as a non-proliferation or disarmament story, and probably now more of the latter – no closer to being put back in its box. 

But Iran is, for now anyway, very much a good news story, whatever the hostility to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (announced in Lausanne at the beginning of April) from Israel, some of its nervous Arab neighbours, a number of US senators and congressmen, and a number of other reflexively conservative commentators.

For all the uncertainty still there about how the endgame negotiations will play out between now and the end of June, and in particular whether Iran’s demands about reciprocal sanctions relief will be able to be agreed and delivered – and the more general uncertainty as to whether or not a successful agreement will make a major contribution to restoring overall stability in the Middle East - what’s not to like about an agreement which, in outline, is intended to deliver:

  • a complete end to a plutonium path to a bomb
  • very significant limitations, and inbuilt delays, into any enriched-uranium path to a bomb
  • an extension of any possible breakout timeline from the presently assessed 2-3 months to at least a year
  • with highly intrusive international monitoring and verification to ensure that these strictures are observed?

Particularly when the only alternatives the critics have ever been able to offer are either

  • Sanctions continuing to be applied, with no likely result other than Iran’s nuclear progress proceeding completely unhindered  (a continuation of the absolutist ‘no enrichment/no capability’ approach which stopped a doable deal being done in the 2003-6 period, when Iran had less than 200 centrifuges as compared with its present 19,000)
  • Military action, which is almost universally acknowledged as not likely to delay any nuclear program by more than 3 years or so, and which is certain to unleash a storm of retaliatory action by Iran in the region and beyond.

Safeguards and Verification. Universalisation of strong safeguards as important as ever – and while continuing progress with AP pickup, still 5 NPT states holding out against commencing negotiations with IAEA (Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Syria and Venezuela) as well as 3 non-NPT (Israel, Pakistan and DPRK)

Export Controls. Growing number of countries making use of multilateral guidelines in developing national export controls (and the informal PSI mechanism – w over 100 countries participating – has certainly helped to make illicit transfers harder) But crucial NSG mechanism has had diminished credibility since decision to exempt India from comprehensive safeguards, and with China’s determination to supply new reactors to Pakistan.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones. There has been movement with protocol ratifications by the nuclear armed states in Central Asia, but they are continuing to drag their feet elsewhere, esp in SEA. 

Crucially, there has been no movement on the Middle East WMD Free Zone issue, which will be crucial, as it has been in the past, to the 2015 NPT Review Conference holding together – although on the evidence of conversations in Geneva and Vienna in the last month, I have seen some encouraging signs that Egypt and others in the region want to keep trying, and will not use this issue to blow up the conference in the way feared.

Nuclear Testing. Continuing inability to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratified into effect. 

Fissile Material. Continuing complete paralysis of the Conference on Disarmament on the Fissile Material Treaty issue.


III. The Nuclear Security Story

There have been some modest gains from the Washington, Seoul and Hague Nuclear Security Summits in generating consensus about the need to ensure that nuclear weapons and fissile material don't fall into the wrong hands, with some significant advances particularly at the national level, with much new legislation stimulated especially by UN Resolution 1540.

But while the Summits since 2010 have generated a flurry of activity on what unquestionably had been neglected area, there is a sense that a lot of this has been rather hollow at the core.

Part of that is a sense that if only all that high-level summitry effort could have focused on the main disarmament game… but even on its own terms the summit process has had its weaknesses, which may or may not be capable of redress in the Chicago 2016 finale:

  • none of the new or expanded instruments address sensitive nuclear material (HEU and plutonium) under military control, and that represents 85% of the world’s total
  • there is much more that needs to be done in setting overarching international standards
  • to the extent that the new or expanded measures  create obligations or commitments, there is practically provision anywhere  for international accountability
  • international cooperation is increasingly fragile in some areas where it matters most, with Russia walking away from further participation in the hugely-successful Nunn-Lugar program, and indicating that it wont participate at all
  • the IAEA, here as elsewhere, continues to struggle for the budgetary resources it needs to do this part of its job successfully.


IV. The Peaceful Uses Story

The third pillar of the NPT – encouraging peaceful uses of atomic energy for power generation and other purposes – is in reasonably good shape so far as general international cooperation and the supportive role of IAEA is concerned. Prospects for further significant expansion of nuclear power quite strong, notwithstanding some of the post Fukushima reactions – especially in Europe

Where less substantial progress has been made is in nuclear safety, and the safety/security interface, where international standards, transparency and accountability are all lacking – notwithstanding all the post Fukushima soul searching.

And a lot more remains to be done in mitigating proliferation risks - through  minimization of HEU use in research reactors (on which good progress has been made),multilateral fuel banks to discourage fissile material production by new entrants (where progress not so good), further development and take-up of proliferation resistant technology (ditto)


Overall Progress - Conclusion  

Overall we’ve moved from the fading optimism of our first report card two years ago, to outright pessimism. We’re back in pre-2009 sleepwalker mode – with least progress where it matters most – disarmament and non-proliferation.  

None of this is good news in lead-up to 2015 NPT Rev Con – so far from getting a lot of positive reports of movement on the action plan items, and using those as foundation for ambitious new target setting, we’ll be back in the realm of thinking 2015 a success if it doesn't collapse in complete and obvious failure.  And that’s not where any of us wanted to be.


[1] Co-author of Report, with Ramesh Thakur and Tanya Ogilivie-White;  Chair, International Advisory Board, ANU Crawford School Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND);  Co-Chair, International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND); Convenor, Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN); Chancellor and Honorary Professorial Fellow, Australian National University.