By Gareth Evans
With North Korean negotiations going nowhere fast, talk about a South Korean "bomb" growing, all the nuclear-armed states modernizing and expanding their arsenals, and existing U.S.-Russia arms control agreements falling apart, achieving global nuclear disarmament looks ever more like an impossible dream.
But we abandon that dream at our peril. The risk of catastrophic misuse of nuclear weapons, deliberately or ― more likely ― by accident or miscalculation, is as grave and immediate as it has ever been. Climate change is also an existential risk to life on this planet as we know it, but nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2.
To recapture the commitment of policymakers, campaigners for nuclear disarmament need to do four things: utilize the power of emotion; utilize the power of reason; unite around a common, realistic disarmament agenda that does not make the best the enemy of the good; and, above all, stay optimistic.
As to emotion, it is important not to underestimate the extent to which, in real world government nuclear decision-making, the sheer indiscriminate inhumanity of any nuclear weapons use already plays a part.
Even the most hard-headed policymakers have to take seriously the profound normative taboo which still exists internationally against any deliberate, aggressive use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of a state is not at imminent risk.
Bottom-up civic pressure is a necessary part of most major political change, and the Hiroshima message will always have raw power. But community voices alone are unlikely to move the hard-heads, many of whom quite unashamedly argue that the sheer awfulness of nuclear weapons is what makes them so effective as a deterrent.
What they need to be persuaded about are the strategic arguments against nuclear weapons ― that their benefits are negligible, and far outweighed by the risks involved. It is not hard to make such a rational case.
In terms of deterring war between the major powers, of course "mutually assured destruction" encouraged a degree of caution in how the Soviet Union and U.S. approached each other. But no evidence has ever emerged that either side wanted at any stage to cold-bloodedly initiate a war and was deterred only by the existence of the other side's nuclear arsenal.
As to nuclear weapons deterring large-scale conventional attacks, there are many cases where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers, or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: Think of Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, Afghanistan and the first Gulf war for a start.
As to the apparent belief of some smaller states ― like North Korea ― that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against external regime-change-motivated intervention, that is just not well-founded.
Possession of nuclear weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal for a state to use are not a credible deterrent, nor are weapons not supported by infrastructure (for example, missile submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack. The DPRK knows that nuclear homicide ― against the ROK, Japan or the United States ― means national suicide.
In pursuing both disarmament and non-proliferation ― and indeed in many other policy contexts ― it is critically important to learn the art of compromise. Never make the best the enemy of the good. And that means being particularly careful about how we articulate the "global zero" objective.
However emotionally appealing, the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty recently negotiated through the U.N. is manifestly not going to get a buy-in from nuclear armed and umbrella states, now or perhaps ever.
Nuclear weapons elimination is only ever going to be achievable on an incremental basis, building into the process a series of way-stations. Such a credible way forward was mapped by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired in 2009 with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi.
We urged that initial efforts focus not on elimination but on a "minimization" agenda, summarizable as the "4 Ds": Getting a universal buy-in to No First Use (Doctrine), which is already supported at least by China and India; giving that credibility by taking weapons off high-alert (Dealerting); drastically reducing the number of those actively deployed (Deployment); and reducing overall numbers to around 2,000, down from the 15,000+ now in existence (Decreased numbers).
A world with very low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few physically deployed, practically none of them on high-alert launch status and every nuclear-armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use nuclear weapons would still be very far from being perfect. But it would be a much safer world than the one we live in now.
While the present environment for good policymaking on nuclear disarmament as on much else, is desolate, it is important to keep things in perspective. Wheels do turn and political leaders do change. Optimism is self-reinforcing in the same way that pessimism is self-defeating. So it is up to those of us who hope for a nuclear weapon-free world to believe in it, and get out there and work for it.
Gareth Evans is chair of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). He is a former Australian foreign minister. He concurrently serves as the chancellor of the Australian National University, and a co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.