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The Commitment of Non-Nuclear Weapon States

22 February 2010
Ministers seated around rectangle of tables in large conference room (AP Images)

Foreign ministers meet in Thailand in July 2009 for the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone Treaty Commission.

By Irma Argüello

Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are mutually dependent. To advance both goals, all countries must learn that abolishing nuclear weapons will enhance the security of all countries. Irma Argüello of Argentina is founder and chair of the Nonproliferation for Global Security Foundation. This article appears in the February 2010 issue of eJournal USA, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.

Nuclear disarmament depends upon cooperation between nations possessing nuclear weapons and those without them.

The need to eliminate nuclear weapons is clear: not only because of the devastation they cause, but also because of the resources they drain away from a quality of life already minimal in some nuclear-armed states.

As long as nuclear weapons remain a symbol of power, prestige, and political status, or are viewed as necessary for national security, nations will resist giving them up. It is, therefore, crucial to devalue the perceived benefits of possessing nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are a trap, not a gift. Both Cold War superpowers fell into the trap by increasing their arsenals to tens of thousands of warheads, and other states followed them at a smaller scale. Was that enormous number crucial to deterrence, knowing that it was many times what is required for mutually assured destruction?

Difficult and expensive to build, nuclear weapons are far more difficult and expensive to dismantle and destroy. Paradoxically, nuclear-armed states face today more severe nuclear dangers as a result of their weapons than states that do not possess them.

Nuclear weapons need to be monitored, contained, and permanently watched: They represent an enormous liability to the state that owns them. Risks of technical failure, accident, or miscalculated use under stressing conditions are always present. Furthermore, possessors are the preferred targets for terrorism and theft.

President Obama’s April speech in Prague showed his determination to lead the way toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Other leaders have declared their support for this vision. The adoption in September of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1887 aimed at reinvigorating efforts to end nuclear weapons proliferation is a promising step.

Now it is necessary to go beyond statements and take action.

Disarmament by nuclear-armed states and nonproliferation in other states require reciprocity. The May 2010 Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) brings the opportunity to advance these goals in tandem along a path of clearly defined milestones, while protecting the right of every state to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The NPT should be enhanced in the short term, but reducing nuclear weapons to zero requires a new instrument, able to get universal acceptance and to define clear responsibilities for all states.

States that deliberately chose not to build nuclear weapons deserve praise, but it is essential that they take further steps. They should play an active role in helping nuclear-armed states disarm. There are many ways for them to collaborate:

• Sponsoring initiatives to explore practical solutions to key disarmament issues. The International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, supported by the Australian and Japanese governments, for example, has produced research such as the report Eliminating Nuclear Threats.

• Promoting transparency about nuclear arsenals and jointly developing ways to verify dismantlement and destruction, without spreading weapons technology. It will be difficult for a nation to give up its weapons unless it is certain its adversaries have done the same. The United Kingdom-Norway Initiative on Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement Verification illustrates how transparency can be achieved through multilateral programs.

• Promoting informal negotiations where nuclear weapons states that are not party to the NPT can feel comfortable participating.

• Prohibiting deployment and stationing of nuclear weapons on their national territories.

• Reconsidering the need of nuclear weapons in their requests for extended deterrence. In fact, many states rely on “nuclear umbrellas” provided by their allied nuclear-armed states. Today, however, it is difficult to define any security threat that could require a nuclear response.

• Working on conflict reduction and confidence building within their regions, as well as promoting stronger and more reliable institutions in all states, proven keys to reduce risks of proliferation.

• Promoting the extension of nuclear weapons-free zones to new regions or groups of countries, sharing their experiences and models.

• Educating leaders and populations on disarmament and nonproliferation as a long-term effort that pays off, as it is appropriately requested by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/57/124, 2002.

Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are critical for the future of all nations. Not just the nuclear-armed states need to commit to the effort. Non-nuclear weapon states can and should commit to it as well. Cooperation among countries and regions is the engine that will power the achievement of a nuclear weapons-free world.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.