Though the threat of nuclear engagement between Russia and the United States has decreased since the Cold War, the two powers’ stalled disarmament is causing more countries to seek weapons, thus increasing the risk of an incident, said Ramesh Thakur, an expert on nonproliferation and disarmament.
“It’s very difficult to argue to someone else that these weapons are useless, when by the very fact that you continue to keep them, deploy them, increase their sophistication, have some 2,000 on highest alert status, means that you foresee indefinite utility. You cannot convince others of the futility if your own statements and practices and arsenals prove they’re continuing utility,” he said.
“And if we get proliferation, and more and more countries have nuclear weapons, it becomes a matter of time—and sooner rather than later, I would suspect—before nuclear weapons are used again, whether by design, or accident, or miscalculation, or even by unauthorized rouge launch, or by non-state actors getting them, terrorists getting them,” he said.
Mr. Thakur said that 95% of the approximately 18,000 nuclear weapons worldwide are held by Russia and the United States, though he added that the countries will never use them, despite maintaining them at great cost. “I think the chances that countries that have them will use them by design are actually fairly slim, because they are so entirely unusable, which, of course, is a great irony,” he said. “You cannot use them against another nuclear-armed rival without committing mutual suicide; you cannot use them against another country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons, because the political costs vastly outweigh any potential benefit you might gain on the battlefield. And that is why even the superpowers—United States in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union then was in Afghanistan—have accepted defeat on the battlefield in these two theaters rather than escalate to nuclear weapons.”
Mr. Thakur also said there is a strong taboo against using the weapons. “These weapons are held to be uniquely inhumane that there is no conceivable circumstance in which a country would realistically consider using them, unless its very existence was at threat, and that hasn’t happened.”
Mr. Thakur said that the public outcry over these weapons was much higher during the Cold War, even though the threat today is, in many respects, higher. He said the lack of outcry makes it more difficult to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and “begin the serious preparations for elimination through some sort of a nuclear weapons convention that will take its place alongside the other two in the trinity of weapons of mass destruction, namely the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention.”
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Warren Hoge: Our guest in the Global Observatory today is Ramesh Thakur, the Director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy of the Australian National University (ANU), and Professor of International Relations at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.
Ramesh is the author or editor of more than forty books, and he had just produced an authoritative update on the state of nuclear weapons and global governance in the world, co-edited with Gareth Evans, President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group and former Foreign Minister of Australia. It is a comprehensive report on the implementation, as of December 2012, of the NPT review conference 2010, the Nuclear Security Summits 2010 and 2012, and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament 2009.
To begin with, Ramesh, what is the general state of the global nuclear architecture—how many countries have nuclear weapons, what state of readiness are those weapons in, and what are the prospects for producing a less heavily nuclearized world in the short term and realizing the dream of a denuclearized world one day?
Ramesh Thakur: Thanks Warren. Let’s begin with the first part. We have approximately 18,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, held by nine countries. These are the five original NPT nuclear weapon states—United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom, and China, plus Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Of these, some 95%, approximately, of 18,000 nuclear weapons are held just by Russia and the United States. So, really, there’s Russia and the United States, and then there’s the others.
Of the others, North Korea has somewhere between four to ten nuclear weapons, we believe. And the remaining have between 100 and 300. And that’s why the bulk of the attention on achieving nuclear disarmament should really focus on Russia and the United States. Of the 18,000 nuclear weapons, around 2,000 are held in a state of high operational alert status, and this is by Russia and the United States. Meaning they can be launched in retaliation against a threat of incoming missiles that had been detected within a window of 30 minutes of that initial detection. And that is a very high-risk state, and we believe it is quite unnecessary.
So, if to this arsenal you add a fact of stated doctrines of employment, and use and positioning, deployment practices, patterns of behavior, plans that are already underway to upgrade and modernize, or that have been considered to upgrade and modernized. The overall conclusion is that, with all 9 nuclear-armed countries, we see an indefinite retention of nuclear weapons in the arsenals, and therefore they value these weapons indefinitely as a core element of their national security, and are not prepared to give them up. And that makes it difficult to achieve progress on some of the other key important agenda items.
WH: If I’m right and focusing on nuclear disarmament as the most important of all these elements, in the book you have five gradations, five measures of how much progress has been made. Starting with “no progress” and ending with “full implementation,” can you fill in the numbers for me and tell me what those numbers tell you about how we are doing in addressing the disarmament goal?
RT: If we go back to what I was saying a moment ago about the three sources we are using against which to measure progress, from these three sources we’ve broken down a total of 213 agreed outcomes, action points, and recommendations. And we’ve divided those into these five categories—like a traffic light, but five rather than three—from “fully implemented” to “no progress.”
And out of 213, we’ve identified only 3% of these recommendations that are fully implemented; 15% in which there is significant progress; 49%—in other words, almost exactly half—in which there is some progress; 14% with minimal progress; and 19% with no progress. So, there is very little “fully implemented” significant progress; most of it is in “some progress,” and then some “minimal progress.”
But it’s also interesting to look at that just within the nuclear disarmament sector, because that is where most interest lies. And there, of the 65 agreed outcomes and recommendations dealing with nuclear disarmament, “no progress,” 25%, “minimal progress,” 25%—so 50 of 65 is “no progress” to “minimal progress—“some progress” on a few, “significant progress” on a few, “fully implemented,” only three.
So, it really is a very graphic way of documenting how progress on nuclear disarmament is completely stalled, and we don’t seem to be going anywhere. And even the “fully implemented” category, the few in that are really illusory because it concludes, for example, identifying a host country or facilitator for the Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone conference, which in the end wasn’t held. It includes efforts by those countries that have already ratified the comprehensive test plan treaty to promote its acceptance by the others. While yes, they are promoting it, but the fact remains that the CTPT itself is not yet enforced. It includes them maintaining the existing security commitments and assurances. So really, it’s not progress, it’s really is blocked nuclear disarmament agenda.
WH: You’ve said yourself that, of the 9 countries that have the weapons, none of them show any disposition to give them up. It will obviously be a long time and possibly never before these countries give up their nuclear weapons. So, in the meantime, how can we insure that countries that have them don’t use them?
RT: I think the chances that countries that have them will use them by design are actually fairly slim, because they are so entirely unusable, which of course is a great irony. There is a reason that nuclear weapons haven’t been used again since 1945. One, is that they are in fact militarily unusable—you cannot use them against another nuclear-armed rival without committing mutual suicide, you cannot use them against another country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons, because the political costs vastly outweigh any potential benefit you might gain on the battlefield—and that is why even the superpowers—United States in Vietnam, Soviet Union as then was in Afghanistan—have accepted defeat on the battlefield in these two theaters rather than escalate to nuclear weapons.
The second reason linked to this is the normative taboo is so strong. These weapons are held to be uniquely inhumane that there is no conceivable circumstance in which a country would realistically consider using them, unless its very existence was at threat, and that hasn’t happened.
So, I think it is militarily usable; political utility is very small; but countries have got used to having them, and there is a whole set of vested interest that have gone up around them, and because it is the ultimate high security issue, it’s very difficult to get governments to speak publicly about them, and what use they might be, and under which circumstances they might use them. And so those of us who are not in government, the state of the debate is in pointing out the lack of utility, the unusability, and, just as importantly of course, the opportunity costs, because you keep them at the price of doing something else, and the price is not small, by the way; the United States alone has spent seven and half trillion dollars on these weapons between 1940 and 2005. Our calculations show that over the next decade looking forward now, the 9 countries that have them will spend a total of 1 trillion dollars—that’s a hundred billion dollars per year—on these weapons with the full cost weighed in.
And now, the development costs for the countries that are poor—and there are several in that group— and there are financial recovery and other costs for the other countries, including investment in conventional weaponry that can actually be used to deal with today’s threats. So, is France going to end up being a power that has nuclear weapons and gendarmes and nothing else? Is Britain going to reinvest in Trident submarines and cut back on other platforms and weapon system that might be useful in various theaters in which the British defense forces have been deployed in recent times? These are the questions that they had preferred to avoid rather than confront and answer.
WH: You say in a paper that you had just published that the status quo is not an option, but why can’t we just muddle along the way we have for the past six and half decades?
RT: The short answer to that is that we’ve kept postponing nuclear disarmament to the future while concentrating on nuclear nonproliferation. Well, the big news is, the future has arrived. The long answer goes along this line: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been uniquely successful, with only four countries, maybe five now, outside, if you add North Korea to that, the most widely subscribed to arms control agreement in history—it has held the line on nuclear nonproliferation, but it didn’t hold the line on nuclear disarmament. It was meant as a prohibition regime. If you look at the three pillars in the original bargain, countries that don’t have them agree they will not seek to get them and will give up their option permanently. Countries that don’t have nuclear energy will consider to have the right to acquire nuclear energy and assistance from those with the technology and the money, so that they could use it for economic development. And countries that already had nuclear weapons agreed to engage in good faith negotiations to eliminate their stockpiles.
Now, what began as a prohibition regime has by now become a nonproliferation regime, because we have tightened the requirements and safeguards. Nonproliferation was made legally binding, subject to verification, and enforceable by the Security Council. None of these three attributes apply to the disarmament side, it was not legally binding until we have the World Court advisory opinion in 1996 which says that they have a legal obligation under Article 6, not just to engage in, but bring to an early conclusion good faith negotiations on nuclear evolution at which point you could argue it becomes legally binding.
But we know that while the NPT had been forced; not a single country that had them in 1968 when the treaty was signed, or 1970 when it came into force; not a single country that had them then has given it up as yet, that’s several decades down the line, so it’s very hard to see how they can with a straight face argue that they have met the obligations. Not only have they not disarmed, if you look at the trajectory, while the NPT was in force, most of them increased their stockpiles quite dramatically in recent decades since the end of the Cold War, but that is a clear violation of that.
Now, for many years, for several decades in fact, the rest of the world accepted, “Well okay, maybe the time isn’t right; there are difficulties; maybe they are engaging in negotiations; these are complicated; there are technical issues involved; political issues involved; legal issues that have to be resolved; also, let’s give them time.”
That sense of “giving them time” I think is starting to wear thin. More and more countries are expressing frustration and exasperation at the lack of progress, or at the very slow pace of progress, and are saying, “Look you’ve got to give these up.” It’s very difficult to argue to someone else that these weapons are useless when by the very fact that you continue to keep them, deploy them, increase their sophistication, have some 2,000 on highest alert status, means that you foresee indefinite utility. You cannot convince others of the futility if your own statements and practices and arsenals prove they’re continuing utility, and therefore it’s not going to be possible to do that.
More countries are pointing out that it was an original bargain; if you’re not going to honor your side of the bargain, we retain the right to walk away from our side. I think what we are going to face is not a choice between today’s status quo and holding the line on nonproliferation. I think what we are going to see is if we don’t get disarmament, we are going to see proliferation. And if we get proliferation, and more and more countries have nuclear weapons, it becomes a matter of time—and sooner rather than later, I would suspect—before nuclear weapons are used again, whether by design, or accident, or miscalculation, or even by unauthorized rouge launch, or by non-state actors getting them, terrorists getting them, and we know the one thing they’re not deterred by is the thought of suicide.
WH: One last question about public opinion and whether it matters. I remember two, three, even four decades ago, when you had a very active anti-nuclear weapons movement in this country, or in North America, and certainly in Europe.
That has disappeared now, that is not what people get angry about and go into the streets. Does that make it more difficult to bring this thing under control, the fact that there now is an absence of public rage at the existence of these weapons?
RT: Yes, and that’s one of the more puzzling phenomena of our times. It’s as if the public believes that this is an issue, an agenda, that belongs to history—the rage belongs to history—but in fact the arsenals are still there. The catastrophe could hit us any day. The nuclear peace has held for several decades, six-seven decades, but all the evidence show that it’s held at least as much due to good luck as to sound stewardship and management, and the luck could run out anytime, and if it does, the consequences would be catastrophic. If you look at the environmental consequences, if you look at the humanitarian consequences, the consequences on food crops and food security, the radiation consequences. Even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, which, given the state of their relations, is a possibility any day, or its use to rogue or accidental or miscalculation in other context, will have severe consequences for everyone.
So, I think there is a major disconnect between the reality, gravity, and immediacy of the threat still posed by nuclear weapons, and the number of arsenals and the deployment practices in the world, on the one hand, and the lack of public concern about it on the other. And to the extent that governments are not going to act on this, as they believe the public is not agitated about it, it does make it very difficult for us to succeed in our goal of continued reduction in numbers on a substantial scale and effort to delegitimize nuclear weapons and nuclear deployment practices, and begin the serious preparations for elimination through some sort of a nuclear weapons convention that will take its place alongside the other two in the trinity of weapons of mass destruction, namely the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention.
And that factor remains a puzzle. Is the public indifferent? Is it due to apathy? Is it due to ignorance and lack of awareness? I suspect more likely it is an issue of complacency; we’ve gotten used to living with nuclear weapons, it no longer is very prominent on the radar of our attention span; it’s something we believe belongs to the Cold War. Well, unfortunately, the reality is the weapons have survived the Cold War, more countries now have them. I think the prospects of a nuclear war directly between Russia and the United States, the two major nuclear powers, are now less than they were at any time during the Cold War, but the prospects of a nuclear war or a nuclear use have actually increased because they are held by more countries in more unstable regional environments with a greater history of conflict breaking out into armed conflict between them at a moment’s notice. And we saw a bit of that hint foreshadowed in the crisis with the North Korean nuclear test earlier in the year, when the crisis really went to a lot higher tension point than we have seen in a very long time.
WH: Ramesh, thank you very much for talking to the Global Observatory.
RT: Thank you.