How To Get Rid of Nuclear Weapons

As signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gather to review its forty years’ performance, the danger posed by nuclear weapons remains undiminished. Gareth Evans, Co-Chairman of an International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, interviewed by Nayan Chanda, Editor of YaleGlobal Online, discusses the threat and urgent tasks ahead for the international community. – YaleGlobal

How To Get Rid of Nuclear Weapons

Urgent tasks are ahead for the global community
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Click here to read the report of the International Commission on Nuclear Proliferation and Disarmament.


Nayan Chanda: My name is Nayan Chanda. I’m Director of Publications at the Center for The Study of Globalization. And we are very pleased to have with us in our studio Gareth Evans, the former Foreign Minister of Australia and President of the International Crisis Group, and now he is the Co‑Chair of International Commission for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, which was set up with the support from Australian and Japanese government. And they have just put out this report on the task ahead. Gareth, welcome.

Gareth Evans: Nice to be here, Nayan.

Chanda: So, the fact that the United States and Russia – both of them have 9,000 and 13,000 nuclear weapons after they have decided to cut back some. That kind of intrigues me as to why on earth do they need that many weapons.

Evans: Well, they don’t need anything like those numbers of weapons. I mean, in the Cold War years, in the early years, it was even worse. There were about 70,000 nuclear warheads overwhelmingly held between those two countries, very few by the other nuclear-armed states. In the immediate post Cold War years, that was dramatically reduced, but the trouble is for the last ten years or more we’ve just been sleepwalking on this issue. The significance of President Obama’s advent to the administration, his commitment to nuclear disarmament, and his embrace of President Medvedev and moving at least the game forward again is that it now opens the window to make further, further significant reductions in the future. We haven't achieved an enormous amount by the U.S./Russia recently negotiated agreement. That’s taken a few hundred strategically deployed weapons back into storage, but they haven't been destroyed. You’re right in saying that the two countries between them have 22,000 weapons, 95 percent of the current world stockpile.

Chanda: Yeah.

Evans: And if we’re going to be serious about disarmament, we of course have to dramatically reduce that. I think the immediate objective should just be to get the numbers down to much lower levels than that, but without in any way prejudicing the security interests, even very generously conceived, of the two countries. And what we are proposing in our commission report is that over the next 15 years we reduce that – that stockpile – down to about 2,000 weapons in total with Russia and the United States having 500 each, all the other countries no more than 1,000 between them.

That’s still an awful lot of weapons, and capable of destroying the world a few times over, and far more than anyone would rationally need. But I think it’s an indication of the magnitude of the task, just how far we’ve got to go to get to more reasonable limits.

Chanda: But one could ask, why do you need to cut back on weapons because they have been lying there in silos. They have not caused any harm. So, what’s the reason for you to get so agitated and then people to organize this, to cut back on nuclear weapons? What is the harm in keeping them?

Evans: Because it’s just a matter of sheer dumb luck. It’s not a matter of the inherent stability of the system or brilliant political leadership or anything else that those weapons have not been used for the last 65 years. It’s sheer dumb luck.

Chanda: Give an example. Is there any ...

Evans: I’ll give you plenty of examples about what’s happened during the Cold War years that we’re only now beginning to recognize as more and more information comes to light. There were multiple occasions during the Cold War years when we came extraordinarily close to catastrophe through a combination of human error or machine error or decisions made under operational stress. Let me just give you two examples.

One was when Senator Chuck Percy years ago, in the middle of the Cold War, went to that secret mountain base…

Chanda: This is the U.S. Senator (Charles Percy, R-IL, 1967-1985)

Evans: Senator Chuck Percy.

Chanda: Yeah, yeah.

Evans: …went on a routine sort of inspection visit to the North American command system for nuclear…

Chanda: NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).

Evans: NORAD ... buried away in a mountain in the U.S. Midwest. And the technicians put a demonstration tape in the system to show him what it would look like on the screens if there was in fact a Russian or Soviet nuclear strike on the United States. Unfortunately, they put it in the wrong machine or they pressed the wrong button. And so, all of a sudden the screens around the world lit up with the information that 200 ICBMs were on the way to attack America. And it took about 35, 40 minutes to unravel the situation, for people to realize what had happened and deal with the system and breathing sighs of relief all around. That’s one example.

Chanda: That was before the President was awakened to ask for a decision.

Evans: Well, we still have. I mean, the crazy thing is to this day, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, we still have the President of Russia and the President of the United States carrying around these electronic footballs coded with electronic command information. And under the present alert system, they have between 12 and 18 minutes of a window in which to respond to information or misinformation about an incoming nuclear attack. So, this…

Chanda: And so, one President…

Evans: Let me just give you another example during the Cold War years – the Cuban Missile crisis in the early sixties. We now know that it wasn’t just a matter of missiles on their way to Cuba in the Russian ship about which all the blockade fuss was. We now know there were actually nuclear weapons in Cuba, on Cuban soil. We also know that they were on Russian Soviet submarines in the surrounding waters. One extraordinary story has just come to light in recent years, that as part of the naval blockade, American ships – war ships – were dropping depth charges periodically just to let Russian submarines in the region know who was there and who was boss, not intending to hurt them. But one such depth charge knocked out the communication system with Moscow of one of the Soviet submarines that led to total panic and disarray on the submarine as to what they’d do because they were completely blind and deaf as to what was going on. The commander decided that it was obviously a war time situation and he wanted to press the button to fire his nuclear torpedo. He was physically restrained by his senior crew members who said, “No, this is almost certainly just an accident. For God’s sake, we don’t want to start World War III.” It was as close as that.

Now, of course, nowadays it’s not just the supposedly super sophisticated command and control systems of Russia and the United States we’re talking about. We’ve got other players in the game. We’ve got India and Pakistan. And, frankly, their command and control systems are not nearly as sophisticated as those that have shown themselves so vulnerable in the past.

Chanda: So, the kind of dumb luck that held up the Cold War years may not do so in…

Evans: Absolutely not. In many ways the threat situation is now worse than it was during the Cold War years because you really only had the two major players with nuclear weapons. Now we’ve got others in the game as well.

Chanda: Yeah, we now have Pakistan, India…

Evans: Israel.

Chanda: Israel, and…

Evans: Plus the original five.

Chanda: And North Korea.

Evans: And North Korea with a small handful of nuclear explosive devices.

Chanda: And maybe possibly Iran.

Evans: Maybe Iran – that’s the big policy question for all of us.

Chanda: Let’s talk about these newcomers because in 1995 the NPT Nonproliferation Treaty Review Commission was held. Since then, we have now two new declared powers, Pakistan and India, and North Korea has also exploded a bomb. So, the Nonproliferation Treaty’s really under threat. It has held so far until 1995, and now it is kind of…

Evans: Well, it’s still holding together much better than was anticipated at the start. 40 years ago, it was anticipated by now that we would have 30 or 40 nuclear powers. But the taboo that is constituted by that Treaty has been fantastically important in giving countries confidence that others wouldn't break out. But the vulnerability, the weakness of the Treaty, is becoming really rather apparent. It was possible for a number of countries to develop secret programs, some of which were abandoned, like Libya’s, some of which were dealt with in other ways, like Syria’s. They were programs that operated in secret without the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the guardian of the Nonproliferation Treaty, being aware of what was going on. And to the extent that it had suspicions that something was going on outside the civil power reactors, it didn’t have the power or the authority to do the necessary investigations and monitoring.

It’s that sort of thing that we do have to improve now if we’re going to ensure that there are not further breakouts. I don't think we should be in despair about the Treaty. The India/Pakistan was always an accident waiting to happen. Neither of them had signed onto the Treaty. They’d always indicated it was a possibility that they would not observe this discipline.

It’s a real worry that North Korea has because it has broken away because it was a member of the Treaty. And it would be a real worry if Iran were to walk away from the Treaty because it’s been a member all these years and has committed itself, you know, quite overtly to not acquiring nuclear weapons. I don't think we should give up on Iran. I don't think we should make the assumption, my Commission does not make the assumption that Iran is hell bent on becoming a nuclear weapons power, but clearly it’s a very fragile situation at the moment.

Chanda: Both North Korea and Iran seem to be guided by the belief that unless you have a nuclear weapon, nobody takes you seriously, and then, you have a sort of bargaining power, not necessarily deterrence power as a bargaining power with the nukes. Is that the case of Iran?

Evans: I think that’s right for North Korea, but it is only a bargaining power so to the extent that the rest of the world and the region gives it security guarantees and gives it economic benefits, I still think there’s a chance that they will put their nuclear weapons back in the box and denuclearize the peninsula.

In the case of Iran, I don't think at all we should assume that Iran has made that calculation. Iran knows that if it were to acquire even just one or two weapons of the kind that North Korea has done, that would be seen by Israel, its immediate neighbor, as a real existential threat. And the Iranians are much more concerned about the military consequences of that whereas the North Koreans, I think, thought that if they acquired some weapons, it was not a matter of them exposing themselves to attack. It was a matter of preventing attack. I think the Iranians know that they’re in a very much more vulnerable position. I think they also know, the Iranians, that if they do cross this big red line and actually weaponize as distinct from having the breakout capability, if they do actually weaponize, I think the Iranians also know that they’ll lose any kind of residual support from both Russia and China, and they’ll be in a very, very vulnerable position as a result in the Security Council. Very, very serious sanctions can be expected to follow, if not military consequences.

I think the Iranians also know that if they do acquire nuclear weapons, there are other countries in the region like the Egyptians, possibly the Saudis, possibly the Syrians, possibly the Turks, who will find it very, very difficult to resist getting into the nuclear weapons game. That’s the real proliferation risk; whereas in Northeast Asia because South Korea, because Japan, potential adversaries of North Korea, because they have the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the U.S. extended deterrence guarantee, there’s always been a very, very strong discipline against proliferation in northeast Asia. We don’t have those same dynamics operating in the Middle East. But the good news about that is that it is quite likely, I believe, to inhibit Iran from actually taking the step. I mean, Iran is doing an awful lot of chest beating at the moment. Iran is absolutely obsessed with issues of national pride and the way in which it was ignored by the west during the Iran/Iraq War. And I’m sure Iran wants to have a visible technical breakout capability, but that’s not the same thing as to say that it’s determined to have weapons.

Chanda: So, do you get the sense ... you have been talking to the leaders all over the world, especially after the report came out. Do you get the sense that the world is now coming to accept that they can live with a breakout capability of Iran as long as it doesn’t actually assemble a weapon? And if that message has been conveyed to Iran, that you can actually have all the capability but don’t make it?

Evans: Yeah. I think that message is now starting to get through from both the Europeans and the Americans. The trouble is it’s been too long coming. The trouble was back ... this situation was really resolvable back in 2003 when Iran had very, very minimal centrifuge capability. That’s to say the capability of making enriched uranium…

Chanda: Yeah.

Evans: ... the ingredient for a bomb – very, very limited capability. It suspended that as a result of maybe post Iraq War pressures and so on, and it made it clear that it was willing to continue that suspension provided that its right was acknowledged to produce a really limited amount of enrichment – enriched uranium. The rest, however – the rest of the world – said, “No, no, no. You’ve got to reverse course. You’ve got to go back to zero.” And Iran, not totally unreasonably, said, “Well, it’s our right under the Nonproliferation Treaty to do anything that’s peaceful in character including making this stuff. And as long as we don’t actually weaponize or make this stuff up to weapons grade, we’re fully entitled to do it.” So, we had a standoff. Iranian pride was at stake, and it wasn’t very willing to negotiate.

Now I think we’ve moved beyond that point. Of course, in an ideal world the Iranians would renounce enrichment capability. They would internationalize it. They would just have nuclear energy facilities without the bomb starter kits that go with it, the enrichment facility. But we’re not in an ideal world. We’re past that point. And I think where we’re heading is to a kind of standoff where the Iranians do have a breakout capability and maybe the capacity within 12 months or so to acquire weapons if they made that decision. And the rest of the world is prepared to live with that provided the Iranians accept very intrusive monitoring and inspections and verification to ensure that people have a rough idea that if they do move across that line, we’ll know about it. I think that’s the kind of solution we’re all now groping our way towards.

Chanda: But if indeed Iran is motivated by the question of national honor and prestige, for them now to stop and say, “Okay. We allow you to inspect,” wouldn’t that be a climb-down for them?

Evans: Well, they have achieved an awful lot. They’ve ignored Security Council resolutions. They have ignored IAEA resolutions. They have shown their absolute determination to stare the rest of the world down, to thumb their nose at it, to demonstrate they had a right to enrich. So, I mean, that’s what the argument has really all been about.

And if they have an acknowledged unequivocal right to enrich uranium, they’ve had a very big win. And I think it’s just a matter of recognizing that and finding a way of expressing this.

There was a very interesting development in the last few months. Last October, I think the west, with Russia, in a very creative, new initiative offered to Iran that just as a sort of a temporary measure, a cooling off measure, we would accept that they had a right to have done what they did with enriched uranium. We would take it from them, process it, and put it into fuel rods in a form that could be used in Iran’s own research reactors, and give it straight back to them. The advantage of this is that it bought time for everybody. The advantage for Iran was that it recognized that they had a right to enrich; nobody was challenging that. The advantage for the west, of course, was this great stock of enriched uranium, low enriched uranium, that is there at the moment, is taken out of play as possible weapons material. The very, very interesting thing is that Ahmadinejad actually wanted to accept this – Ahmadinejad, the guy who runs around the world saying crazy things and really upping the ante all the time, recently talking to Mugabe about, you know, doing everything possible to irritate and enrage. Ahmadinejad was prepared to accept it. Who made it impossible for him to accept? Now, the good guys, Mousavi, and the internal democrats that we are all applauding in the internal elections of the last year, who said to Ahmadinejad, “You are selling out the national interest.” So, this is a very, very…

Chanda: Political power play came in…

Evans: It’s a very, very, you know ... and we should not make any assumptions that there is somewhere in the core of the Iranian polity a group of people who want to move away completely from a nuclear program. The point is on all available evidence in all my conversations with many, many Iranians as well as others over the years, I am sure that this is a national pride thing. But I don't think that pride goes ... I think it’s a misreading of the situation to say the pride demands actual weapons. The pride demands the demonstration of technological prowess. The pride demands staring down the western attempt to deny them that capability. So, with a bit of luck we will be able to manage this, but it’s going to take very cool heads over the next few months. It’s a very critical year.

Chanda: So, the sanction that has been built up now is kind of the stick and the carrot has already been offered.

Evans: I think the sanctions move by the United States is entirely defensible because you can’t have people thumbing their nose at Security Council resolutions. You can’t have states thumbing their nose at International Atomic Energy Agency resolutions saying, “You’ve got to explain better this evidence we have that in the past you’ve engaged in a weapons research program.” You can’t.  I mean, the credibility of a rule-based international system, globalized current world, depends on institutions not being dealt with in that way. And I think the Russians very much understand that. I think the Chinese actually understand that, too. And while they don't want to have such a rough sanctions set of disciplines imposed on Iran that it will somehow operate to close the door on negotiations, I think they acknowledge that this can’t go unaddressed. I mean, China is a country that’s very concerned to ensure the continued credibility of in particular the Security Council. And this is part of the dynamic that works. I mean, the trick with Iran in the months ahead will be to make clear that the sanctions by the sanctions route and the Security Council ‑‑ that the world can’t tolerate the way in which the Iranians have been playing the game so far, but at the same time keep that door open for negotiations on the basis that we’ve been talking about.

Chanda: Recently President Obama hosted this summit meeting in Washington regarding nuclear security. Now, apart from countries like Iran and North Korea, the nongovernmental entities getting their hands on nukes – how real that threat is?

Evans: It’s a serious risk, not as serious as it was in the immediate post Cold War years when a huge amount of effort was put in by Senators Nunn and Lugar in the United States, with a lot of money being invested, a lot of cooperative support from Russia and the former Soviet Union countries, to reduce that risk in the world’s most vulnerable area as it was, but there’s still residual areas of problems. There are still research reactors all over the world working on the basis of highly enriched uranium, which is bomb equivalent material.

Chanda: Bomb making material, yeah.

Evans: ... in a way that’s not properly secured with anything like the barbed wire fences. Many of these reactors are on university campuses. There might well be one here in Yale ... I’ll need to check. But, I mean, there’s this sort of stuff everywhere, and this is very vulnerable to theft or diversion. 

Chanda: So, what can they do if there’s still a little bit of fissile material? What can they do with that?

Evans: Well, a comparatively small amount can be engineered into a Hiroshima scale sized bomb, and we know the damage that could be done. You don't need, you know, an engineering plant with hundreds of people. You need maybe a team of 15 or 20 people. And as such, it’s very vulnerable to security penetration, any such terrorist exercise of this kind, which is maybe why it hasn’t happened so far.

But the basic engineering is not ... to produce the kind of device that could be ... you don't have to drop it from an airplane, either. You could put it in the back of a white van or, you know, small boat driven into New York harbor or something, and have a major, major, major nuclear explosion on our hands.

So, the threat is real. It wasn’t hyped by President Obama, and it wasn’t hyped by all those countries who assembled recently in Washington. And I think what is interesting is that there’s been a huge measure of agreement about the need to address this problem of loose nuclear weapons, loose nuclear material. That’s one of the few issues on this very large nonproliferation and disarmament agenda on which we can unequivocally, I think…

Chanda: With which everybody agrees.

Evans: …record a tick because there is buy-in to this.

Chanda: Yeah.

Evans: But on the basic issue of a really serious commitment by all the present nuclear arm states to disarmament on the issue of a willingness to actually strengthen the nonproliferation regime, there are still divisions. And I think the important thing for the period ahead, the important thing for the big May Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference which is looking at all these issues – the important thing is that we adopt a genuinely globalized perspective on this. It’s not as though disarmament is a south agenda. It’s not as though nonproliferation is a north agenda issue. The truth is both disarmament and nonproliferation is in everybody’s interest – they are global agendas, they are universal agendas. And we have to get that mindset going.

Chanda: So, give us in brief what are the main agenda items for the Nonproliferation Review Meeting that’s going to take place.

Evans: Well, I think there are five. I mean, one, there has to be a strong statement on disarmament, a really strong commitment by all the weapons states that they’ve got an unequivocal commitment, however long it takes, to get to a zero weapon free world, to give away the weapons. And that’s not going to be easy to get at.

Chanda: In fact, that was the original intention of NPT.

Evans: Well, there’s a two-fold bargain. I mean, the weapons states had to, while their right to hang onto their weapons for the time being was acknowledged, they had to commit to get rid of them.

Chanda: Right.

Evans: What we are saying is now for this review conference, there has to be a much clearer articulation and more believable articulation of that commitment by France and all these other countries that are maybe not so clear.

Number two, there has to be agreement on strengthening the nonproliferation regime in the ways that we mentioned particularly so far as inspection, monitoring, and better ability to detect these breakout situations.

Three, we have to find a way forward on the question of a Middle East nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction free zone, which has been hanging around since ’95 as an issue about which the nonaligned movement, the south countries, are very passionate that there’s got to be forward movement. We’re not going to see such a zone negotiated any time soon. I mean, Israel is not going to be in that business so long as they’ve got worries about Iran, at least. But if we can make credible steps forward, that’s important. But finding words to accommodate these different perspectives is going to be very, very tricky.

A fourth issue relates to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. That’s fine. There’s plenty of agreement in principle about supporting that – new developments, new countries, going down that path, but finding a way of achieving this that doesn’t make us vulnerable by new countries acquiring these enrichment facilities or reprocessing facilities which really are the precursors for weapon making capability. If we can just get to the stage where the necessary enrichment manufacturing is done on an internationalized basis, on a regional basis, on some sort of international fuel bank basis, that would be terrific. But that’s a controversial issue because countries say, “Well, why should we be discriminated if we want to in the future do what a lot of countries are now doing themselves?” So, there’s that issue.

And the final issue is nuclear security and an agreement on issues about counter terrorism and ensuring non….I don't think that will be controversial because the Obama Summit has cleared the way.

But when you look at the complexity of each one of those issue areas, reaching agreement is not going to be easy, but the atmosphere is better than five years ago. I mean, then we were in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War. The Bush administration was a very different kettle of fish on these issues than the Obama administration.

Chanda: Right.

Evans: So, with a bit of luck we could manage it.

Chanda: But even with the administration change, how do you see the prospect of the Senate ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that was signed by the U.S. but never ratified?

Evans: Well, there are many important issues that are out there which are going to be necessary to continue the momentum. It’s not just a matter of getting agreement at this Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. It is a matter of ensuring that the U.S./Russia Treaty that we’ve talked about is in fact ratified by the U.S. Senate which needs 67 votes, which does mean Republicans joining to support this, which is going to be very difficult in the present political environment. So, there’s a question mark about that, but it’s fantastically important because without this treaty being bedded down, we’ve got no chance of moving to the next round and the next round and the next round of deep reductions that we need to really get that arsenal down.

Similarly, with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, at the moment that’s not formally enforced. There is a worldwide voluntary moratorium against testing which everybody has agreed to. But there are still nine countries that have to sign and ratify the treaty before it comes into force. The U.S. is one of them. President Obama made a very strong commitment last year to crash through that barrier. He’s tried, but again the Senate is creating real difficulties. The numbers are just not there at the moment.

Chanda: So, is it ...

Evans: So, it’s a very ...

Chanda: If the U.S. Senate ratifies, then do you think the other eight will fall in line?

Evans: I certainly think that China will fall in line. I believe that India will fall in line. I think that in turn will place a lot of pressure on Pakistan to follow suit. Then it becomes the Middle East group. We’ve got to get Egypt, which is a bit cantankerous on these issues, Israel, but other countries as well ...

Chanda: Yes.

Evans: ... Iran in particular.

Chanda: Yes.

Evans: I mean, Iran’s got to clearly do this. And that’s going to be very tricky. But I think the truth of the matter is, if the U.S. does actually break this – this barrier – and it’s very difficult because the U.S. is not very good at ratifying treaties. It took 40 years to ratify the Genocide Convention, for goodness sake.

Chanda: And then, look at what happened to the Kyoto Protocol. 

Evans: The law of the sea is still not ratified.

Chanda: Yes.

Evans: Issue after issue after issue, and the U.S. is not very good at adopting a global perspective on these issues. But I think the important thing is that we have with this current administration, without being partisan about it, for the first time in a very long time the U.S. administration which is genuinely at the top passionately committed to ultimately achieving a nuclear weapons free world. And the need now internationally is to sustain that momentum, 2010 is really a critical watershed year. In our report we talk about the short term period being to 2012 after traveling to nearly 25 countries in the last three or four months since the report was released. I think actually we don't have until 2012 to get to the short term benchmarks.

I think this year, 2010, is really critical. And the most critical things are to have a successful outcome of the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference and to have that ratification of the U.S./Russian Treaty, a lot of other issues as well, and of course to keep the situations in Korea and in Iran contained and hopefully resolved. If we can get through the year with those achievements, I think we can sustain the momentum towards a nuclear weapons free world. If we go backwards on those issues this year, I think there’s every horrible chance we’ll move back into the sleepwalk that the world has been in for over a decade, and which is a very dangerous place to be because as we began by saying, the risks that are out there, the combination of the existing weapons, possible misuse, new countries coming into the game, terrorists, non‑state actors, and the risks associated with peaceful uses of nuclear energy if new countries acquire these enrichment and other facility. When you add all those risks together plus the risk of sophisticated cyber warfare, misinformation, we just can’t continue with the status quo. And my worry is, and my commission’s worry is, that unless we make some big steps forward this year in the way we’ve described, we are going to be looking at a very, very difficult period ahead.

Chanda: And let’s hope we don't get there. Well, Gareth Evans, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Evans: Thank you, Nayan – appreciate it.

 

Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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