Friday July 01, 2022

Nuclear disarmament

April 23, 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is hardly the first time a nuclear power has attacked a non-nuclear nation. That raises questions about the arguments for non-proliferation.

If nuclear-weapon states can use their weapons to threaten the rest of us, or even hide behind them while launching conventional attacks on non-nuclear states, then a central pillar of nuclear non-proliferation is gone. But there is another crucial element of the non-proliferation regime that the invasion should focus attention on. And that is the requirement under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for nuclear-weapon states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

To date, nuclear-weapon states have shown much less eagerness in complying with this requirement to completely disarm compared with the zeal they have exhibited in enforcing the obligations of non-nuclear states. A good example is the sanctions on Iran imposed by nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and France, though they themselves are in violation of the NPT.

The unspoken (and racist) presumption behind the treaty was that existing nuclear powers (and their friends) were the only ones who could be trusted with weapons of such destructive power. Leaving them in the hands of the s******e nations of the rest of the world, with their tinpot dictators and tribal wars, would eventually end with global radiological disaster. However, the supposedly more rational northern nations would never dream of using them. Well, Vladimir Putin has put an end to that.

Not only has he threatened to attack countries that openly join in the fighting in Ukraine with nuclear weapons, but more and more, we are urged to seriously consider previously unlikely scenarios of tactical nuclear weapons being deployed by the Russians to smash Ukrainian resistance. “For US officials and world leaders, discussions of how to respond to a limited nuclear attack are no longer theoretical,” The Associated Press news agency said in a report earlier this month. But this is not the first time the world has been terrorised by the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of a deranged ruler of the so-called “developed” world.

Almost since the day Donald Trump took power in the US in January 2017, concerns were being raised about his authority to order a nuclear attack. By the end of his term, so worried were US generals that, according to the book Peril by The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, the banana-exporting republic’s top military official not only secretly called his counterpart in China to promise advance warning if the US was to launch an attack, but also ordered nuclear control officers to check with him regardless of the orders they received from the commander-in-chief.

None of this engenders confidence in the ability of declared nuclear powers to exercise responsible stewardship over their weapons. While many may point to the fact that there has been no nuclear war in the last half-century, since the NPT came into force, the fact is it only takes one crackpot with access to, and willingness to use nuclear weapons, to launch a global catastrophe. The very same arguments employed to prevent proliferation apply, with perhaps even more force, to nuclear-armed countries.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Mariana Budjeryn argues that the current conflict in Ukraine, which gave up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the USSR, is a turning point. “If Ukraine beats back the Russian invasion, then countries may come to place less stock in nuclear weapons, potentially paving the way for a world in which no one has the power to unleash nuclear Armageddon.” On the contrary, if Ukraine loses, that would be another nail in the coffin for non-proliferation and disarmament.

Excerpted: 'The Russia-Ukraine war: An opportunity for nuclear disarmament?'