Eliminating nuclear weapons??

According to Judge Christopher Weeramantry, launching a new “International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons”:

The main reason we are held hostage by the most destructive technology on earth is simple: the complete lack of international resolve to ban nuclear weapons and banish them from the arsenals of the world.

Malcom Fraser also likes the idea.

While I’m sure the good judge, and the medical professionals behind MAPW are sincere, I’m really perplexed as to how they think this can actually be achieved any time soon. There are plenty of other reasons, other than laziness, why nuclear weapons cannot be abolished by the stroke of an expensive fountain pen on a treaty document:

For one thing, the basic technology of nuclear weapons – uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and the two basic fission bomb designs – is now 60 years old, and the fundamentals are well-understood around the world. Manufacturing facilities and stockpiles can be destroyed, but the knowledge in people’s minds can’t be wiped. In any case, the basic precursor technologies – precision machining, high-quality chemical engineering, and nuclear physics – are essential parts of any advanced economy and aren’t going away. Banning civilian nuclear power won’t help a great deal either; you don’t even need a nuclear reactor at all to make a nuclear weapon.

Furthermore, let’s assume that the existing nuclear powers did agree to abolish their nuclear weapons. If one country secretly retained some weapons, or manufactured a few new ones on the quiet, what would, well, deter them from all manner of bullying? The one thing scarier than multiple countries possessing nuclear weapons, is one country possessing nuclear weapons – not to mention alternatives like deliverable mass-casualty chemical or biological weapons.

Maybe, in the distant future, a world where a limited stockpile of weapons remain under international control, as a reserve against such cheating, is possible. More realistically, a world where each of the nuclear powers limits themselves to a stockpile of one or two hundred weapons, and had gotten rid of their surplus supplies of weapons material, would be a considerable improvement over the current situation. But I simply can’t see how complete abolition is possible, even ignoring the specifics of particular countries – can anybody seriously imagine Israel giving up its nukes any time soon?

I did look on MAPW Australia’s website, and that of the IPPNW, for their own analysis of how their goal of abolition could actually be achieved in the light of the above, and there doesn’t seem to be anything on point.

If you want a more cogently argued case for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, there is the decade-old Canberra Commission report (you know, from back in the days when Australia tried to be a moral exemplar), which examines the cheating issue in some detail. The report argues that cheating will be detectable in plenty of time. However, I would suggest that the subsequent decade has shown the key assumption of the report – that it would be possible to tell one way or the other whether a nation was cheating – has been shown to be wrong by recent history. Furthermore, the idea of launching military action against nations suspected of covertly acquiring nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons has been thoroughly discredited – not to mention the utility of having nuclear weapons has been demonstrated by the fact that the USA talked to North Korea, and invaded Iraq.

What do commenters think? Is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons feasible? If so, how? And, if not, what’s a more realistic goal?

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Posted in activism, Ethics, Foreign policy, Nuclear, politics, War
28 comments on “Eliminating nuclear weapons??
  1. Kim says:

    I think sometimes you have to aim for ambitious and perhaps unrealisable goals to get any movement in the right direction on these sorts of issues – the land mines campaign and treaty perhaps being an example. As with what I was saying about gun laws, I think you have to be realistic and utopian at the same time, if that makes any sense.

  2. Nukes have not been the bane of mankind that Oppenheimer originally predicted.

    They likely helped to end WWII more quickly given the fanatical determination of the Nippon military to resist land invasion. And probably deterred Soviet backed forces from making a grab for S Korea. No nukes = No Hyundais.

    Nukes also definitely helped to reduce the likelihood of superpower conflict during the Cold War. Thats why the Arms Race concluded after the Cold War petered out. (Gorbachev’s glasnost paved the way for Arms Reductions.) Major disarmament occurred when the USSR democratised and the USA demilitarised.

    I would not want to unilaterally abolish nuclear weapons until I was damn sure the the PRC was a stable democracy. And I would be inclined the same way towards a number of ME countries that seem to have strong democidal tendencies.

    The greatest danger to world peace is the proliferation of WMDs to terrorists. I dont know how to reduce the likelihood of this since nukes can be bought or stolen.

    So perhaps we should aim at a complete stocktake of nukes, watertight inventory control and a gradual degradation of arsenals.

  3. Rob says:

    I think Jack’s pretty much on the money. Fraser’s comments were inescapably dim, even for what we’ve become accustomed to.

    Take two very disparate cases.

    I would not argue that Israel should destroy its nuclear weapons, simply because it needs to continue to hold out the threat of the ultimate deterrent against an annihilating attack. Whatever one thinks of Israel, one can be reasonably confident it won’t use its arsenal unless genuinely in extremis, where no other solution was possible to secure its survival as a nation.

    More problematically, North Korea. North Korea is a basket case of a nation, perhaps the only example in the modern age of a nation that has gone collectively insane. And yet, perversely, its nuclear weapons are its only bargaining chip. North Korea has nothing the world wants or needs, and yet is itself in desperate need of the world’s aid. Without its nuclear weapons, North Korea could slide into the sea and no-one could care less. Its only chance is to brandish its nuclear sword to get (a) attention, and (b) assistance.

    It’s far more complicated than Fraser’s naive polemic would suggest.

  4. derrida derider says:

    I would suggest that the subsequent decade has shown the key assumption of the report – that it would be possible to tell one way or the other whether a nation was cheating – has been shown to be wrong by recent history

    This is a puzzling statement. Sensible people knew full well that Iraq had no nuclear program – the IAEA was quite unequivocal on this (the flagrant lying about this was the biggest factor that initially made me distrust the whole pro-war case, BTW) – and whatever Iran’s current intentions (the track record of the accusers makes me very sceptical of US claims here) we can be confident that we’ll know for sure if they’re getting a deliverable bomb long before they ever are ready to deliver it.

  5. Paulus says:

    I have seen some academics argue that nuclear weapons actually have a net beneficial role by either deterring war outright or containing it. An example of the former is the absence of major conflict between India and Pakistan once they both obtained the bomb. An example of the latter may be the, as yet, still unexplained Syrian decision during the Yom Kippur war to halt their tanks on the Golan Heights — possibly due to an Israeli threat to atomise Damascus?

    BTW, I wonder why DD is so optimistic about the Western intelligence capability to determine when Iran will have the bomb. The Iranian program is underground (figuratively and literally) and as long as they maintain a reasonable level of security, Western intelligence will essentially be based on informed guesswork (as it was with North Korea).

  6. DD, Iraq was not the only case of nuclear proliferation in the 1990s.

    From my understanding, the West had very, very limited knowledge of Libya’s proliferation activities for a long time through the 1990s.

    Jack, for once I would largely agree with you. As far as reducing the risks of terrorists stealing nuclear materials, the best way to do that is not have them lying around, either as nuclear weapons, bomb-grade refined plutonium, or highly enriched uranium. The USA and Russia should get back to the negotiating table to reduce their stockpiles (a few hundred warheads each is more than enough), and, just as importantly, get rid of the rest of the surplus HEU lying around. This might mean that the operators of nuclear submarines will have to make more HEU from time to time to refuel them, something not currently being done. I would argue that it’s safer to have an enrichment plant occasionally make a new batch of bomb-usable material that rapidly gets loaded into a nuclear submarine, rather than having the stuff lie around for decades in a warehouse.

    Kim, there’s a point there – though I simply can’t see how we can denuclearize until (and if) we can get to the point that we trust other nations enough to demilitarize in its full generality. However, these people don’t seem to have a coherent plan for getting where they want to go, and some useful intermediate targets to aim for in the meantime.

  7. Spiros says:

    So what are the good arguments for Britain having its own nukes?

    Who are they supposed to be deterring with the ultimate weapon? The French?

  8. Mick Strummer says:

    Easy, really. States retain nukes because the advantages of keeping them in the face of global calls for their total elimination far outweigh the (perceived) disadvantages that would (they imagine) eventuate if they were caught with a short nuclear penis when a country like Iran or North Korea suddenly outed itself as a recipient of an (nuclear) penile enhancement program. So, it is far easier to pay lip service to disarmament (while doing nothing) and excoriate other countries for doing the same (what one is doing oneself), than it is to be consistent and disarm…
    So, given that states have permanent interests, I don’t think we can look forward to any of the nuclear powers voluntarily giving up the bomb in the near future. I will go further, and say that no nuclear power will disarm until it can be compelled to do so by a more powerfully armed adversary…
    Cheers…

  9. Fiasco da Gama says:

    Banning nuclear weapons is totally unfeasible. Worse, it’d be counterproductive from the point of view of seeking international security, justice and peace.
    They’re the major practical historical deterrent to major-power warfare. Sad to say, but proliferation has done relative wonders for security. Wanna know why that skinny bearded bloke in a cave in Pakistan is so fucken’ scary all of a sudden? It’s because the wonders of a world with fissionable U235 have made mass armoured warfare between industrialised States an historical curiosity. (Sorry Razor, you know it’s true).
    Kim, I think realism and utopianism have somewhat different meanings when they’re applied to nuclear weapons, precisely because they’re designed never to be used.
    Modern anti-personnel mines and bombs, comparatively, change nothing about the nature of conflict or the balances of power—they just make it easier for non-combatants to get maimed cheaply. Those, especially the air-delivered kind, I’d definitely like to see wiped from the face of the planet.

  10. Kim says:

    Kim, there’s a point there – though I simply can’t see how we can denuclearize until (and if) we can get to the point that we trust other nations enough to demilitarize in its full generality. However, these people don’t seem to have a coherent plan for getting where they want to go, and some useful intermediate targets to aim for in the meantime.

    Rob, I agree some practical and intermediate steps are needed, but perhaps groups like this make a start by getting the issue on the agenda and then others can fill in the gaps.

  11. Fiasco da Gama says:

    Who are they supposed to be deterring with the ultimate weapon? The French?

    The Jacobite succession never was adequately resolved in my view, Spiros.

  12. Spiros says:

    South Africa had nukes and voluntarily gave them up. This was near the end of the Apartheid era.

    Maybe the Efrikorners realised that were was no need for South Africa to have nukes to see off the mortal threat posed by Swaziland and Namibia.

    But probably they just didn’t trust the blecks, who were about to gain power, with nuclear weapons.

  13. steve says:

    I think a lot of the problem is a matter of degree where the perceived good must exceed the high risks of the nuclear industry.

    For example if a visit is made to Paris and then Berlin a huge difference in attitude is observed. In Paris there is a continual wail of Police sirens and flashing police lights when just observing from street corners, handcuffs are continually put on people just waiting at bus stops etc and even the subways are closed authoritarian type structures.

    Berlin on the other hand is far more relaxed and easy going with an open subway system etc. Both France and Germany are nuclear powers so generalising about nuclear power definately leading to a police state may be true in one place and not necessarily the feeling one experiences in another.

    Similarly can a country use nuclear technology just to ensure that medical supplies are sterilised and not be tempted to further expand into other areas where the good to society is less obvious? Or just generate electricity without being tempted to have nuclear arms?

    Even if people are comfortable with what is in their country at any given time how can we be sure that a change of government either by election or coup will not completely change the situation to where the citizens do not want to go?

    Just how secure the Nuclear facilities are from accidents like Japan,Three Mile Island and Chernobyl experienced a few years ago or as a prize for a determined terrorist network is another problem that scares the hell out of people.

    Unfortunately another major problem with the Nuclear industry is that it is invariably wrapped in secrecy and it is very hard for the average person to accept them on trust.

    It is an industry that will cover up and hide wherever possible on its past performance and given the newfangled QANTAS type buyout attempt by equity trusts there is not even the limited protection of reporting to the stock exchanges should this style of bid for a nuclear company ever be successful.

    So in short I personally think that moves towards the nuclear option should be resisted as much as possible at all levels because history does indeed show that it is easy to rush in but the process has a clearly defined path that there is probably no coming back from if the wrong choices are made.

    It is a very addictive process for people who believe in it and I think it would be as difficult to unscramble the desire to be nuclear armed once this status is attained as it would be to unscramble the tax taking ability from any Government anywhere in the world.

    Best not to be nuclear armed if at all possible and discourage others from having Nuclear arms as well. At least then there is no double standard.

  14. suz says:

    I’m really perplexed as to how they think this can actually be achieved any time soon.

    Of course, they’re not naive, they don’t think it can be achieved any time soon. But they hope for it. They don’t capitulate to the irrational and in a way insane death wish which brings nuclear weapons into existence and says that they have a useful role to fill. Surely human beings are better than that.

  15. But when does that get to the point of hoping for ponies for all, Suz?

    Furthermore, as insane as it sounds, Fiasco actually has a defensible point.with regards to the effect that nuclear weapons have had on warfare. And if you look at what’s actually killed large numbers of people in conflicts post 1945, it’s been a) strategic conventional bombing, b) small arms, or even blades. and c) the economic devastation that war brings to a country. Rwandans managed to kill somewhere between half a million and a million of their own with no more than machetes, AK-47s and grenades.

  16. Fraser’s comments were inescapably dim, even for what we’ve become accustomed to.

    Unless you consider that it’s that time of the political cycle again, when Uncle Mal reminds us how nicer he is than that horrid little public-school oik who now has his job.

  17. suz says:

    But when does that get to the point of hoping for ponies for all, Suz?

    I don’t accept that the hope that humankind could rid itself of nuclear armaments is equivalent to the fanciful and Pollyannaish notion of ‘ponies for all’. Just don’t accept it. To me that’s a cynical kind of pragmatism. I prefer the pragmatics of physicians actually pointing out what the medical impact of nuclear warfare is. I prefer the pragmatics of unravelling the supposed logic of the ‘balance of armed power’ and replacing it with forms of conflict resolution based on negotiation.

    And if you look at what’s actually killed large numbers of people in conflicts post 1945, it’s been a) strategic conventional bombing, b) small arms, or even blades. and c) the economic devastation that war brings to a country. Rwandans managed to kill somewhere between half a million and a million of their own with no more than machetes, AK-47s and grenades.

    Millions of people were killed in warfare pre nuclear weapons – it doesn’t logically follow that nuclear weapons have caused any decrease in deaths in warfare post-1945. If nuclear weapons had been used in Rwanda, as many if not more people would have been killed and the country itself – the land, the earth, the water etc – would have been devastated. The only possible situation where nuclear weapons can be used which wouldn’t lead to nationwide immolation (ie where the impact is not restricted to a single city such as in Hiroshima) is if only one party to a conflict has nuclear weapons. If both parties have nuclear weapons (eg Pakistan and India), the devastation on both sides could be total and irreversible, with devastating impact on the world economy, apart from anything else. Nuclear weapons don’t make sense and are unacceptable to me – and to millions of others.

  18. Fiasco da Gama says:

    OK, onto the second part of your question, Robert, the more realistic goals.
    The great achievement of the détente between the NATO powers and the Soviet Union in the post-1962 and pre-1991 era was to achieve normalisation and communication about the weapons, and to establish ground rules—first basic, then quite elaborate—about the circumstances under which nuclear weapons would and would not be used. Both sides knew quite well the other’s limits, and there were increasing measures to prevent accidental nuclear war.
    An urgent goal for people who support non-proliferation in the present day, as I do, despite my earlier comment, is for a few (more) ground rules to be established between nuclear-armed countries to deal with countries trying to enter the club, and to deal with accidental or unavoidable conflicts. ‘Secret’ nukes are the most dangerous, as they’re logically the most likely to see use (I’m thinking of Israel’s especially, but who knows who else has a few Cold War era bungers tucked away?).
    Having a situation where piss-ant dictatorships like NK are flatly being encouraged to develop the Bomb, on the very reasonable grounds that their possession is the only thing that will stop any ‘last superpowers’ invading them, is insane and unsustainable. I for one look to China, India and Pakistan for leadership on this issue.

  19. Fiasco da Gama says:

    I prefer the pragmatics of unravelling the supposed logic of the ‘balance of armed power’ and replacing it with forms of conflict resolution based on negotiation.

    Suz, if there was ever a period of history where negotiated conflict resolution was more successful than the Cold War, I don’t know when it was.
    You’re quite right about the necessity to avoid one-sided nuclear conflicts, by the way. It’s for that reason I admire the treachery of Klaus Fuchs (and others), who sent the plans for the Bomb over to the Soviets.

  20. Suz, it’s not that I think it “can’t be done”, but I think it’s a consequence of moving to a world where armed conflict more generally becomes unthinkable.

    In other words, to outlaw nuclear weapons, you’ll need to outlaw war first.

  21. suz says:

    Suz, it’s not that I think it “can’t be doneâ€?, but I think it’s a consequence of moving to a world where armed conflict more generally becomes unthinkable.

    In other words, to outlaw nuclear weapons, you’ll need to outlaw war first.

    I see it the other way around: outlawing nuclear weapons is part of the process by which warfare in general becomes avoidable (and eventually unthinkable) through the supervision procedures and negotiating bodies which have to be used and respected as part of the nuclear disarmament process.

  22. Mick Strummer says:

    Warfare – and nuclear weapons – can and will be abolished when there is an extra state authority – lets call it the UN – with the political and military power to compell belligerent states from resorting to armed conflict to solve political problems. This, of course, is precisely why the UN will never be given the mandate and the means to enforce such a ban. And, even should the UN be given the authority and the means to ban warfare, it will still be unable to address the use of political violence by non-state actors.
    Anyway…
    Cheers…

  23. Fiasco da Gama, in John Lennon mode says:

    Suz, I can see where you’re coming from, but *starting* with nuclear weapons seems to me to be beginning at the wrong end. Eliminating nukes while leaving other forms of mechanised warfare, negotiating bodies or no, just makes it easier and more consequence-free to have bigger and more frequent conventional wars. Why not start with the cheap, nasty weapons, like remote anti-personnel mines and time-delayed cluster bombs, that are maiming and killing very inefficiently right now?
    I think there’s a sense in which the Bomb is romanticised as being a class of weapon infinitely more sinister than conventional ones, when in fact the opposite is also true: very few people, comparatively, have been its victims. I know I’d much prefer to live next to an ICBM silo in North Dakota or a Trident submarine tender in Scotland, than in the same block as a Hezbollah office in South Lebanon or pretty much anywhere in central Africa.

  24. Razor says:

    Mick Strummer – so when warfare is abolished, will crime also end??? You weren’t a speach writer for Bob Hawke were you?? No child in pover. . ..

  25. j_p_z says:

    Number of world wars (in the twentieth century alone) prior to the creation of nuclear weapons: 2.
    Number of world wars since the creation of nuclear weapons: 0.

    Look, no one thinks that nuclear weapons are a pure “good” and we all think that in absolute terms that they are horrifying; but so is war at large, and so is most of the mess of human affairs; do let’s try to be sober about it all, as Fiasco has been hinting.

    “Those who beat their swords into ploughshares generally wind up doing the ploughing for those who kept their swords.” — Benjamin Franklin

    suz: “outlawing nuclear weapons is part of the process by which warfare in general becomes avoidable (and eventually unthinkable) through the supervision procedures and negotiating bodies…”

    But (to coin a phrase) who will negotiate with the negotiators? Furthermore, this “outlawing” of which you speak: who will enforce it, and uphold your shiny new law? Might it be some, oh I don’t know, I’m spit-balling here… some, let’s say, nuclear-armed power of incredible military reach and might — a, well, “superpower” (to coin another phrase) if you will; that is, if anyone could ever possibly imagine such a ridiculous thing. And what would happen if other people became unhappy with the way this imaginary “superpower” chose to uphold the imaginary “laws”? Might they then try to get nukes themselves? Too many levels, man, it’s blowing my mind…

    These “supervision procedures and negotiating bodies” you imagine… don’t we in fact have them, in the here and now? And aren’t they unable, at this very moment, to keep a low-level tinhorn ME theocracy from cooking up nukes in the basement, right under our noses, while everybody literally looks on and complains? But I’m sure the new lefty plan will be better than the old lefty plan; Darwin and natural selection and what-not.

    Mick Strummer: “nuclear weapons can and will be abolished when there is an extra state authority – lets call it the UN…”

    Oh, for the love of God, Mick, let’s please call it ANYTHING but the UN…

    suz: “I see it the other way around…”

    Yes, that does tend to be the problem.

  26. Mick Strummer says:

    Hey Razor. OK, some crimes are violent, but apart from that, what has war got to do with crime? Absolutely nothing. And no, I never wrote speeches for Hawkie. If I had, I would have said that “no Australian child NEED live in poverty….” That way, if there were still children in poverty by the deadline, it could be blamed on the parents.
    Cheers…

  27. suz says:

    These “supervision procedures and negotiating bodiesâ€? you imagine… don’t we in fact have them, in the here and now? And aren’t they unable, at this very moment, to keep a low-level tinhorn ME theocracy from cooking up nukes in the basement, right under our noses, while everybody literally looks on and complains?

    Would that be the “me me me” theocracy just south of Canada?

  28. Robbert says:

    To those that ask why did the US find it important to rescue Iraq which was obviously not a threat and not Korea which is definitely capable of being one.

    The US had no problem invading Iraq because they had no business investments next door and were in effect tampering with the European oil supply a competitor. At the same time someone in the good old USA is making a fortune at their tax payers expense by dropping crackers on Iraq, all in the name of security and for the conversion of Iraq to democracy. South Korea is right next door to north Korea and even if they don’t have neucs they can still do a hell of a lot of damage to American interests in North Korea. So the same urgency doesn’t exist, Lets face it the security of the world does not lay in the hands of piss ant country’s like Korea or Iraq, it lays in the hands of the countries that sell the weapons. Nuclear weapons are not important in the scheme of things but the hysterics that can be generated with them is nearly as effective as the threat of terrorism.
    robb

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