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Dangerous Ideas A Nuclear Weapon Free World and Other Delusions

Some high-minded ideals really aren’t worth fighting for.

Published on July 1, 2014

A world free of nuclear weapons is a superficially attractive idea. But there is no necessary correlation between the attractiveness of an idea and its practicality or desirability—although it is a common human tendency to think that the fervency of our beliefs validates them. Unfortunately this delusion often leads not merely to harmless and amusing lunacy but to real peril. The belief in a Nuclear Weapon Free World (NWFW) is a particularly virulent example. This ideal, or even the more modest concept of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZ), are not just impractical but also dangerous. And when superficially attractive but erroneous ideas are propagated by eminent personalities, they become all the more dangerous, because Error is then invested with the aura of Authority.

In 2007, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn launched the Nuclear Security Project (NSP), an effort to mobilize global action to reduce nuclear dangers and build support for reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, ultimately ending them entirely as a threat to the world. The fundamental mistake of the NSP was to confound the difficult but practical goal of minimizing nuclear dangers by reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons with the chimera of a world free of nuclear weapons.

In office, these gentlemen supported arms control but never advocated a NWFW. When circumstances demanded it, they did not hesitate to play the nuclear card. They opposed Soviet proposals for nuclear disarmament. But the attitudes and responsibilities of those who hold office versus those who don’t are very different. That all of these figures were safely retired by 2007 lent a certain Augustinian whiff to their prior careers; one could imagine them murmuring a version of the Saint’s most notorious orison: “Lord, grant me [nuclear] Chasity, but not yet.” But when, in a 2009 speech in Prague, the newly elected sitting President of the United States committed the enormous power and prestige of the Presidency to the apparently sincere conviction that America should “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”, it was an entirely different and more serious matter.

America’s adversaries surely must have already drawn their own conclusions from the 2003 invasion of an Iraq that had given up its nuclear weapons program (although it foolishly pretended otherwise). That same year, Libya followed suit. And in case the particularly obtuse failed to draw the lesson, it was underscored by the 2011 Western intervention that toppled Qaddafi. Certainly, Pyongyang understood. Explicitly citing Iraq and Libya, North Korean officials have told me that the only reason the United States took them seriously and treated them cautiously was because they had nuclear weapons. And who can say that they are mistaken?

If Kiev had not signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which it gave up what was then the world’s third largest nuclear weapons stockpile in return for security assurances from the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, might Crimea not still be part of Ukraine? Since those assurances, which included promises to respect Ukraine’s borders, have now been exposed as hollow, we must at least admit the possibility. I am sure that some such calculation must figure in debates in Tehran about the desirability of a nuclear deal with the United States. Any agreement with an Iran that believes that its enemies seek regime change is likely to be temporary, a deception justifiable under the Shi‘a doctrine of taqiyya.

No country that believes itself under serious threat and has the capacity to develop nuclear weapons would find the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) anything more than a very frail reed. Israel, India, Pakistan, and the DPRK will never give up their nuclear weapons. And why should they? The NPT has been further undermined, not by these countries staying out of or leaving the NPT, but by the 2005 U.S. nuclear deal with India. That deal was undoubtedly justifiable from the point of view of strategic realpolitik. But it was also a serious derogation of the NPT, irrevocably weakening it. Those countries who take the NPT seriously, Singapore among them, are generally those with no choice. Today, there are nine nuclear weapon states and the list may not end there.

Japan’s perception of China as a threat is deepening. If Tokyo’s faith in American security guarantees is seriously shaken, it has the ability to quickly develop nuclear weapons. Sunni Saudi Arabia regards Shi‘a Iran as an existential threat. After the Iraq war, Riyadh began to regard with skepticism security guarantees issued by an America increasingly less dependent on Gulf energy. Arguably the Kingdom has already taken an option on a Sunni bomb, as it is widely believed to have substantially funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. I recall a senior member of the royal family telling an academic conference that he could envisage his grandchildren living in a nuclear Saudi Arabia. And if Japan and Saudi Arabia go nuclear, will the Republic of Korea, Turkey, and Egypt stand idly by? Nuclear weapons are not just a means of defense but are also regarded as an indicator of a state’s regional and global standing.

Self-deception and wishful thinking are intrinsic to human nature. High-minded individuals are particularly prone to such errors. Believing in certain ideals, they seduce themselves into assuming that everyone thinks in the same way. Is it mere coincidence that all the leaders, retired or active, who today promote the NWFW ideal are Westerners? I know of no Russian or Chinese leader of comparable stature who today does so. During the Cold War, Moscow and its allies advocated a NWFW as a propaganda ploy because they then had the numerical advantage in conventional arms. But with America’s current qualitative superiority in conventional weapons, Moscow and Beijing might be forgiven for suspecting that Western advocacy of a NWFW is intended to freeze the post-Cold War configuration of power. Both Russia and China have embarked on ambitious modernization programs for their nuclear forces.

In theory, NWFZs are regional building blocks towards a NWFW. Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Africa, Central Asia, Antarctica, and Southeast Asia have NWFZs enshrined in treaties. The states officially recognized by the NPT as Nuclear Weapon States (NWS)—the United States, Russia, the UK, France, and China—have to various degrees endorsed these NWFZs. But will the NWS really respect any of these NWFZs? If they do, it is only because they lack the capability or strategic interest to deploy nuclear weapons in these areas. This may apply to Antarctica. But does it apply to any other geographic region that is strategically important to one or another of the NWS? It certainly does not apply to Southeast Asia, where the strategic interests of the United States and China intersect. And it is in Southeast Asia that the dangers of frivolously advocating high-minded but impractical ideals are most apparent. It is a case study in self-deception.

The antecedent of the 1995 Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) was the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) proposed by ASEAN in 1971. ZOPFAN was based on a simple but utterly erroneous idea: that the security of Southeast Asia could be best ensured by excluding all the major powers from the region. It ignored inconvenient questions, such as why the major powers should agree to be excluded and how their exclusion could be enforced against their will. And yet that same year, in response to a joint declaration by Indonesia and Malaysia that the Strait of Malacca was not an international waterway, both the U.S. 7th Fleet and the Soviet Pacific Fleet sent warships through the Straits while Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur watched helplessly. And more startlingly, ZOPFAN took no notice of the geographic fact of China’s contiguity to Southeast Asia, a strange lapse of attention given that in 1971 China was still actively supporting communist insurgencies in Malaysia as well as in other ASEAN member states and had not too long ago been accused by Jakarta of encouraging an attempted communist coup in Indonesia. China is today only nominally communist. But geography does not change.

Small countries can enjoy autonomy only when there is a balance of major powers to keep each other and larger neighbors honest. This is a fundamental security imperative. In 1967, Singapore’s then-Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam was prepared to walk out of the negotiations over the Bangkok Declaration establishing ASEAN before a last-minute compromise was found affirming that “foreign bases are temporary and remain only with the expressed concurrence of the countries concerned and are not intended to be used directly or indirectly to subvert the national independence and freedom of States in the area or prejudice the orderly processes of their national development.”

In 1967, British forces were still stationed in Singapore. When negotiations within ASEAN over the SEANWFZ Treaty as a component of ZOPFAN began in the mid-1980s, Singapore fought hard—on occasion practically alone—to ensure that SEANWFZ would not compromise the rights of U.S. military forces to visit or transit Southeast Asia. It was only after a decade, when these rights were enshrined in Article 7 of the SEANWFZ Treaty, that negotiations were concluded. In that decade the attitudes of ASEAN members towards the U.S. presence had fundamentally changed. In 1990, when the United States and Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding allowing the United States limited use of our facilities, the response of some ASEAN members was almost akin to outraged virginity. But when the United States and Singapore signed a far wider reaching Strategic Framework Agreement in 2005, there was nary a whimper from these same countries who were by then themselves courting the United States.

Signed in 1995, the SEANWFZ Treaty came into force in 1997, whereupon began another round of negotiations with the NWS on a Protocol for their accession to the SEANWFZ Treaty. These were concluded in November 2011 with the signing intended to take place at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh the following July. It never occurred. At the eleventh hour, The UK, France, and Russia submitted reservations to the SEANWFZ Treaty despite, as they well knew, Article 17 of the Treaty explicitly stating, “This Treaty shall not be subject to reservations.” The United States has not yet submitted any reservations of its own but has indicated that it may do so. China has not stated its position either for or against the Russian, UK, and French reservations.

All three sets of reservations were fundamental. But one Russian reservation in particular struck at the very heart of the Treaty, with Moscow asserting the right to retract from the entire Protocol if it should unilaterally determine that ASEAN members had allowed foreign vessels or aircraft with nuclear weapons to enter or transit their waters and airspace. It thus effectively undercut Article 7 of the Treaty. It was disappointing but not particularly surprising given the penchant of some ASEAN members to regard diplomacy as a form of therapy designed assuage vague notions of amour propre, that the majority of ASEAN members were nevertheless prepared to allow the reservations. What was shocking was that the Obama Administration too was prepared to go along and encouraged ASEAN not to object to the reservations.

The Obama Administration stated that it had submitted the Russian reservation to its legal experts, who concluded that it posed no legal impediment to America’s ability to deploy its forces into or through Southeast Asia. This was completely beside the point. All NWFZs are primarily political, and the core issue is political, not legal. If ASEAN accepts the reservation, it may well find itself under great political pressure if in future some NWS (not necessarily Russia whose interests in Southeast Asia are minimal and unlikely to increase substantively) should cite ASEAN’s acceptance of the Russian reservation and object to American naval vessels or aircraft deploying to or through our region. The United States has a policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on its ships and aircraft. What means would we have of proving that the reservation did not apply? And even if governments held firm, it has the potential to turn regional public opinion against the U.S. presence.

It is perhaps understandable that American officials would be loath to contradict their President, who received the Nobel Peace Prize at least in part for his advocacy of a world free of nuclear weapons. They would not want to be seen to stand in the way of SEANWFZ as a step in that direction. It is notable that American officials of the previous administration did not hesitate to express concern that the 2006 Central Asian NWFZ should not disrupt “existing security arrangements” in that region. So the present American attitude may well be driven more by bureaucratic and careerist imperatives than strategic calculations. As the United States and China will be searching for a new East Asian equilibrium for many years to come, this attitude seems, to say the least, short-sighted and less than prudent.

Bilahari Kausikan is former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore.
  • Boritz

    A NWFW would require dismantling of existing weapons. &nbspWould this be handled with the same efficiency as the Syrian chemical weapon disposal or with the same efficiency as Hans Blix trucking all over Iraq? &nbspYes.

    • http://inthisdimension.com/ Alexander Scipio

      A nuke-free USA, however, could be accomplished by never designing or building new weapons, losing the engineering capability and human capital to do so, and by refusing to maintain the current stockpile, even though experts have, for decades, noted that our stockpile is becoming increasingly at-risk. Both of these courses of inaction have been pursued by the past few administrations.

  • qet

    Yes. Excellent. Thank you. A welcome clear-sighted analysis of the genie that can never be put back in the bottle no matter how fantasists whinge about it. And I have always found it not a little ironic that the Nobel committee would award its prize for the mere mouthing of the fantasist pieties when it is the existence of nuclear weapons that has probably prevented a WW3 from breaking out.

    If I understand the author’s statement about diplomacy as therapy for small nations correctly, I believe that this is exactly what it is becoming in the United States and especially in the current Administration. I would argue that this attitude seriously undermines the ability of the US to perform its role in the balance of power the author notes is necessary to the security of smaller states. It just goes to show that will is a greater component of power than material means. The US governing class and the cultural-entertainment elite it aspires to emulate are busy eradicating the will of this country to function in any such balance of power.

    And I can’t help but ask: how is it possible to be a former Permanent Secretary? :-)

  • http://inthisdimension.com/ Alexander Scipio

    An unaddressed issue is demographics. Should Great Powers again find themselves faced with an opponent intent on committing the kind of atrocities of a NAZI Germany or Imperial Japan, and taking quite large swaths of territory, no nation in the civilized world can muster the tens of millions of men to oppose them conventionally as did the West and Russia in WW2. This is a fact rarely discussed in NWS commentary; it is unfortunate that this is the case, for battles happen. Wars happen. Productivity in war – destroying the enemy at a lower cost than he can destroy you – is what wins wars. Nuclear weapons are extremely productive. A Great Power fighting a regional opponent only capable of small-arms, and using oinly small-arms to do so is not only unproductive, it is grossly immoral. The Great Power is making the strategic statement that being “nice” in war is more important than its own future generations. Should ISIS look to Great Powers (essential for keeping the peace) as though its five-year plan could come to fruition, imprisoning hundreds of millions in a barbarism far worse than the NAZIs, the ONLY way the West can respond effectively is through nuclear weapons. Pretending we can – or will – send our only son or daughter to engage barbarism in infantry battles, when a strategic, moral option of far greater productivity exists – is fantasy.

    • qet

      If nukes were just really big conventional explosives then I would agree with you, and they would already have rained down on the world more than once in the last 70 years. Nuclear weapons are unusable. The radiation effects are too severe and long-lasting. A nuke is a defensive weapon only. It has prevented (in my opinion) a WW3 whose casualties and destruction would have vastly exceeded the sum total of all the smaller wars fought in those years, but its costs/negative effects have not been zero.

  • Fat_Man

    The entire idea of a NWFW is nonsense on stilts. The laws of physics are known, and they will not become unknown. They allow the construction of nuclear weapons. The fact nuclear weapons have existed and been used is also known and will not become unknown.

    If a treaty signed by all the states of the world and observed by them were to ban nuclear weapons, it could not stop the first regime that defected from building nuclear weapons. Once that happens other states will be forced to defend themselves by building nuclear weapons, and we will be right back where we started.

    That Obama is willing to tout such nonsense means either that he is a fool or that he believes that his acolytes are fools who cannot see that he promoting nonsense. Given his support of NWFW, and his record in other maters to date, I cannot reject the hypothesis that Obama is a fool.

    • Boritz

      The laws of physics as they apply to firearms is a lot simpler than nuclear physics but a great American political party believes they can make those go away too.

  • TheBoogerpicker

    One might suggest that the author, his ilk, the concurring commentariat, and the middling supporters of this comment forum peruse the forward to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Richard Rhodes’s incomparable “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.”

  • LarryD

    A specific instance of the Arms Control Delusion.

    I’ll point out that a lot of countries that could have joined the nuclear club held off only because they trusted the US to defend them with (if necessary) its own nuclear arsenal. Obamas feckless behavior and pursuit of nuclear disarmament will have the end result of more countries having nuclear weapons in the future.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Of course the world is not going nuke-free, and of course the major powers must never stop mentioning that we should—-even though we aren’t.

  • B-Sabre

    I’ve always looked at the premise that Country X has nuclear weapons because the US has nuclear weapons as fundamentally flawed. My belief is that countries like Iran and North Korea have nuclear weapons not to deter US nuclear superiority, but to deter US conventional superiority. Think about it – even if the US does not have a declared “No First Use” policy, all our pundits consider the use of nuclear weapons almost unthinkable. And it truth, we probably don’t need to discuss it except where we are threatened by a comparable nuclear arsenal.
    When there were rumors of Iraq having a “dirty bomb” or using chemical weapons against US troops in the first Gulf War, there was discussions on how to retaliate. The use of a nuclear weapons against regime targets was ruled out. But they looked at using conventional airpower to blow the damns on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and put Baghdad under several meters of water. It may not have been a nuclear weapon, but how many people would that have killed?
    But if a country demonstrably has nuclear weapons, then any conflict with that country automatically risks becoming a nuclear exchange – and the US has said that it unwilling to play that game anymore. Look at India and Pakistan – the ISI’s fingerprints were all over the Mumbai attack, and besides some threats, nothing happened to Pakistan despite the attack being an act of war. Why? Because Pakistan had nukes and India was unwilling to start that fight. Why would Iran, a sponsor of terrorism, slack off of an effective strategy because of nukes? I think they would increase their activities, and use their nuclear capabilities as a shield to prevent retaliation.