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.