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August 24, 2009 |  1 comment |  Print  Your Opinion  

Leon V. Sigal

Topic Slow Steps! Not All at Once!

Leon V. Sigal: The world needs to focus on first steps toward abolition, not the ultimate goal. Most importantly, before moving to Zero, the West has to achieve major efforts in its relations with North Korea and Iran.

The renewed interest in abolition is welcome news if it arouses popular support and gives new impetus to practical moves to reduce nuclear weapons and nuclear dangers and is not diverted into an academic discussion of how to get from 500 weapons to zero.

That effort needs a catalyst, like Gorbachev's withdrawal of much of the Red Army from Eastern Europe. One would be a commitment to no first use by NATO. Another would be a unilateral reduction in US nuclear arms by several thousand How deep a cut would be politically feasible without Russian reciprocity is open to question. A third is ratification of a test ban. Although the Democrats enjoy a 60-40 majority in the Senate, that is short of the two-thirds majority needed and right-wing Republicans remain firmly opposed to a ban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while publicly noting that a test ban is verifiable, has set a steep price for his support: procurement of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

Despite President Obama's endorsement of the goal of ultimate elimination - there's that word again - the political climate is not especially propitious:

  • The new abolitionism has not inspired a mass movement, like those in the 1950s or the early 1980s, that could make Obama do much to achieve the goal.
  • The understanding that nuclear arms are pure terror devices, not usable for any coherent military purpose, has yet to gain widespread acceptance.
  • Nuclear conservatives remain in bureaucratic control of the issue in Washington and other key capitals.
  • Many of the practical steps face an uphill fight in Congress.
  • The international climate is inhospitable as Russia enhances the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy, as a nuclear arms race heats up in the South Asia, as Iran moves full speed ahead with enrichment, and as North Korea remains free to produce more plutonium and conduct more missile and nuclear tests. Unless these conditions are significantly altered, the new abolition movement is unlikely to gain much traction.

Many abolitionists have as a premise that US moves toward zero will influence proliferators, but to premise negotiating efforts with either North Korea or Iran on this demonstration effect puts the cart before the horse. Without negotiating progress with North Korea and Iran, it will be difficult to move toward zero in Washington.

Iran has showed little interest in US talk about nuclear abolition. Sanctions have proven counterproductive. Air strikes will only retard work at known facilities at Natanz and accelerate it at unknown sites.

A commitment to zero will not be persuasive to North Korea, which has been unusually explicit about why it acquired nuclear weapons: insecurity. The prime reason for that insecurity is the United States - what Pyongyang calls America's "hostile policy." For North Korea, the concept of hostile policy goes beyond the threat posed by Washington's nuclear arsenal, and particularly the US threat of first use of nuclear weapons against it. It includes the threat of conventional attack, economic sanctions and attempts to suborn its government. Ending this "hostile policy" by improving political relations rather than the elimination of US nuclear arms is Pyongyang's main condition for denuclearization. Whether it will change its approach in the future and, like China, link its nuclear reductions to those of the United States is not clear.  In its most recent formulation, a January 13, 2009 statement by the Foreign Ministry spokesman, it hints at a change of approach: "If the nuclear issue is to be settled, leaving the hostile relations as they are, all nuclear weapons states should meet and realize the simultaneous nuclear disarmament. This is the only option." Yet the statement retains a key qualifier, "leaving the hostile relations as they are."

Stopping the nuclear programs of Iran or North Korea enrichment effort is only possible through sustained US diplomatic give-and-take.

The world needs to focus now on first steps toward abolition, not the ultimate goal.  

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Security Project at the Social Science Research Council and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.


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Tags: | proliferation | North Korea | Iran | US | NPT | Test Ban |
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August 25, 2009

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Lee Sigal is right. Eliminating nuclear weapons will be a long, uphill fight, requiring the resolution of a large number of political and technical obstacles. But the difficulty of the road ahead is no reason not to start on the path. Indeed, in my view, the failure of world leaders to pursue elimination seriously as a goal is one reason why so little progress has been made in recent decades toward negotiated measures of arms control and non-proliferation. The partial, but essential, steps that have been stalled for so long (CTBT, FMCT, US/Russia reductions, strengthening civilian safeguards, etc) generate plenty of opposition from ideologues who want no limits on US military (including nuclear) capabilities, plus vested interests, but are supported only by the committed arms control community and not the broader public because their ultimate purpose is not on the table. Creating a powerful constituency for near-terms steps requires making clear that they have a broader purpose, that they will lead eventually to the final goal -- the total elimination of nuclear weapons -- which is both real and attainable. The near-term steps have to be seen as moving toward a grander objective, otherwise they have been, can, and will be continued to be delayed, leading -- as they have already -- to a deteriorating proliferation regime and the spread of weapons capabilities to additional states and, eventually, to extremist organizations.
Lee is also right that US pursuit of zero will not persuade North Korea to give up its weapons program; that will depend on the resolution of broader political issues. But the President's pursuit of zero has already regained the high ground for the US in the proliferation debate, facilitating progress in other negotiations. There's no reason why the US can't pursue both movement toward broad multinational non-proliferation objectives and tackle the individual political issues restraining progress on nuclear issues with North Korea, Iran, and Russia. Governments can walk and chew gum at the same time. What's required as a first step is for the President to make clear to his subordinates that he is serious about elimination and get all the bureaucracy moving in the same direction.

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