Scholars in the nuclear field point to enduring regional conflicts as one of the hurdles that must be overcome before nuclear disarmament is possible. George Perkovich and James Acton, for example, write "The eight nuclear-armed states will not be able to collectively envisage a prohibition of nuclear weapons until conflicts centering on Taiwan, Kashmir, Palestine and (perhaps) the Russian periphery are resolved, or at least durably stabilised.
One of the abiding areas of tension between nuclear weapon states and many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is the failure to make progress on a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (or weapons of mass destruction free zone). The resolution calling for establishment of this zone was an essential part of the compromise that allowed indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995. Almost fifteen years later, the goal remains elusive, only further complicated by the emergence of Iran's nuclear program. Similarly, India and Pakistan remain outside the NPT and locked into low-level nuclear arms racing in large part because of an ongoing border dispute over the Kashmir region. The November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai underscore continuing hostilities between groups in Pakistan hostile to India.
The notion that conflicts between nuclear-armed adversaries must be resolved before disarmament can be accomplished is understandable, and on the surface perhaps quite sensible. But on closer examination, it becomes clear that achieving the perfect conditions for the resolution of long-running conflicts, in particular those involving Israel and its neighbors and India and Pakistan, may not be realistic and must not be allowed to derail either broader progress toward disarmament or the implementation of stronger nonproliferation norms and policies.
The idea that what are essentially human relationships must be resolved before particular weapons technologies can be banned was not central to Cold War-era thinking about nuclear disarmament. For example, the United States and Soviet Union did not wait until their rivalry was entirely resolved before they began negotiating significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals. This notion has a particular view of the role of nuclear weapons at its heart and those who espouse it seem to believe that nuclear weapons are like a salve in these volatile areas, that they make the participants in these disputes more careful, more pacific.
Nuclear weapons, according to this view, both create increased safety and are extremely dangerous, which is paradoxical. What sort of technology can create safety and danger at the same time? The ability to create this kind of paradox argues for nuclear weapons being invested with extraordinary, exceptional powers. But we know that this is essentially false-they are simply more explosive than conventional weapons.
One way to think about the notion of retiring weapons from an area of deep, abiding conflict is to consider cities such as Los Angeles, with considerable gang activity. If we imagine that the police launched an initiative to ban assault rifles from the streets, what would we say about the notion that the Bloods and Crips must first resolve all of their differences and agree to a strict verification regimen for maintaining adherence to their peace treaty before the ban on assault rifles was attempted?
It may be the case that nuclear weapons bring about a level of caution in leaders facing confrontations with adversaries that conventional weapons (assault rifles) do not. However, this does not argue for keeping them until all confrontations are resolved. Keeping nuclear weapons is only a sound strategy if the benefit they create by inducing caution is greater than the destruction they would cause if they were used.
To believe that the fear of nuclear weapons will make a region torn by conflict safe over the long run, is to believe that nuclear weapons can permanently tamp down human folly. The record of history shows that human folly is stronger and more resilient than that.
The notion that regional conflicts and rivalries must be resolved before disarmament is possible is deeply embedded in thinking about nuclear weapons and letting go is not simple. Surely it does not mean that efforts to bring about peace in Kashmir, the Middle East or break-away Russian regions be less intensely pursued. Confrontations flare, often unexpectedly, all over the world and will continue to. Waiting until they have been resolved means waiting for a state of perfect peace that will never come.
Jacqueline W. Shire is a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security. Ward H. Wilson is a Visiting Research Collaborator at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security.
Related Materials from Atlantic-Community:
- Global Zero: Barry M. Blechman: Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: Yes, We Can
- Global Zero: Charles D. Ferguson: Cold War Lessons for Today's Nuclear Disarmament Debate
- Global Zero: Hall Gardner:Precondition for Abolition: Five Factors for Consensus Building
- Global Zero: Kenneth N. Luongo: Controlling Loose Nukes
- Global Zero: Subrata Ghoshroy: Focus on Intermediat Steps