Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ron Smith: Hard questions about nuclear weapons

The New Zealand Red Cross is running an essay competition for tertiary students.  The topic is, “Why do we need an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons?”  First prize: $1,000.  That’s good!  What isn’t good is that the question is completely closed.  (‘We need a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.  Tell me why in two thousand words’.  The Red Cross website is explicit on the matter.  The intention is, they say, “to reignite the debate for a ban on the use of nuclear weapons”.).

The assumption is that such a treaty is desirable and practicable.  I wonder how entrants who cast plausible doubt on either of these propositions get on?   Our universities are full enough of closed questions.  It does no service to higher education to add another one and especially on so fraught and difficult a question as that of the future of nuclear weapons and its essential relationship to global security. 

What follows here, then, is not an entry (not, of course, that I would qualify) but a response to the better inquiry: “Is a treaty to ban nuclear weapons desirable and practicable?”  This is an issue about which I wrote in these columns a little over two years ago (“Abolishing nuclear weapons”, 6 May 2010).  I shall have some additional things to say here.

The desirability of banning nuclear weapons may seem self-evident.  The enormous destructive power of these weapons, with the potential, cumulative effect of the detonation of a large number of them, is an undeniable threat.  But, as I argued on the previous occasion, removing that threat, and securely verifying that it has been removed, is a far-from-easy project.  You only need to notice the difficulties that the IAEA inspectorate has had in recent years with North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and (in a smaller way) with Syria.  Now try to imagine the difficulties of what would need to be an extremely intrusive and persistent inspection regime that covered the major powers (the vast lands and major sensitivities of China, Russia and the United States).  Each would be intensely suspicious of the other and critically aware of the consequences of getting it wrong and finding, too late, that they are further from ‘capability’ than a crucial rival; and this doesn’t only apply to the  presently-acknowledged nuclear-weapon-capable states. 

Around these, there is a halo of other states that have relevant expertise and significant quantities of nuclear material for legitimate purposes but no weapons and no weapon-programme.  Such states might have research reactors (perhaps for medical isotope or semi-conductor production), or power reactors, or nuclear propulsion systems, and these might be supported by general nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities, such as enrichment, reprocessing.  They do not have a weapons programme, or any present intentions, but the potential is there.  There are ways of dealing with some of these problems, such as by ‘internationalising’ the major elements of the nuclear fuel cycle: placing the most sensitive processes under UN/IAEA auspices.  But there would still be an enormous burden of inspection of nuclear facilities around the world and the cost of getting it wrong will loom very large. 

Signatories to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, who had nuclear weapons at the time pledged in Article 6 ‘to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures (for) nuclear disarmam,ent (in the context of) a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control’.  This is more than fifty years ago and it is arguable that the international security scene is no more propitious for ‘general and complete disarmament’ now than it was in 1968.  This isn’t an argument for doing nothing.  It is still important to attempt to control proliferation. On the other hand, we need to be realistic about present prospects for universal nuclear disarmament.

There is another, quite different, consideration and that is the possibility that nuclear arsenals actually contribute to our security by inhibiting other manifestations of the urge to violent means.  This is nuclear deterrence; the notion that nuclear weapons in the hands of many of the largest states prevents the occurrence of the kind of major conflict (world wars) that characterised the first half of the last century.  However strongly these parties feel about the issues that divide them, they know that they cannot come into direct conflict for fear of unacceptable consequences.

But these essential prudential considerations may not be foremost in the minds of the promoters of the essay competition.  They say on their website that, “Essays must demonstrate an understanding of international humanitarian law”, as if the issue is to be judged primarily, or even purely on moral/legal grounds.  We might ask whether this is wise but in any event the most obvious authority is crucially ambiguous.  In its 1996 opinion, the International Court of Justice concluded (by eight votes to seven) that, ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable to armed conflict’ (emphasis added).  It then went on to conclude (by the same margin) that it could not, ‘conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.  There is one obvious example of this latter circumstance (Israel) and the use of the word ‘generally’ in the first of these judgements provides the possibility of arguing in favour of nuclear deterrence on prudential (‘lesser of evils’) grounds.

There are some difficult questions here and they are of enormous significance to the whole of humanity.  It would be no service to any of us to provide a head of steam for simplistic and na├»ve solutions.


Anonymous said...

Organizations like The Red Cross and various charities do some great work.

They often go out of their way to express their (allegedly) apolitical and non-partisan structure, but invariably the mask slips and their political stripes are revealed - and (yawns) no prize for guessing which side of the political divide they favor.

Cheers Stuart L.

Brian said...

Treaty’s and Bans......Today’s excuses.. Yesterday’s news!
A wee bit cynical?, well since I can recall many of the world Treaty’s since World War 11, they have been accompanied with that noisy brainchild of the 1960’s “Ban the Bomb” “Ban smoking”, “Ban racial abuse” they have been the province and back stop of idealists and fellow travellers who would have us think mere words can make a Ban achievable.
“Nuclear” is taught in our schools as a “Fear” subject, such as in the category of the “Black Death”, “Capitalism”, and “Fascism”; although with these comes a strange omission of Communism as a “Fear” subject! This is understandable with the decades of socialistic indoctrination into the educational system, which seems very prevalent in the teaching profession. Perhaps they consider it a form of idealism, or even a nostalgic recollection of their miss-spent youthful past, when it was popular to riot against everything; especially the establishment.
The main crux of the matter with nuclear weapons and their delivery is whether with the smaller nations now having access or venturing into this field is, can we trust them? “When countries like Iran spout venomous rhetoric to further their aims, spreading a fear of nuclear war between Israel and the Muslim world”, our answer is an ostrich type reaction “Ban it”.
The reality of the spread of a nuclear world is unstoppable, and the inertia to this situation by the United Nations does not inspire much in the way of confidence; especially when any condemnation of so-called indigenous States is “Verboten”. It is all too obvious that some third world nations and their ambitious Dictators; those with strong fundamental ideology dogma will not hesitate to gain, and use, nuclear technology to achieve their political aims.
That an organisation such as the Red Cross is forging questions on Nuclear weapons especially in the Tertiary Sector gives rise to the question “Who now controls the Red Cross”? Why after so many years of devoted service without political bias, has this turn round been achieved? Is this again a foretaste of some devious United Nations policy.....perhaps a part of sinister Agenda 21?