The Centrality of Nuclear Weapons

Brahma Chellaney

Paper presented to the Valdai Discussion Group, November 2014

downloadPower shifts are an inexorable phenomenon in history. The global power structure is not static but continually evolves. The international institutional structure, however, has remained largely static since the mid-twentieth century rather than evolving with the changing power realities and challenges. Reforming and restructuring the international system poses the single biggest challenge to preserving global peace, stability, and continued economic growth. A twenty-first world cannot remain indefinitely saddled with twentieth-century institutions and rules.

Although the world has changed fundamentally since the end of the World War II, one factor remains the same — nuclear weapons still represent power and force in international relations. Despite major military innovations and the deployment of an array of new weapon systems, nuclear weapons’ relevance or role has not changed. Indeed, five key points stand out:

1. Nuclear weapons have strategic and political utility. Think of Britain and France without nuclear weapons. They would become irrelevant, if not in international relations, then at least at the United Nations. Britain and France value nuclear weapons for their political utility. Russia must take comfort in the strategic utility of these weapons; without them, the United States would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to take on Russia in response to the developments in Crimea and Ukraine.

Such is the strategic utility of nuclear weapons that U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to rule out the military option against Russia after the referendum in Crimea. He even distanced the U.S. from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that was signed in 1994 to provide Ukraine security assurances about its territorial integrity in exchange for its relinquishing of the nuclear arsenal. After all, Russia remains a nuclear superpower.

2. Nuclear proliferation and the utility of nuclear weapons are linked. It is the very utility of nuclear weapons that serves as the main proliferation incentive. This means that the proliferation incentive will remain strong as long as nuclear weapons exist.

To be sure, the international nuclear nonproliferation regime has progressively become very stringent since the 1970s. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in non-nuclear-weapons states, for example, have gone from being site-specific to becoming “full-scope” (comprehensive) in nature. The IAEA’s Additional Protocol empowers its inspectors to check even a non-nuclear facility in a non-nuclear-weapons state. There isn’t much room to further tighten the nonproliferation regime.

Still, the stringent nonproliferation regime has made proliferation very difficult or driven it underground. There are limits to what underground proliferation can accomplish. But there are also limits to what coercive enforcement of nonproliferation norms can achieve.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, was originally intended to prevent countries like Japan, West Germany and Italy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Japan, for example, did not ratify the treaty until 1976 — eight years after the NPT was concluded, and six years after the pact took effect. West Germany and Italy deposited their instruments of ratification only in 1975. After France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 in the Sahara, West Germany was considered the most likely candidate to follow suit. West Germany first tried to block the conclusion of the NPT before seeking to influence the outcome of the negotiations.

The NPT also became the foundation for a number of regional nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) agreements, which include the Treaty of Tlatelolco (1969), establishing a NWFZ in Latin America’ the Treaty of Rarotonga (1986) in South Pacific; the Treaty of Bangkok (1997) signed by ASEAN members; the Treaty of Pelindaba (2009); and the Central Asian NWFZ (2009), which has all post-Soviet republics in Central Asia as its members. Regional NWFZ agreements were designed to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Today, the NWFZs cover almost half of the world and include 115 states plus Mongolia, whose status as a one-state nuclear-weapon-free zone is recognized by UN General Assembly Resolution 3261. The effectiveness of the NWFZs depends on the NPT as the core foundation of the nonproliferation regime.

The challenges to the NPT, however, have been coming from outside the list of its original targets. NPT’s first test, in fact, came early — in May 1974 when India carried out a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE). As India was a non-signatory and indeed had vowed to stay out of the NPT when the treaty was concluded, the test involved no breach of legal obligations. However, after the Indian test, PNEs quickly fell out of international favor, although the U.S. and the Soviet Union both had large PNE programs.

Looking back, the NPT has been a remarkably successful treaty, limiting nuclear-weapons states to a small number. Yet the NPT’s long-term challenge comes from the dichotomy it creates — that it is morally and legally reprehensible for most countries to pursue nuclear ambitions but morally and legally alright for a few states to rely on (and modernize their) nuclear weapons for security.

Today, the spotlight is on the nuclear programs in two states — Iran and North Korea and Iran — as well as on the potential nexus between terrorism and WMD.

North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un won’t give up the nuclear option because he understands the utility of nukes. After all, the United States used aerial bombardment to overthrow ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, eight years after he surrendered Libya’s nuclear option in 2003. The big question today is whether Iran, as part of a rapprochement with the United States, would agree to at least freeze its nuclear program, if not give up its nuclear option.

3. Nuclear disarmament has fallen by the wayside. It has become little more than a pious slogan. The United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament (CD), for example, has been without real work for 18 years now.

It is significant that nuclear disarmament fell off the global agenda after the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995. The NPT was originally conceived as a 25-year bargain between nuclear-weapons states and non-nuclear-weapons states. But as a result of the 1995 action, the treaty has become permanent. This action eliminated international pressure on the nuclear-weapons states in regard to their arsenals.

Not only has nuclear disarmament fallen by the wayside since, there is also little international attention on the nuclear-modernization programs currently underway. This means the five NPT nuclear powers and the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan can pursue nuclear modernization with no real constraints.

Take Obama, who, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s most-expensive and most-sophisticated nuclear deterrent. As the New York Times reported on September 22, 2014, the United States plans to spend about $355 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years, and up to $1 trillion over 30 years. Spending so much more money on nuclear weapons is simply not justified, given the changing nature of security threats. In fact, in mid-2014, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal commission co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired Gen. John Abizaid called the Obama administration’s plans to expand the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” By pursuing a slightly less ambitious nuclear-modernization program, the United States can easily save billions of dollars and still keep the “triad” of delivery systems armed with the same number of nuclear warheads planned under the 2010 New START Treaty.

The real “success” of the NPT has been in reinforcing the system of extended deterrence by enabling countries such as those in NATO and others like Australia, Japan and South Korea to continue to rely on the U.S. for nuclear-umbrella protection. Minus the NPT, these countries would have been the most-likely candidates to go nuclear because they also happen to be the most-capable states technologically. So, the effect of the NPT has to strengthen extended deterrence.

Today, a key question that arises is whether any of the countries ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be willing to forgo the benefits of extended deterrence in order to help lower the utility of nuclear weapons and give a boost to the cause of nuclear disarmament. After all, the security imperatives that prompted such countries more than half a century ago to seek nuclear-umbrella protection no longer are valid in a post-Cold War world.

To be sure, some of these states, especially Japan, have seen their regional security environment deteriorate and thus can ill-afford to renounce reliance on U.S. nuclear-umbrella protection. However, the majority of states basking under the U.S. nuclear umbrella find themselves today in relatively benign security environment. They extend from Canada and Norway to Portugal and Australia. Such states could take the lead to gradually wean themselves away from relying on extended nuclear deterrence.

4. Nuclear might provides the cover to some powers for engaging in acts that contravene global norms and international law. There are several examples of this.

For example, Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, reinforced by its conventional-military superiority, emboldens it to act preemptively at times, or to employ disproportionate force, as was seen recently in Israel’s Gaza war, which was triggered by the Hamas’s firing of crude, home-made rockets with no guidance.

Consider another example: Pakistan’s military generals export terror by playing nuclear poker. They export terrorism from behind the nuclear shield so as to prevent retaliation against their roguish actions.

One can argue that nuclear might also drives America’s interventionist impulse. America’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, has been more at ease waging wars than in waging peace, as underlined by the launch of his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim country. His new war in Syria — which he initiated by bypassing the United Nations — is just the latest action of the United States that mocks international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UN Security Council authority, Gaddafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, CIA renditions of terror suspects, and National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance program. Yet, paradoxically, Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.

5. In our rapidly changing world, most technologies tend to become obsolescent in a decade or two. But more than seven decades after they were invented, nuclear weapons still remain the preeminent mass-destruction technology.

Nuclear arsenals may have no deterrent effect on the pressing conflicts we face today. Yet, for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capacity, will remain at the center of international power and force. Nuclear weapons, as the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review stated, will continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties.”

However — a century after chemical arms were introduced in World War I and nearly seven decades following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the world is at the threshold of new lethal and precision weapons, as underlined by the advent of information weapons, anti-satellite weapons, and the extension of arms race to outer space and cyberspace.

The aforementioned points indicate that nuclear weapons will remain at the core of international power for the foreseeable future. Still, there is a widely held international misperception about the number of countries that rely on nuclear weapons for security. Their number is not just nine (the five NPT nuclear powers, the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan, plus North Korea). A sizable number of additional countries rely on nuclear-umbrella protection — a fact often obscured.

Actually, the states that are currently ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella number 30. Their number has been growing as part of the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In fact, the taproot of the ongoing U.S.-Russian tensions has been NATO’s aggressive expansion, including to the Baltics and the Balkans. Russia, however, drew a line in the sand when NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.”

The nuclear-umbrella protection provided by the U.S. extends to all members of NATO, a military alliance that has expanded from its original 12 members in 1949 to 28 states now. In1997, three former Warsaw Pact members, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, were invited to join NATO. Then, in 2004, seven more countries joined, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And in 2009, Albania and Croatia became the latest entrants to NATO.

NATO’s nuclear umbrella primarily relies on American nuclear weapons. However, in a contingency, British and French nuclear arsenals are also expected to play a role.

In addition to NATO members, the U.S. provides nuclear-umbrella protection to Japan (as part of the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960), to South Korea (a commitment from 1958 that was reaffirmed by America after North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006), and to Australia under the terms of ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty of 1951).

The U.S. nuclear umbrella, however, no longer covers New Zealand, whose accession to the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (Treaty of Rarotonga, 1985) and subsequent enactment of domestic measures to comply with the imperatives of the zone triggered a bitter diplomatic row with the United States. By contrast, another ANZUS member, Australia, remains under the American nuclear umbrella despite being a party to the Rarotonga Treaty.

The security alliances of the Soviet Union (which broke up into 15 separate countries) and those of today’s Russia also are believed to have incorporated nuclear-umbrella protection, although Moscow has never acknowledged that publicly. However, after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union, half of the ex-Soviet allies and breakaway states have been absorbed by NATO as members. Russia currently has a military alliance — known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The creation of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in 2009 has only strengthened the dependence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (which are CSTO members) as well as of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the Russian nuclear umbrella.

Against this background, the number of states that rely directly or indirectly on nuclear weapons for their security is substantial. From an international-law standpoint, however, extending nuclear deterrence to non-nuclear-weapons states violates the spirit, if not the text, of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Some, of course, have argued that it actually breaches the text of the NPT. After all, NATO’s nuclear doctrine is pivoted on nuclear sharing, and the United States has deployed nuclear weapons for decades on the territory of non-nuclear NATO members, often without their knowledge during the Cold War years. Now, the U.S. is believed to have approximately 500 tactical nuclear warheads in five NATO states — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Until 1991, American tactical nukes were deployed in South Korea. The North Korean nuclear threat makes redeployment of U.S. nuclear capabilities in South Korea theoretically conceivable.

Nuclear proliferation in the future will hinge largely on the credibility of U.S. security guarantees as perceived by America’s key, technologically advanced allies. The future of the NPT regime, despite its tremendous success thus far, looks anything but certain. The treaty’s main challenges now come from within, not from its non-parties — India, Israel and Pakistan, which never signed the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons.

Significantly, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping international geopolitics and power equations than at any other time in history. The growing tide of new innovations has not only shrunk the shelf-life of most technologies, but also accelerated the weaponization of science. Such are the challenges from the accelerated weaponization of science that instead of disarmament, rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to outer space and cyberspace.

Grand speeches about a world without nuclear weapons are crowd-pleasers at the United Nations. But in truth, pursuing disarmament is like chasing butterflies — enjoyable for some retired old men but never-ending. Until nuclear weapons remain the premier mass-destruction technology, disarmament will stay a mirage. The Chemical Weapons Convention became possible only when chemical weapons ceased to be militarily relevant for the major powers and instead threatened to become the poor state’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the rapid pace of technological change creates a new class of surgical-strike WMD that makes nuclear weapons less relevant, nuclear disarmament would likely take center-stage.

Nevertheless, it has become difficult to palm off nonproliferation as disarmament. What many members of the international community want to see are genuine efforts to substantially reduce nuclear arsenals and to erode the utility of WMD in national military strategies. Today, the world has a treaty (although not in force) that bans all nuclear testing — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but are legally unencumbered to test the weapon by dropping it over some other state. This anomaly must be rectified.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (Harper, New York, 2010).