France and Getting to Zero

On March 21, speaking at Cherbourg with the new French atomic submarine, Le Terrible, as a backdrop, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads in France’s arsenal to fewer than 300, half the maximum that France possessed during the Cold War. The announcement was coupled to broader statements about France’s security in a global context, about the essential role of France’s nuclear deterrent for its security, and about links of the deterrent to British and European security.

President Sarkozy also made a number of disarmament proposals. He invited the United States and China to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – as France, the UK and Russia have done – and called for nuclear testing sites to be openly and transparently dismantled, as France has done in the Pacific. He also called for prompt negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, and a moratorium on such production in the meantime.

These, and perhaps other disarmament measures Sarkozy proposed, such as a treaty banning short- and intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles, would be components of an action plan to be endorsed by the nuclear powers including the de jure nuclear-weapon states – prior to the 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They are consistent with the Kissinger/Shultz/Perry/Nunn proposals for beginning the process of getting to zero nuclear weapons, as outlined in their January 16 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed article.

At the same time, President Sarkozy made clear that the modernization of France’s smaller nuclear forces, both the submarine fleet and air-launched missiles, would continue.

Such steps illustrate well a conundrum facing the project of moving to a global security structure without nuclear weapons. As steps in the downward direction are implemented, the passage of time leads to programs to replace remaining weapons. And replacement can include modernization , adding capabilities such as increased range of submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can compensate for the reduction in numbers. Arriving at overall measures of reducing the salience of nuclear deterrence and of movement toward the elimination of nuclear weapons can be problematic.

The proposal for a ban on certain categories of surface-to-surface missiles would surely increase stability in the Middle East and South Asia, where Iran’s, Israel’s, Pakistan’s and India’s development of such missiles poses serious risks if war involving these states occurs, and is hardly a stabilizing factor now. Yet such states can point to the French proposals as hypocritically avoiding a ban on longer range, or air-launched missiles, components of the modernization program for the French nuclear deterrent that President Sarkozy describes as underpinning European security. It is difficult to imagine Pakistan, for example, agreeing to the proposal. And what happens if Pakistan, for example, were to modernize its ballistic missiles to have ranges comparable to those of French missiles?

It will require time, and considerable dialogue, to reach the point where nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are capped globally, so that the elimination of nuclear weapons progresses globally. In this regard, Sarkozy’s proposal that European states discuss nuclear deterrence is welcome. A broadly based consideration of the role of nuclear deterrence for Europe, in particular for NATO, focusing on quantitative and qualitative issues and on the role in Europe of ‘tactical’ or ‘theatre’ nuclear weapons, should contribute to getting beyond the two-tier system of the NPT, with five nuclear-weapon states and some 180 non-nuclear weapon states. The two-tier system, and therefore nuclear deterrence, will not work forever, and getting right the transition over time to a world without nuclear weapons is the daunting challenge.

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