Launch of Adelphi 396: Abolishing nuclear weapons

George Perkovich is the leading author of a new Adelphi paper, commissioned in part by the UK Foreign Office and trailed by Margaret Beckett, whilst Foreign Secretary, in a speech at the Carnegie Conference in 2007 about the technical and political aspects around moves towards a world free of nuclear weapons. The paper was launched in Washington on 16th September at the Carnegie Endowment.

Perkovich began by emphasizing the need for cooperation between nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS). He criticized NWS for frequently paying “lip service” to disarmament and anti-proliferation efforts, but acting slowly and reluctantly. He was also critical of NNWS which don’t regard such programs as “their problem” but rather something that the NWS should “report on when they are done with it.”

In response to the common claim against “getting to zero” (GTZ) nuclear weapons that such weapons “can’t be disinvented,” Perkovich drew a comparison between nuclear arms and Nazi gas chambers. The gas chambers, he said, had not been disinvented either, but rather eliminated because they were deemed too dangerous and inhumane for use. (However, this comparison is dubious given that nuclear weapons have deep political and defense functions not attributable to gas chambers.)

Perkovich also stressed the importance of making total nuclear disarmament a “viable option for leaders,” by improving international relations and strengthening anti-proliferation safeguard mechanisms, particularly in terms of enforcement. He also questioned the efficacy of automatic sanctions for violators of proliferation rules. Applying such rules to states with major international economic and political weight, particularly the US, would prove extremely costly and dangerous and as a result, such rules were unlikely to be followed, even if agreed.

In response to inquiries about the stability of a nuclear free world, Perkovich said, “You won’t eliminate the last nuclear weapons without addressing underlying security issues,” and that merely making GTZ a goal was a positive step. Sir Michael Quinlan, who provided additional remarks, noted that, “If I had a magic wand and could eliminate nuclear weapons, I wouldn’t do it,” because, “a lot else has to change,” to ensure stability in a nuclear free world. Further questioning about the usefulness of making nuclear weapons illegal prior to their abolition led Quinlan to dismiss the idea: “Nuclear weapons are for extreme circumstances, in which case prohibition would be for the birds.” Quinlan took a similar stance on No First Use policies, calling them “nonsense,” and saying that, “to refuse a No First Use promise is not to therefore have a policy of first use.”

Perkovich indicated his surprise at US presidential candidate John McCain’s willingness to agree with rival Barack Obama on the desirability of a nuclear weapons free world. He said that he had expected that if one candidate showed support for GTZ, the other would take the opportunity to call him “weak” on security measures, and advocate sustaining the US nuclear posture. Nevertheless, when it was noted that nuclear issues rarely made campaign headlines, Perkovich said that he still hoped it would remain so as such exposure would likely lead one candidate or another to become “more hawkish” in the pre-election frenzy. He also remained pessimistic about the issue’s prominence on the agenda of the next president after the campaign, as it must compete with the emerging economic crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, etc.

Perkovich said that the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons was severely limited by intelligence capabilities, noting the failure of coalition forces in Iraq to find their “top 50” insurgent targets even with a full scale conventional force, and asking how the use of nuclear weapons on such targets would be authorized or effective.

Further doubts were raised by questioners about the advisability of pursuing GTZ given the obstacles and the risk that the process itself could be destabilizing. Perkovich pointed out that the status quo might seem acceptable to the NWS but was unstable, because others saw nuclear armaments as dangerous, immoral, and represented outmoded and undesirable political structures.

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