Acclaimed Arms Control Anniversaries

For those interested in understanding how we can seize opportunities to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons and enhance regional and global security, this week sees two significant anniversaries.

On December 3rd 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush met in Malta to declare an end to the Cold War after two days of talks. The Malta summit built on the success of a series of arms-reduction treaties between the two superpowers, including Salt II in 1979 and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. December 7th is the 25th anniversary of the INF, which banned all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres i.e. those missiles capable of hitting European targets, including western Russia. While Reagan and Gorbachev agreed the treaty, European and American public opposition to US nuclear weapons in Western Europe inspired it.

The INF treaty is notable for several other reasons. For example, it was the first ever treaty to eliminate a whole class of nuclear weapons. Secondly, under the INF- unlike earlier Cold War arms control agreements- both countries accepted stringent verification procedures, including on-site inspections, to check nuclear weapons were being eliminated. This breakthrough removed a long-standing barrier to arms control efforts between the two superpowers. All 2,692 INF missiles were destroyed by May 1991, within the three-year time limit. Subsequently, 10 years of on-site inspections helped provide reassurance of both side’s continuing compliance.

Importantly, the INF was agreed despite following a historic low-point in US-Soviet relations. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, dialogue between the two superpowers throughout the 1980s had virtually stopped so that ‘every channel of communications has been constricted or shut down; every form of contact has been attenuated or cut off. And arms control negotiations have been reduced to a species of propaganda’.

During this time, the US was vehemently against attempts at arms control or disarmament diplomacy. For example, the US stood alone against 154 nations that voted against weapons in outer space, and against 135 nations voting against developing new weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The US was only with France against 143 nations voting for a comprehensive test ban treaty and was the only country to boycott the 1987 UN disarmament conference.

Perhaps one of the key lessons from the end of the Cold War for us today, therefore, is that effective arms control measures such as the INF can be important in building confidence and trust that can lead to transformed relationships between states. To put this in context, the world has recently been told that the conference to establish a Middle East WMD-Free Zone would not take place this year owing to ‘present conditions in the Middle East’ and the lack of agreement over the ‘conditions for a conference’. However, as Paul Ingram pointed out last week, it is premature for the US and others to, at this stage, ‘be stipulating that a Zone cannot come into force until there is ‘a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations.’’

The establishment of a WMD-Free Zone would make a great contribution to the development of peace and security in the Middle East, something which would surely benefit the entire world. As with the INF Treaty, this will require bold leadership and strong public support and pressure. Both of these urgently require a fair and well-informed debate in the media, so that the key issues, such as Israel’s nuclear weapons and Iran’s uranium enrichment, are discussed objectively and that regional non-proliferation and disarmament is given the prominence it deserves. Without political will and energy being expended on these issues, the likelihood of nuclear proliferation will grow, damaging wider efforts to build regional and global security.


These are the views of the author.

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