The Nuclear World in 2012

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the first Wall Street Journal op-ed from the four former US politicians, often known as the “Gang of Four”, that opened up the recent movement pulling together establishment support for serious moves towards multilateral nuclear disarmament.

Whilst there was significant progress in 2008-2010, momentum stalled last year. Even before relations between the United States and Russia took a dive recently there was little optimism about any follow-on, largely because of the complexity involved. Add to that the looming US Presidential elections, and the political uncertainty in Russia, and big picture progress in arms control looks unpromising.

Democracy is not generally thought to be kind to reductions in nuclear arsenals – it is too often assumed that politicians seen as weak on defense will receive a pummelling in the polls. However, in an age of austerity, with electorates facing significant challenges to their personal economic situations, cuts to defense budgets such as those to be proposed later this week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, possibly including nuclear weapons programmes, may not only be unavoidable but may even be popular.

The wild card is the coincidence of a US election year and the build up of media and diplomatic heat around Iran’s nuclear programme. Speculation abounds on a military attack, yet governments will want to give recently imposed sanctions a chance of biting, and there is also significant concern behind the scenes that the international coalition ranged against Iran may already be under severe strain. Limited military action would break it apart and hand Tehran hardliners a political coup. All-out military action simply is not an option. Threats to attack, and counter-threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, will continue throughout 2012 – but do not read that as necessarily signalling the action itself.

We at BASIC are optimistic that our 25th year in 2012 could see the foundation stones laid for progress. Whilst expectations must surely be low for anything substantial arising from the first Middle East conference on a WMD free zone, to be held in Finland, it could kick-start a process that sees adversaries recognising a common interest in regional security and cooperation. And whilst NATO’s Chicago summit in Spring will not bring any big shifts in nuclear deployments in itself, it could signal a recognition that change in the medium term is unavoidable. And in the UK the BASIC Trident Commission will report on its scrutiny of the United Kingdom’s ongoing decision to replace its nuclear weapons system, a decision that may yet change course in the next election period.

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