Our Greatest Threat: The Coming Nuclear Crisis

By Roche, Douglas | Commonweal, March 11, 2005 | Go to article overview

Our Greatest Threat: The Coming Nuclear Crisis


Roche, Douglas, Commonweal


When the first atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it could hardly have been imagined that nearly sixty years later 34,145 nuclear weapons would be in existence. In a long career as a parliamentarian, diplomat, and educator, I have come to the conclusion that the abolition of nuclear weapons is the indispensable condition for peace in the twenty-first century. Yet progress toward that goal has been halted.

In May a conference of the 188 signatory nations to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be held in New York City to put a spotlight on this problem. A huge march is planned for May 1. Advocates of nonproliferation will once again try to draw attention to the immorality and illegality of such weapons. But will the eight nations that posses nuclear weapons--the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel--actually take steps toward eliminating their arsenals?

The prognosis is not good. The preparatory meetings for the May conference ended in failure, with nonnuclear nations objecting to the intransigence of the nuclear-weapons states, noting how a world of nuclear haves and have-nots is becoming a permanent feature of the global landscape. The United States insists that the problem is not with those who possess nuclear weapons, but with states, such as Iran and other nations, trying to acquire them. To which Brazil responded: "One cannot worship at the altar of nuclear weapons and raise heresy charges against those who want to join the sect." Faced with this stalemate, the NPT is eroding, and an expansion of the number of states with nuclear weapons, a fear which produced the NPT in 1970, is looming once more.

Any discussion of the elimination of nuclear weapons inevitably raises questions of the feasibility of such action. How is an architecture of security to be built without nuclear weapons? How can states be prevented from cheating and how can such weapons be kept out of the hands of terrorists? A wide range of military, scientific, and diplomatic experts, notably the Canberra Commission established in 1996, have tried to provide answers to these urgent questions.

First, the case for a nuclear weapons-free world is based on the commonsensical claim that the destructiveness of these weapons is so great they have no military utility against a comparably equipped opponent. Historically, nuclear weapons have been used as a deterrent. But even as a deterrent they pose too great a risk. Few doubt that the longer weapons are maintained, the greater the risk of use, or that possession by some states causes other nations to acquire them, reducing the security of all.

Second, the elimination of such weapons will not be possible without a new architecture of security based on an adequate verification system. The components of a reliable verification system are coming into place, beginning with the inspection system maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the monitoring system maintained by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which has the capacity to detect the most minute nuclear test explosions. On-site inspections of suspect materials will have to be part of the disarmament process (the United States and Russia already do this in the case of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987).

"Trust but verify," President Ronald Reagan famously said. Verification is essential, but the demand for a perfect verification regime is little more than an excuse for not seeking a reduction in nuclear weapons. Perfect security is not possible. Inevitably, some risk will have to be accepted if the wider benefits of a nuclear weapon-free world are to be realized. Not the elimination of risk but an evaluation of comparative risks is the rational approach to take. It is much more dangerous for the world to stay on its present path. Compared to the risks inherent in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, the risks associated with whatever threat a cheating state could assemble before it was exposed are far more acceptable.

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