The Spread of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones: Building a New Nuclear Bargain

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The United States, France and Britain took a small step in the direction of nuclear disarmament October 20, 1995, when they announced they would ratify in the first half of 1996 the protocols of the Treaty of Rarotonga, also called the South Pacific nuclear-free-zone treaty (SPNFZ). The treaty, which opened for signature in 1985, bans the testing, manufacture, acquisition or stationing of any nuclear explosive device, as well as the ocean dumping of radioactive waste in the zone.

The treaty's three protocols have been open to signature by the five declared nuclear-weapon states since 1986. Once ratified, they obligate the countries to apply the treaty's basic prohibitions to their territories within the zone, to refrain from using or threatening to use any nuclear device against treaty parties; and not to test any nuclear device within the zone. In 1988, the former Soviet Union ratified the relevant protocols, and China did so the following year.

In addition to SPNFZ, the United States has expressed support for a recently completed nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) for Africa (see ACT, December 1995/January 1996); has advocated the establishment of NWFZs in South Asia and the Middle East; and, at least initially, was favorably disposed toward a zone in Southeast Asia.

While joining SPNFZ and supporting other zones are mainly symbolic acts that have few practical consequences, these developments could signal a de facto change in U.S. policy with far-reaching implications for nuclear strategy

With one NWFZ already in force banning nuclear weapons from Latin America and the Caribbean (the Treaty of Tlatelolco), and NWFZ treaties for Africa (the Pelindaba Treaty) and Southeast Asia soon to be implemented, it appears that nuclear weapons are becoming irrelevant to the security calculations of all but a few countries. In addition to these agreements and others that ban nuclear weapons from the ocean floor, Antarctica, the moon and outer space, new zones have been proposed for the Middle East, South Asia, North Asia, Europe, and Central Asia. At first glance, this trend appears to advance the cause of non-proliferation. But it is worth considering the costs and benefits of a denuclearized world if the momentum to ban nuclear weapons raises expectations that the five nuclear-weapon states are on a slippery slope toward nuclear disarmament.

The spread of NWFZs does not lead the nuclear powers inexorably down the path of disarmament. Nothing has changed the fact that agreements are only as effective as the willingness of states to abide by them. Simply banning nuclear weapons, as some cities have done by declaring themselves nuclear-free zones, has about as much significance as outlawing war itself. It goes without saying that the security perceptions of sovereign nations are foremost in determining participation in NWFZs. To reach their full potential, NWFZs must accommodate existing security relationships, respect the right of free transit for military ships and submarines and avoid directly challenging the vital interests of the great powers. Even with these conditions, however, NWFZs can advance the cause of nonproliferation.

The Treaty of Rarotonga accommodates U.S. interests by leaving the issue of port visits for nuclear-capable military vessels to the discretion of individual treaty parties. Concern about transit rights has been a major impediment for U.S. policy toward NWFZs. These concerns were not eased by New Zealand's policy in the 1980s not to allow port visits by U.S. Navy ships which, according to U.S. policy, neither confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons. New Zealand's policy was not required by its membership in SPNFZ, but it reinforced the perception that SPNFZ was not only anti-nuclear, but anti-U.S. as well. In fact, ratifying the SPNFZ protocols requires no changes in U.S. military practices or doctrine, but similar perceptions could hinder U.S. participation in future zones. …