National insecurity

Efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons need to focus on the underlying causes of proliferation

Zhai Dequan
22 March 2010

The elimination of nuclear weapons has become a hot topic in China, not only among political elites but also among ordinary citizens. The explosion of interest was triggered by President Hu Jintao’s solemn promise, at the recent UN Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament, to realise universal peace. For the first time, Hu proposed that the international community forge two treaties: one on the principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, and the other on a total ban against nuclear weapons. The former would achieve an initial guarantee of world peace while the latter would provide a permanent solution.

Nuclear weapons have become a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, capable of destroying the planet many times over. As proliferation grows, so does the risk of accidental use – not to mention the numerous non-state actors and terrorist organisations that are trying to obtain nuclear weapons and related technology. Mankind can no longer afford to live under this threat of annihilation.

To realise the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, the international community and the leaders of the nuclear powers must first reach a consensus and demonstrate a strong political will to commit themselves to the goal of nuclear disarmament.

Next, the international community needs to put in place multilateral treaties and enforcement mechanisms to realise the commitments of gradually and irreversibly dismantling nuclear weapons. The touchstone for evaluating this path will be the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May. Last autumn, support for denuclearisation seemed to be building as UN Resolution 1887, which called on all non-members of the NPT to join the treaty, represented an unprecedented leap forward in the international community’s commitment to nuclear disarmament. This is the biggest advance in disarmament since the mid-1990s, when the legal and diplomatic basis was laid for enforcing tougher penalties against nations that cheat on nuclear treaties. Nonetheless, it is just the beginning of a long and winding road towards a nuclear-free world.

In my view, the key to the international community’s walk towards this goal of “Global Zero” is a comprehensive improvement of the international security environment. Just to accomplish the goal of nuclear disarmament would be insufficient in itself. As we try to eliminate the existing nuclear weapons, we need to ask why some countries still want to obtain them.

Despite the enormous financial, technological and political difficulties, some governments still attempt to obtain nuclear weapons because they feel their security, even their survival, is threatened. To reach Zero and make Zero sustainable, we must deal with the underlying causes of proliferation.

As the ancient wisdom written in the Thirty-Six Stratagems states: “Lifting the soup to stop it from boiling is less effective than extracting the firewood from under the cauldron.” Although we could try to roll back the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea through sanctions, and even the use of force, a wiser solution would be to eliminate the insecurity that is the root of their nuclear obsession – to “extract the firewood”.

This means the international community needs to change the way international relations are conducted by paying more respect to sovereignty and multilateralism, tolerating rather than penalising differences in world views. The international community must reach a consensus that a country’s internal problems can only be solved by its own people; global problems can be solved only through co-operation, not by stronger nations overpowering weaker ones.

Finally, the great powers should realise that there is no absolute security in the world. Absolute security for one country means absolute insecurity for other countries. If these philosophical adjustments are not made, nuclear disarmament cannot reach its ultimate goal.

To realise global nuclear disarmament, the United States, the sole superpower, must take the lead by making deep cuts in its nuclear stockpile. America’s demonstration of its sincere will to accept complete nuclear disarmament will enable other countries to follow suit. This is particularly true in the case of countries such as Russia, which only the US is qualified to approach for nuclear disarmament negotiations.

While the US and Russia start the verifiable and irreversible reduction of their nuclear arsenals – matters that are their own affairs – a UN institution (a council or commission for nuclear disarmament) could be formed to supervise this process, and other nuclear powers could be invited to take part as observers, so that they could gather experience relevant to the later reduction of their own nuclear arsenals.

For now, nuclear powers should first make commitments to the no-first-use principle, and pledge not to threaten to use nuclear weapons against each other, non-nuclear weapon states or nuclear-free zones. They should also speed up the process that will make the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty effective, reduce nuclear weapons’ role in national security planning and de-target and de-alert nuclear missiles. Research and development of new types of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction should be halted. Most importantly, as one American scholar rightly put it, the key measure is “learning not to love the bomb”.

Since China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, it has committed itself to the no-first-use policy and the goal of a total ban on nuclear weapons. As the world finally comes together and follows the vision that China first advocated in 1964, Beijing will surely join in the process of nuclear disarmament once the quality and quantity of major nuclear arsenals are reduced to the Chinese level.


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