Eliminating Nuclear Threats

A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers



GARETH EVANS and YORIKO KAWAGUCHI CO-CHAIRS                    Commission Members

19. Longer Term Action Agenda: Beyond 2025 – Getting to Zero


BOX 19-1

The Longer Term Action Agenda – Beyond 2025

  • Create political conditions, regionally and globally, sufficiently cooperative and stable for the prospect of major war or aggression to be so remote that nuclear weapons are seen as having no remaining deterrent utility.

  • Create the military conditions in which conventional arms imbalances, missile defence systems or any other national or intergovernmental-organization capability is not seen as so inherently destabilizing as to justify the retention of a nuclear deterrent capability.

  • Create verification conditions that will ensure confidence that any violation of the prohibition of nuclear weapons would be readily detected.

  • Create the international legal regime and enforcement conditions that will ensure that any state breaching its prohibition obligations not to retain, acquire or develop nuclear weapons will be effectively penalized.

  • Create fuel cycle management conditions that will ensure complete confidence that no state has the capacity to misuse uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing for weapons development purposes.

  • Create personnel oversight conditions to ensure confidence that individuals’ know-how in the design and building of nuclear weapons will not be misapplied in violation of prohibition obligations.


Defining “Zero”: The Nature of the Task

19.1     The unequivocal objective of the longer term agenda – pursued with real passion and a sense of urgency, not just passive lip-service – must be to get from the minimization point to a world of zero nuclear weapons. But even defining that objective is not quite as simple as at first sight may appear. Seriously eliminating nuclear weapons means more than just dismantling all those in existence at the time. It has to include all fissile materials removed from them being accounted for and internationally monitored, delivery systems being dismantled in parallel to the destruction of warheads, and military fissile material production facilities being dismantled as well. In practice it would need to mean, at the very least, that if a leader of a former nuclear-armed state ordered subordinates to again build nuclear weapons, he would have to be told that this would take more than one year, and that the risks of detection by others would be very high.

19.2     We have explained earlier, in Sections 7 and 18, that the Commission would like to have been able to identify a particular target date for achieving the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. But we have found it impossible credibly to do so, given the nature and complexity of the conditions that will have to be satisfied in the final elimination-phase move from low numbers to zero, which we will describe in more detail in this section.

19.3     Another way, if one is needed, of describing the magnitude and difficulty of the abolition task is to note that every one of the familiar barriers to the take-up of what economists describe as “global public goods” are applicable here: preservation of sovereignty (countries’ reluctance to accept international binding rules and monitoring of their own compliance with agreements); differing preferences (the fact that countries have different strategic, economic and political stakes in specific solutions to global problems); the “free rider” problem (the incentive for every party to wait until others provide the solution and then enjoy it); the “weakest link” problem (an effective solution can only be applied when every country fully complies with a common approach); and the “summation” constraint (whereby the successful solution of a global problem is literally the sum of the individual efforts of all the separate participants).

19.4     That said, none of these problems are insurmountable, and all become more manageable in a geopolitical environment becoming more genuinely cooperative. Creating and sustaining such a politically and militarily stable world must be the underlying goal.

General Conditions for Moving from Minimization to Elimination

19.5     The essential task is to create confidence in each nuclear-armed state that it can give up its last nuclear weapon, in concert with others, without its security, reputational or other national interests being threatened. Choreographing the endgame will be daunting, and it is impossible to foresee this far out exactly what factors will be in play. But it is not too soon to begin, now, very detailed studies, as we have recommended, on all the different variables and scenarios, and it is certainly possible to describe now in general terms, as we do in the following paragraphs, what kinds of basic systemic conditions are bound to have to be satisfied. Later in this section we will address the more specific factors that seem likely, to the extent we can now judge, to have most impact on the decisions of particular nuclear-armed states.

19.6     Geopolitical conditions. The most basic need is to create cooperative geopolitical conditions, regionally and globally, making the prospect of major war or aggression so remote that nuclear weapons are seen as having no remaining deterrent utility. Political-security relations among the nuclear-armed states and their neighbours will have to be cooperative and balanced enough that none feels that only nuclear weapons could deter threats to their national survival. And in purely military terms, conventional arms balances, missile defence systems or any other national or intergovernmental-organization military capability will have to be seen as not so inherently destabilizing, or inherently threatening, as to justify the retention of a nuclear deterrent capability.

19.7     In practice this will have to mean that all outstanding territorial disputes and other potential sources of major conflict involving nuclear-armed states and their allies are resolved, or at least that the status quo has become comfortable enough for all sides in these situations for any motivation to use major force to be non-existent. That such a world could be achieved within decades is not as fanciful as it might to some appear. Since the end of the Cold War there has been a well-documented and remarkable decline in the number of major violent conflicts and the number of battle fatalities – some 80 per cent in each case – with significantly more existing conflicts resolved than new ones started. Much of the turnaround is attributable simply to greater commitment to conflict prevention and resolution by the international community at all levels, with more professional and effective arrangements – through the UN, regional organizations and others, including sophisticated new civil society organizations – for mediation, transitional peacekeeping and post-conflict peacebuilding addressing underlying causes. For everything that continues to go wrong, much is now going right, and there is no reason to believe, in a world growing ever-more interdependent, that this trend is inherently unsustainable.

19.8     Verification conditions. Without verification arrangements that will ensure confidence that every state is complying, and that any violation of the prohibition of nuclear weapons would be readily detected, getting to zero will be impossible. Effective verification is not a sufficient condition for disarmament: even a perfect detection system, were that attainable, would need to be backed by an effective enforcement system to deal with cases of violation, of which more below. But it is a necessary condition. Technologies and procedures continue to improve and must do so if the necessary confidence levels are to be reached. And to achieve a nuclear- weapon free world, all nuclear-armed states are going to have to agree to subject themselves to unprecedented verification procedures, with strong international institutions and oversight.

19.9     It needs to be understood, however, that building a system that sufficiently justifies confidence in disarmament, is not the same as building one that will be capable of detecting absolutely everything. The amounts of fissile material needed to make one or a few nuclear weapons are so small compared to the quantities that have been produced that it will be simply impossible to verify that every last kilogram of plutonium or high enriched uranium has been accounted for. Historical records of production are too inexact (even if our earlier recommendation on “nuclear archaeology” is followed) and inherent uncertainties in accounting are too great to allow perfection. In Russia and the United States, these inherent uncertainties amount to enough fissile material for hundreds of nuclear weapons; the uncertainties in other nuclear-armed states are very much lower, but greater than zero. All that acknowledged, ways do exist to build confidence that such uncertainties would not in fact mean that a state was illicitly retaining a cache of nuclear weapons. Expert interviews of key figures in nuclear weapon establishments could provide invaluable insights which could be compared to production records to identify possible deception. Intrusive inspections could further deter cheating. And verification experience in the U.S., Russia, South Africa and Iraq can certainly inform the development of better rules and procedures.

19.10     Enforcement conditions. There will have to be enforcement arrangements in place under an international legal regime strong enough to ensure that any state breaching its prohibition obligations not to retain, acquire or develop nuclear weapons will be effectively penalized: in effect, that any breakout will be controllable, and controlled. The first requirement of effective enforcement is to identify and formalize punishments that could deter states from breaching their obligations and deny them the benefits of any violation. But those punishments have to be actually implemented, meaning decision-making bodies and procedures that enjoy international legitimacy and that will work in a manner timely and robust enough to deter or eliminate threats. Too many discussions of nuclear disarmament in recent decades have underestimated this challenge, simply assuming that in the event of a violation enforcement actions would be employed.

19.11     In the absence of alternatives that are difficult to envision today, the UN Security Council and a stronger IAEA would be vital elements of any enforcement-authorizing mechanism. Experience to date, most recently with Iran and North Korea, indicates that these bodies would have to become much more effective before states would relinquish their last nuclear weapons. Improvements in the Security Council’s operation will depend, in this context as others, on achieving a closer alignment of perceived interests as between the U.S., Russia and China, and a more representative membership, including from major developing countries. More specifically, it will also mean getting around the current barrier that the Permanent Five’s veto poses to enforcement, which has been argued to leave the abolition process at a dead-end. The difficulty, of course, is to persuade the five not to veto any veto removal, as the UN Charter enables them to do. We can only hope that the improvements in security relations that would be necessary to achieve, and facilitated by, movement to our proposed minimization point would help prepare the way for improvements of this kind in collective enforcement.

19.12     Fuel cycle management conditions. The need here is to create fuel cycle management conditions that will ensure complete confidence that no state has the capacity to misuse uranium enrichment or plutonium separation for weapons development purposes. Nuclear industry will have to be managed differently if nuclear weapons are to be completely eliminated. The inherently dual-use potential of uranium enrichment and reprocessing – for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons – is the foundation of the present system of international safeguards and inspections. But this is imperfect, and illicit enrichment (or plutonium separation) could occur without timely detection. These deficiencies have been tolerated by the major powers at least partly because they perceive their nuclear weapons as deterring anyone who might take advantage of the safeguard system’s limitations. To give up their nuclear deterrents, these states are going to insist that uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing be done under conditions that would make cheating on a nuclear weapon prohibition nearly impossible. An important aspect of this will be the introduction of proliferation resistant technology, such as new forms of processing that avoid separated plutonium.

19.13     All states ought to share the objective of ensuring that enrichment and reprocessing capabilities cannot be misused for weapons purposes. Yet, key non-nuclear-weapon states today resist proposals to limit national enrichment and reprocessing activities beyond current rules. They resist what they see as a new double standard in the nuclear order: following the distinction between those who have nuclear weapons and those that do not, there would be a new one between those allowed to conduct enrichment and reprocessing and those not. Resistance to further dichotomization is perfectly understandable in today’s world, but it avoids the question of how nuclear industry must evolve if the world is to implement the goal of nuclear disarmament. Nuclear abolition would establish one standard for all states: zero nuclear weapons. A similar single standard would likely have to exist for uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. If entitling each state to conduct enrichment and reprocessing under safeguards does not produce enough security to allow nuclear disarmament, then all states will have to agree to some form of multilateral control. One of the prices for achieving a world free of nuclear weapons will be all states having to rely on the same means of servicing their needs for uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing and recycling.

19.14     It is to be hoped that timely movement to reach the minimization point would build confidence among nuclear-armed and unarmed states alike to take further steps that would make abolition possible. Management of the nuclear fuel cycle would have to be a priority. In the meantime, to the extent that reforms in nuclear fuel-cycle management cannot be implemented, greater emphasis will have to be placed on non-proliferation enforcement.

19.15     Personnel oversight conditions. If and when states are negotiating to eliminate their last nuclear weapons, one of the most difficult questions will be how to ensure that individuals who know how to design and build nuclear weapons will refrain from doing so. The need will be to create personnel oversight conditions ensuring confidence that this know-how will not be misapplied in violation of prohibition obligations. Terrorist cells or something analogous to them will probably continue to exist, and some states probably will continue to act far enough out of the mainstream to arouse suspicion. The mainstream states will want to know that former nuclear-states are willing to keep track of known nuclear experts in order to bolster confidence that nuclear weapons will not be illicitly produced. Given the international alarm aroused by A.Q. Khan for spreading his know-how and wares, it is easy to imagine the anxiety that could be aroused by a similar character in a world when no one is supposed to have nuclear weapons. Balancing the rights and freedoms of individuals and the interests of global security will be a non-trivial challenge.

Overcoming Specific Concerns of Particular States

19.16     Beyond these basic systemic conditions, each nuclear-armed state could be expected to identify more particular conditions it would need met before it relinquished its last nuclear weapons. That is yet another of the realities that this Commission, like all other supporters of an early move to a nuclear-weapon free world, has to face. While it is impossible now to identify with any precision the concerns that are likely to be preoccupying the various powers fifteen to twenty years hence, it is important to have at least some sense of the weight of the considerations for each of them that, at least viewed from today’s vantage point, seem likely to be most pertinent.

19.17     They seem daunting now, but as nuclear arsenals are reduced and become less salient during the minimization phase, pressure is bound to mount further on governments to justify their retention of these weapons. If our minimization point is reached and the outlook is one of sustained stability, nuclear-armed states will be able to justify resisting further moves toward zero only if they can credibly identify genuine threats to their national survival which can be reasonably argued would grow stronger if all nuclear weapons were eliminated. It is not too soon to start studying and debating these scenarios now.

19.18     United States. The U.S. seems certain to remain large and militarily powerful enough not to need to be concerned, for the foreseeable future, about any non-nuclear threat – at least of a kind currently known – to its existence or that of its allies. Like every other nuclear-armed state it would no doubt want to be confident that there was not some new kind of non-nuclear threat in the pipeline with a destructive capability functionally equivalent to today’s nuclear weapons – and biological weapons, while there is no reason today to be so alarmist, are thought by some to have that potential. The greatest impediment to the U.S. moving to nuclear abolition, however, may well prove to be not geopolitical, military, or technical but domestic-political: when even the Genocide Convention, about the merits of which there was no serious controversy at all, took forty years to win the necessary 67 Senate votes required for treaty ratification, history does not inspire optimism that this hurdle will ever be readily overcome.

19.19     Russia. Russia will want to be confident, in the future as now, that its military capability is not seen as dramatically weaker than that of the U.S. if nuclear weapons are taken out of the equation: it will remain concerned about perceived U.S./NATO advantages in conventional weapon systems and forces, ballistic missile defence technologies and space support and potential strike capabilities. It is also likely to be particularly wary of its future with China. As the latter’s population, wealth and power – and size of armed forces – continue to grow, and Russia’s population is not sufficient to support dense settlements or defences in the Far East bordering China, if Sino-Russian relations do not continue to strengthen, Russian leaders may, whatever the objective logic of doing so, cling to nuclear weapons as a deterrent. More generally, the psychological dimension of nuclear power status is likely to weigh particularly heavily with Moscow. Nuclear weapons made the Soviet Union a superpower, and with diminished claims on other grounds now to that status, Russian leaders may well be asking for a long time yet “Will the other great powers treat us a great power if we do not have nuclear weapons?”

19.20     China. China is now deeply integrated into the international community, its relationship with other nuclear-armed states is improving, and cross-Strait relations are focused on peaceful development. But if that wider integration process should become disrupted in any major way, and particularly should Taiwan seek and claim independence, supported by one or more nuclear-armed state, Beijing could be expected to be very reluctant indeed to give up its nuclear deterrent. The Taiwan contingency apart, is hard to believe that China’s identity or survival in a nuclear disarmed world could possibly be threatened in any way that nuclear weapons could credibly prevent, although – like Russia – it is showing growing signs of concern about the relative scale of U.S. non-nuclear military capability, and may well want to be assured of a reasonable degree of balance between the major powers in this respect.

19.21     France. History weighs heavily in France’s attachment to its nuclear weapons, and is as likely in two decades’ time, as now, to make it one of the very last of the nuclear-armed states to be prepared to give them up. The memory of defeat, invasion, lost national pride and millions of lives lost in 1870, 1914 and 1940, along with the perceived role played by its nuclear arsenal in guaranteeing such humiliating devastation will never occur again, lives on – even though the geopolitical ground has now been transformed by the creation of the European Union.

19.22     United Kingdom. Of all the nuclear-armed states the UK seems the least wedded, either militarily or psychologically, to its nuclear deterrent, and there is no reason to disbelieve, or fear the non-continuation, of its present position that if everyone else were prepared to give up their nuclear weapons it would not seek to justify their retention. It remains to be seen whether, in the context of significant reductions by other nuclear-armed states, that could translate into an early decision to phase out completely, and not replace at all, its ageing Trident-carrying submarines. One unstated consideration, as with France, is likely to be the UK’s concern that – in a world increasingly likely to press for a single EU seat on the Security Council, as part of its necessary restructuring to reflect the world of the 21st century – giving up its nuclear weapons will be to diminish whatever remaining claim it has to sit at the world’s top tables.

19.23     India. National pride, as well as national security, appears to have played a major role in India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and may again in the elimination endgame as well. Given its very strong conventional capability, security conditions, on the face of it, should not inhibit India from matching its very strong and consistent support in principle for abolition by going to zero if others do likewise. A complicating factor, however, may be Indian doubts about the determination of the Pakistani Army and intelligence services to vanquish terrorists that may continue to prey across its border, and the perception that Pakistani factors may be retaining some unconventional weapons to use in any conventional war thus generated.

19.24     Pakistan. Defeat by India in three conventional wars was undoubtedly the catalyst for Pakistan developing its own nuclear weapon capability, and it shows every sign of being determined to hold on to its arsenal so long as its military or civilian leaders feel that a risk of conventional war with India remains – as will clearly be the case if the two countries have not resolved their conflicting claims and interests in Kashmir and elsewhere. A further complicating factor – at least at the present stage of the country’s evolution from military to civilian rule – is the effective control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by the military, the military’s visible reluctance to hand over that control to the civilian government, and its disposition to play up the threat from India as the fundamental justification for retaining such weapons.

This all may mean that to get to zero in this region, India has to be removed as a perceived threat to Pakistan, which in turn means the risks of war stemming from subversion, low-intensity operations in Kashmir and terrorism must be more or less eliminated. This may, in turn, require the Pakistani military to play a less dominant role in the political system, and certainly to acknowledge civilian control over the state’s nuclear weapons. Since civilian rulers might also be reluctant to relinquish Pakistan’s nuclear arms, the subordination of the military to civilian rule would not in itself be sufficient for Pakistan’s nuclear disarmament, but it may be necessary.

19.25     Israel. Security, rather than any consideration of prestige, is the overwhelming rationale for Israel acquiring its – undeclared – nuclear weapons capability, and it can be taken at face value in saying that it will be prepared to join in a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone if its neighbours demonstrate by word, treaty and deed their willingness to live permanently in peace with it. The difficulty, given the troubled history of the peace process, is not only to see how that status is to be achieved, but what will satisfy Israel that it is sustainable: one can only hope that a more mutually cooperative and trusting environment will evolve over time. Certainly Israel will require exceptionally strong procedures for verifying that none of its neighbours is retaining weapons of mass destruction or the capacity to make them. It may not be willing to rely alone on the IAEA or other international inspectorates to do this, but insist on inspecting and monitoring for itself. This is impossible to imagine many Arab states and Iran accepting today: another indication of how much change in political-security relations is going to be needed before zero can become a reality in this region.


Next: 20. Mobilizing and Sustaining Political Will