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Global Zero

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Global Zero

29 March 2012

Global Zero

By Gwynne Dyer

We have just had the second Nuclear Security Summit, in Seoul. It got surprisingly little attention from the international media although 53 countries attended. For the media, nuclear weapons yesterday’s issue, because nobody expects a nuclear war. But a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands is the defining nightmare of the post-9/11 decade, and that’s what the summit was actually about.

“It would not take much, just a handful or so of these (nuclear) materials, to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and that’s not an exaggeration,” said President Barack Obama on his way home from Seoul. “There are still too many bad actors in search of these dangerous materials, and these dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places.”

Keeping bomb-grade nuclear material out of the wrong hands requires a high level of international cooperation. Some progress was made on this issue in Seoul, in terms of coordinating police and intelligence operations, but the real problem is that there are far too many nuclear weapons in the world.

Nobody has ever come up with a plausible scenario in which a terrorist group creates a nuclear bomb from scratch. Mining uranium, refining it to weapons-grade material, and constructing a bomb that will actually produce even a 20-kiloton explosion (like the Hiroshima bomb) are tasks that require the scientific, technical and financial resources of a state.

What terrorists need is a ready-made bomb, or at least enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium that the only job left is to assemble the bomb. The only plausible source of a terrorist bomb, therefore, is the nuclear weapons programmes of the various states that own them. And the bigger those programmes are, the greater the chance that either a nuclear weapon or a large amount of fissile material will fall into the wrong hands.

Now, it may be true (or it may not) that the US nuclear weapons establishment is so efficient and experienced that there is little risk of anybody stealing American bombs or fissile material. But American security also depends on everybody else’s nuclear establishments being well protected – and this explains why Obama is a strong supporter of the “Global Zero” project.

No other US president except Ronald Reagan has called for a world with zero nuclear weapons. In 1984 Reagan said: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in (the US and the Soviet Union) possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” Obama seems to share the same goal, but his support for “Global Zero” is more nuanced.

From a high of 65,000 active nuclear weapons in 1985, the world’s stock has declined to about 8,000 active warheads now, 95 percent of them under Russian or American control. There are an additional 14,000 nuclear weapons in storage, all of them Russian or American – and those may be an even greater danger for nuclear terrorism, since they are not under hourly supervision.

The world will probably never fulfill Ronald Reagan’s dream and abolish nuclear weapons, but it would be a much safer place if there were fewer of them around. Not because that would make a nuclear war less horrible if it happened: a hundred nuclear warheads, dropped on major cities, is quite enough to destroy any country. But because the more weapons there are, the greater the risk that some will fall into the hands of terrorists.

So getting the number of active nuclear weapons in American and Russian hands down to 1,000 each, and dismantling all of the “reserve” and stockpiled weapons, is probably Obama’s real goal. The “Global Zero” rhetoric is mainly useful for bringing the old peace movement along for the ride. (And why would they complain? The essence of any political strategy is finding partners to ride with you at least part of the way to your destination.)

However, to get Russia to sign up to a mere 1,000 nuclear weapons, Obama will have to give up on ballistic missile defence. The Russians are hugely inferior to the Americans militarily by every other measure, so they cherish their nuclear parity. Effective US missile defences, if they could ever be made to work, would fatally undermine that parity.

Of course they never have been made to work reliably, even though the United States has deployed them in a couple of places. But the Russians have a childlike faith in (or rather, fear of) American technological prowess, so ballistic missile defence systems have to go.

Abandoning them would involve Obama in an immense battle with the Republican right, and he’s not going to start that battle in an election year. But that is what President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, the outgoing Russian president, were really talking about in Seoul when they were caught on an open mike.

Obama told Medvedev: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved but it’s important for [incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin] to give me space. … This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” And so he may.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. “Nobody…state”; and “The world…terrorists”)


Global Zero

9 December 2008

Global Zero

 By Gwynne Dyer

If Barack Obama sent the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to Congress for ratification early in the new session, that would be an excellent start. Since it was signed in 1996, 148 other countries have ratified it, but it cannot come into effect until the United States does, too. And then he could get on with banning the nuclear weapons themselves, not just the tests.

There’s a new initiative, launched in Paris last Tuesday (9 December) under the title Global Zero, in which more than a hundred world leaders endorse the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons completely. That may have a slightly antique ring to it — don’t these people know that the Cold War ended ages ago? — but in fact the nuclear weapons are still there.

Some twenty thousand of them, in fact. And last July, at a rally in Berlin, Obama publicly adopted the same goal: “This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Admittedly, the hundred “world leaders” are mostly ex-world leaders, and they may be suffering from “retired general syndrome.” All through their careers, generals loyally support the reigning orthodoxy about nuclear weapons, and are amply rewarded for it. Then they retire, the rewards and the status vanish, and some of them begin to wonder out loud if they ever really believed all that. Some people in the peace movement sarcastically call them “generals for peace,” and suggest that they would have been more useful if they had seen the light when they still had some power.

Most of the hundred-plus notables who signed the Global Zero declaration were not generals, but they are almost all former something-or-others: former US President Jimmy Carter, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard. Not to mention former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former British Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, Ehsan Ul-Haq, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Pakistan, and Brajesh Mishra, former Indian National Security Advisor. But for once, the “formers” are not the only ones talking sense.

What makes Global Zero more than the usual empty talk is the fact that this time all the leaders of the major powers seem to be on the same page. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in March that the United Kingdom is ready to work for “a world that is free from nuclear weapons.” On 8 December French President Nicolas Sarkozy also gave his support to the goal of general nuclear disarmament.

Last June Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh backed the same goal, saying that “the only effective form of nuclear disarmament and elimination of nuclear weapons is global disarmament.” Pakistan and China have said explicitly that they support Global Zero. In fact, the only countries that actually own nuclear weazpons that have stayed silent are North Korea and Israel.

North Korea is less of a problem than it seems, because it could probably be persuaded to give up its one or two nuclear weapons in return for strong security guarantees and lots of foreign aid, especially if the United States were getting out of the nuclear weapons business too. Israel is a knottier problem, because it doesn’t even admit that it has nuclear weapons (several hundred of them, in fact), but for the first time it could find itself facing pressure from the one country that really has leverage over Israeli policy, the United States.

One of the most striking aspects of the Global Zero meeting in Paris was the remark by Richard Burt, the man who handled the press conference, that Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal would have to be part of the process. This will have caused consternation in Israel, because while Burt currently holds no official position in the US government, he was the chief US negotiator in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) with the former Soviet Union, and he probably wouldn’t have said it if US policy were not moving in that direction.

But that’s the real question: is the United States really ready to give up its nuclear weapons? It was the first country to have them, and it has built its grand strategy around them for the past 64 years. But if it were willing to do that, and if the Russians were really willing to follow suit, then that would account for 96 percent of all the world’s nuclear weapons, and it wouldn’t be all that hard to cajole or pressure all the rest of the world’s nuclear powers into doing the same.

It would take at least a decade to get to zero from here. First, ratify the test ban treaty. Then, in the forthcoming talks to renew or replace the START treaty between the US and Russia (which expires next year), agree on really radical reductions in American and Russian nuclear weapons. Then bring in the rest of the world for the final negotiations to outlaw nuclear weapons entirely.

It still sounds like a pipe dream, but in fact the conditions have never been as promising as they are now. If Obama takes the lead, it could actually happen — and even in the depths of a recession, it wouldn’t cost anything.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Admittedly…sense”)