Richard Butler. Nuclear Security Summit: Washington Finale?

Apr 6, 2016

Seven years ago, President Obama spoke in Prague Square and undertook to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. He cautioned that this outcome would be immensely difficult to achieve and may not be reached in his own lifetime, but his speech was heard and widely taken as signaling an enhanced US commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

A year later he called the first meeting of a Nuclear Security Summit, to be attended by Heads of State/Government. It was held in 2010 and then followed, in 2012, 2014, and last week, the 2016 Summit, held in Washington DC, was designated as the last such gathering, at Summit level.

Australia was represented in Washington by Foreign Minister Bishop, who claimed that no country has done more to ensure nuclear security than Australia. That airy claim aside, what she did do at the Summit was sign a bilateral agreement under which Australia would supply Uranium to Ukraine.

Even though they interact in critical ways, a distinction needs to be drawn between the goal of the elimination of Nuclear weapons, and the agenda and objectives of the Nuclear Security Summits.

As was evidenced in the final communiqué, the Summit was focused, virtually exclusively, on preventing nuclear materials from being obtained by non-state groups –terrorists – and criminal groups, in other words, on a particular aspect of non-proliferation.

Unquestionably, this is a deeply important objective and the mechanisms, and international cooperation that the Summit process has established, are impressive.

About half of the areas of the world in which relevant nuclear materials have been held or stored have been cleared of them and a low enrichment nuclear fuel bank is being established in Kazakhstan, with IAEA involvement, so that States needing fuel for electricity generation can obtain it from and return it, when spent, to the bank. The point is that spent uranium fuel can be reprocessed into weapons grade plutonium. Sending it back to the bank is designed to prevent this.

The Summit was characterized as taking place not only in the light of the need to address the special challenges posed by the contemporary phenomenon of actions by non-state groups and criminal organizations, but also the wider need to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The cornerstone of that regime is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

It is essential to recall that NPT, in fact, has two objectives; preventing new acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the elimination of those already held by states, specifically the five states recognized in the treaty as the “Nuclear Weapon States” (NWS): US, Russia, China, France, UK.

In the past, the NWS have argued that these two objectives are separate and do not rely on each other. This has enabled them to argue that their tardiness in nuclear disarmament in no way reduces the obligation of non-NWS to abstain from acquiring nuclear weapons. Few have agreed with this obviously self-serving argument, not simply because that is evidently its purpose, but also because it contradicts the negotiating history of the NPT. Indeed, it seeks to re-write it.

During the course of the Summit there was discussion of the increasingly serious matter of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and there was a side meeting of the five NWS plus EU and the IAEA, on progress in the implementation of the recently concluded agreement with Iran. These were and remain palpable issues in non-proliferation.

On the other hand, it is not clear what attention was given to the nuclear weapons programs of India, Pakistan and Israel, the three non parties to NPT, each of which have nuclear weapons, have already proliferated. These are critical issues of nuclear arms control and disarmament.

Of further importance, are the facts that: the US has embarked on an extensive program of modernization of its nuclear arsenal and the development of a new Long Range Stand-off nuclear missile; the Russians are developing new nuclear weapons and longer range missiles and torpedoes; China is developing the DF-41 long range missile, with possibly the longest range of any in existence; UK is planning to renew its massively expensive Trident nuclear force.

On March 30th, the day before the Summit opened, the Washington Post published an Op-Ed by President Obama in which he claimed that he has “ruled out developing new nuclear warheads”. This attracted responses of incredulity in the US, including from former Defense Secretary William Perry. The fact is, 6 years ago, the President gave an undertaking to Congress to expend some $85 billion on warhead renewal in order to obtain its agreement to the ratification of the New Start Treaty with Russia, which set limits on their deployed nuclear weapons systems, leaving between 1800-2000 each. In fact, the overall planned upgrade of the US arsenal now approved by Obama is expected to cost some $3trillion in the next 30 years. The President may claim that this is not inconsistent with what he stated in his Op-Ed, by arguing that “renewal’ does not involve new weapons, just stockpile maintenance. Such semantics will be lost on others.

Furthermore, for the first time in the series of Nuclear Security Summits, Russia declined to attend last weeks Washington Summit.

India and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons developments signal unambiguously that they are engaged in a nuclear arms race.

And, the US continues to refuse to allow any discussion of Israel’s undeclared, but believed to be substantial, nuclear weapons capability. That refusal has come to threaten the existence of the NPT.

I have argued on earlier occasions, in Pearls and Irritations, in a number of contexts, that what we are witnessing now, in international politics, is a turning away from a will to live by and implement the key purposes and principles of the UN Charter, the post- World War II compact, and a reversion to the more traditional determinants of action by states; national interests, military power, the threat of use of force. There is possibly no clearer evidence for this claim than the insistence by NWS that their nuclear weapons capability is their right, and that it is legitimate for them to determine who else may or may not hold such weapons.

While, self evidently, the NWS are able to make such claims, and such muscularity is all too evident in history, including in its disastrous outcomes, the simple historicism which asserts that such behavior has always been the case, especially with strong and competitive States, is deeply flawed and today, unacceptably dangerous, given the horrendous destructive capacity of nuclear weapons.

In addition, the NWS have given the undertaking in NPT that they will progressively eliminate their nuclear weapons. Whether the NWS care to accept this or not, the undertaking on nuclear disarmament is fundamental to other states continuing to eschew obtaining nuclear weapons. Their current policies violate that undertaking.

It seems that the Nuclear Security Summit process has established some means to reduce or contain the dangers posed by nuclear materials, but in sidelining the gut issue of reductions in nuclear weapons already in existence and being further sought by those who already have them, it addressed only a portion of the nuclear security task. How much more encouraging it would have been if the Summit had been able to announce that the eight states possessing nuclear weapons had agreed to commence a process of working together to pursue overall reductions in their weapons arsenals.

The NPT was and is a two- way bargain. It is not being kept.

It is worth recalling an axiom identified by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons: as long as nuclear weapons exist they will, one day, be used either by accident or decision, and any use would be a catastrophe.

This truth was discerned before the emergence of contemporary terrorist groups, the suicide bomber and, the miniaturized, portable nuclear weapon.

Both in his Op-Ed and in his statement at the Summit, President Obama said that he believed that, as the US is the only state that has used nuclear weapons, it had a moral responsibility to pursue ridding the world of the unacceptable danger they pose. Doubtlessly, his acknowledgement of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have infuriated many in the US. He deserves credit for that courage, but he would move from the zone of sentiment into reality were he to seek to promote nuclear disarmament amongst holders of those weapons.


Richard Butler AC is former Ambassador to the United Nations and served as Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

Share and Enjoy !

Scroll Up

Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!