NUCLEAR ABOLITION: The Double Standards of Nuclear Powers

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Viewpoint* by Ray Acheson** in New York

On 5 February, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) entered into force. New START is an agreement between Russia and the United States that sets 1550 as the limit of how many nuclear warheads each country can deploy at any given time (down from 1700-2200 under the old arrangement). The treaty does not affect the number of nuclear warheads each country can possess, which is estimated at 8500 for the US and 11,000 for Russia.

New START has been hailed as a victory by most arms control and disarmament advocates, who claim that while the treaty does not do much for disarmament, it should pave the way for actual reductions and will strengthen the relationship between the two major nuclear powers.

In reality, however, the treaty has stark consequences for the future of nuclear disarmament. In exchange for US Senate ratification of the treaty, the Obama administration promised 185 billion USD for the modernisation of nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and related infrastructure over the next twenty years. Similarly, the Russian Duma adopted the treaty only on the condition that the government will invest in the development and production of new types of strategic offensive weapons and in "preserving and developing the necessary research and development base and production capabilities" of Russia's strategic nuclear forces.

In May 2010, all 189 states that are party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -including Russia and the United States- agreed to an action plan to advance nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Action 1 of this plan commits all members "to pursue policies that are fully compatible with the treaty and the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons". In 2005 and 2010, all of the NPT-recognised nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the UK and US, which are also the permanent five members of the UN Security Council) espoused an "unequivocal undertaking" to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. The obligation to disarm is a core element of the NPT, embedded in article VI, which also mandates an end to the modernisation of and investment in nuclear weapons by obligating the nuclear weapon states to negotiate a cessation of the nuclear arms race.

Despite these legal obligations, all of the nuclear weapon states are engaged in or have plans to modernise their nuclear arsenals and related facilities over the coming decades.

Modernisation of existing US warheads is ongoing to extend their life and other features, including in some cases additional military capabilities. There are also efforts underway to increase investment in new infrastructure for building nuclear weapon components.Russia's government has pledged its commitment to modernise all three legs of its nuclear forces -intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines, and bombers.

In 2010, the French navy deployed a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the M-51. It is expected that the missiles will be armed with a new warhead later this decade. The United Kingdom has postponed its plans to modernise Trident but has not scrapped the idea. China is deploying new mobile missiles and a new class of ballistic missile submarine, and reportedly is increasing its number of nuclear warheads.

As for those states not party to the NPT, new US intelligence reports indicate that Pakistan has expanded its nuclear arsenal over the last several years (to 90-110) and is building its capacity to produce more fissile material for nuclear weapons. According to NGO estimates in 2010, India is continuing to develop a triad of offensive nuclear forces and is planning to introduce several additions to its arsenal, including ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and possibly a nuclear-capable cruise missile. The plans for Israel's nuclear weapon forces are unknown.

The implications of nuclear weapon modernisation for international security and the stability of the non-proliferation regime are grave. At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the majority of states that do not possess nuclear weapons complained about the double standards of the nuclear powers, which seek to strengthen controls against proliferation while at the same time engaging in the refurbishment of their own arsenals. While the leaders of many of the nuclear powers have by now professed their interest in seeking "a world without nuclear weapons", their budgets and policies contradict this claim, leading to frustration and cynicism among non-nuclear states and threatening the integrity of the NPT.

As the Norwegian ambassador warned, "A world without nuclear weapons cannot continue to be just a vision. It is an objective which we, states parties to the NPT, are committed to achieve." The Western countries seeking increased restrictions on nuclear technology to prevent proliferation were unable to push through reforms largely because the majority of non-weapon states refused to accept more controls on their activities while the weapon states continue to invest in their arsenals and refuse to commit to a process and timeline for complete disarmament.

Plans to modernise nuclear arsenals cast dark shadows over prospects for disarmament in any near-term future. While some governments and a large number of civil society groups are trying to initiate negotiations of a nuclear weapons convention -a ban on nuclear weapons- the nuclear weapon possessors appear far from ready to engage in multilateral disarmament talks. But if the danger of nuclear war is to be eliminated, ceasing to plan and build for an eternal nuclear threat must come early, not late, in the process. (COPYRIGHT IPS | February 2011)

* This Viewpoint is being re-published as part of a project sponsored by Soka Gakkai with IPS Japan and Global Perspectives as partners.

** Ray Acheson is the director of Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom that advocates for nuclear disarmament and monitors nuclear weapon issues. She is the editor of RCWAs reporting publications and also an anthology of NGO writings, Beyond Arms Control: Choices and Challenges for Nuclear Disarmament (2010).

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