Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The UN Weighs in on the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

Stating the obvious, the UN is set to issue a report tomorrow on the increasing weakness of the world's nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The report...will recommend the UN Security Council slow the spread of weapons using an explicit pledge of “collective action” against any state or group that launches a nuclear attack or even threatens such an attack on a non-nuclear-weapon state.
This is hardly earth shaking news. However, it is highly unlikely that the UN can get beyond a vague sense of what collective action would entail. For example, if the US used nuclear weapons for some reason, would the UN take "collective action" against the US? How about Russia? China? Great Britain? France? One of the virtues of possessing nuclear weapons is that they are pretty much the ultimate in defense and also provide a strong element of deterrence.

Given that the five permanent members of the Security Council are all recognized Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) under the NPT, how could the UN take anything more than token "collective action" against one of these states?

As for the threat of a nuclear attack, how will "threat" be defined? Could statements intended to deter be taken for threats? After all, deterrence is based on a clear and credible threat to punish disproportionately if your opponent does X.

Kofi Annan, UN secretarygeneral, last year established a panel of 16 veteran politicians and diplomats from around the world to identify the main threats facing mankind. It identifies nuclear proliferation as a particular danger and it warns: “The nuclear proliferation regime is at risk because of lack of compliance with existing commitments, a changing international security environment, and radical advances in technology.
The nuclear proliferation regime is at risk because of four distinct groups: [1] states who have not joined it such as India, Pakistan, Israel [2] states who have joined and still pursued nuclear weapons - North Korea and Iran [3] states who have tried to profit from this including France, Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea, and Germany and [4] non-state actors seeking nuclear weapons that do not pay any attention to such a regime.

Secretary Annan's reference to the "lack of compliance with existing committments" paints a bulls eye on the UN. After all, it is under the rubric of the UN and its umbrella groups that the regime is maintained. Failure to hold a state to its commitment is a failure by member states and the organization in general. The failure of Kofi Annan to make this a priority to this point demonstrates that the UN has proven itself a weak reed in dealing with this issue to this point. If it cannot agree on whether states are cheating or how to take effective action to preserve the regime, how can we expect the UN to take collective action when states use or threaten to use nukes? Will the UN be taking action against North Korea for its repeated nuclear threats against the US? Somehow, I doubt it.

“We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the nuclear regime could become irreversible, and result in a cascade of proliferation.” In 1963, only four states had nuclear arsenals. Today eight states are known to have one, and several others are suspected of developing them. Close to 60 states operate or are building nuclear power or research reactors, and at least 30 possess the infrastructure to build nuclear weapons at relatively short notice. Terrorists are also believed to be seeking them.
Interestingly, the biggest proliferation risk in the world is a US that drastically reduces its commitments around the world. US withdrawal from Europe or Asia would likely cause horizontal proliferation (Germany, Japan, South Korea) and vertical proliferation (China and North Korea).

The above statement, while true, is nothing new. Arguably, since the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan in the 1990s, the regime has been greatly weakened. With India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea having nuclear weapons and all being outside the regime, it highlights that four states have nuclear weapons outside the NPT and five have it within the NPT. Given that the states still seeking nuclear weapons are doing so within the NPT, it reveals a crisis from within the regime and a challenge from without. This is not likely to change any time soon.

It argues that nuclear weapons states “must honour their commitments to move towards disarmament”, and reaffirm promises not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. The Security Council pledge for “collective action” could help ease non-nuclear states' concerns. All de facto nuclear states, including Israel, Pakistan and India (which are not named), should “pledge a commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament”, ratify the comprehensive test-ban treaty and support talks on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. In order to reduce supply, the panel says the IAEA's additional protocol should become the standard, and urges a new system whereby peaceful nuclear technology users could be guaranteed fissile material although the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes “must be preserved.”
The idea that the designated NWS will move toward disarmament is highly unlikely when new states are developing nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons are still being pursued by rogue states and terrorists, and the international community appears to lack the collective will to stop it.

I suppose it will generate some nice press coverage about the vision and commitment of the UN, but barring a miraculous change in international politics, this problem is far more likely to become worse rather than better.