I recently returned home to New Zealand from attending a major conference at the United Nations in New York reviewing prospects for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Because a shaky consensus was reached, the conference has been hailed a success. However, what struck me was how detached the negotiations were from the reality of what the diplomats were haggling over.
As a former operator of British nuclear weapons, I try to articulate this reality, and to "get up close and personal" with this desperately serious issue for humanity, most recently in Security Without Nuclear Deterrence and a New York Review of Books symposium on "Debating Nuclear Deterrence."
The nuclear weapon states' blocking of any serious moves towards honoring their obligation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to get rid of their nuclear arsenals is driven by their uncritical acceptance of nuclear deterrence. Yet my carefully considered conclusion is that nuclear deterrence is a huge confidence trick - an outrageous scam cooked up fifty years ago by the US military industrial monster created by the Manhattan Project and now dominating US politics. Look at how President Barack Obama's vision for a nuclear weapon free world, raising global expectations in his Prague speech in April last year, was quickly contradicted by his caveat that "as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies..."
In a statement on behalf of the non-governmental organization (NGO) community to delegates, I pointed out that belief in nuclear deterrence is based on a crazy premise: that nuclear war can be made less likely by deploying weapons and doctrines that make it more likely.
A rational leader cannot make a credible nuclear threat against a nuclear adversary capable of a retaliatory strike. And a second strike is pointless, because it would be no more than posthumous revenge, in which millions of innocent people would die horribly. This is why enthusiasm for a nuclear weapon free world is incompatible with the nuclear-armed states' copout mantra: "We'll keep nuclear weapons for deterrence as long as anyone else has them."
Nuclear deterrence, like all theories, is not foolproof. It entails a hostile stand-off where, in the case of the US and Russia, each side still has over 2,000 warheads ready for launch within half an hour, over twenty years after the Cold War officially ended. What is more, they still have nearly 18,000 more nuclear warheads between them held in reserve.
The George W. Bush administration was the first to admit nuclear deterrence would not work against terrorists, now perceived to be the greatest threat to Americans - other than the real risk of inadvertent nuclear war with Russia because nuclear deterrence dogma requires all those warheads on hair-trigger alert. As for terrorism, a nuclear "weapon" is militarily unusable, combining uniquely indiscriminate, long-term health effects, including genetic damage, from radioactivity with almost unimaginable explosive violence. In fact, it is the ultimate terror device, far worse than chemical or biological weapons, which are banned by global treaties.
Recent research assessing a regional nuclear war involving use of just 100 warheads, each with an explosive power of 15 kilotons like the US bomb detonated over Hiroshima, on cities in India and Pakistan found that, in addition to millions of immediate casualties, smoke from fires could block enough sunlight to cause widespread famine. For all these reasons, the overwhelming majority of states feel more secure without depending on the circular logic, myths and misleading promises of nuclear deterrence - which is effectively state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.
As in 2005, this year's NPT Review Conference was bedevilled by two closely related issues: the nuclear programmes of Iran, which is suspected of trying to build nuclear weapons, and Israel, which has denied having them for over forty years. Intertwined with these is one of several fundamental contradictions about the NPT: its promotion of nuclear energy, which inevitably stimulates nuclear proliferation because it provides the fissile material for nuclear weapons. This, and the double standards imposed on the non-nuclear member states by the privileged five recognized nuclear-armed states, with their associated veto power in the UN Security Council, have finally reduced the NPT process to impotence.
Perhaps the most positive outcome was a new groundswell of opinion among a large majority of the non-nuclear signatory states that the only hope of making any meaningful progress towards nuclear weapon abolition is to start a parallel process leading to a Nuclear Weapons Convention, like the ones banning chemical and biological weapons. A model treaty exists, drafted by a group of experts from the NGO community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been sufficiently impressed to have endorsed it as part of his five-point plan for nuclear disarmament.
Meanwhile, in Britain a coalition government has taken power at a crucial moment for the future of British and global nuclear policy. The deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, leads the Liberal Democrats, whose election manifesto included opposition to both nuclear energy and replacing the Trident nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine force with a similar system. What is more, Clegg challenged the value to Britain of the US-UK special relationship, after the debacle of blindly following the US into Iraq and Afghanistan. Such poor decisions, driven by British nuclear dependence on the US, have left a black hole in the British defence budget, with the white elephant of a replacement Trident system increasingly vulnerable.
Britain should take this opportunity to reassert its sovereignty, and exploit the US-UK relationship in a dramatically new way. Making a virtue from necessity, it should announce that it had decided to rescue the dysfunctional non-proliferation regime by becoming the first of the P5 to rely on more humane, lawful and effective security strategies than nuclear deterrence.
As with the abolition of slavery, a new world role awaits the British. Such a 'breakout' would be sensational, transforming the nuclear disarmament debate overnight. In NATO, the UK would wield unprecedented influence in leading the drive for a non-nuclear strategy - which must happen if NATO is to survive the growing strains from overstretch in Afghanistan and confusion over a common European security policy. British leadership would create new openings for shifting the mindset in the US and France, the other two most zealous guardians of nuclear deterrence.
The key is to see nuclear disarmament as a security-building process, moving from an outdated adversarial mindset to a co-operative one where nuclear weapons are recognized as a lethal liability.