by Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
On Tuesday, January 16, President Donald J. Trump will meet Nursultan Nazarbayev, the veteran President of Kazakhstan, at the White House. After a one-on-one meeting, the two leaders will be joined by their high level teams. This is the first full-scale working visit of a Central Asian leader to the Trump White House. From Washington, Nazarbayev will proceed to New York, where he will officially open a session devoted to the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), over which his country is presiding this month.
Kazakhstan will preside over a deeply divided Security Council, in which the two permanent members, China and Russia, repeatedly clash with the UN host, the U.S., also a permanent member of the Council. However, all the permanent members are seeking to contain the North Korean nuclear breakout, a task in which Kazakhstan can help a lot. As UNSC rotating chair in January and non-permanent member for 2017-2018, Astana intends to promote an ambitious international agenda, including striving for a nuclear weapons-free world, eliminating global war, and working on conflict settlements.
It declared an interest in adapting the UNSC and the UN system to the threats and challenges of the 21st century. While serving in the Security Council presidency, Kazakhstan will organize a thematic debate on confidence-building measures relating to WMD and non-proliferation on January 18; building a regional partnership in Central Asia, including Afghanistan on January 19; and an open debate on the Middle East later in the month.
When it comes to nuclear and WMD non-proliferation and disarmament, Nazarbayev’s visit – and his country’s example – have much to offer to the United States, the two Koreas, and the world. The story deserves to be told as it teaches a valuable and timely lesson: nukes don’t pay – disarmament does.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan – a newly independent state – inherited a massive Soviet-era missile and nuclear weapons arsenal. It also possessed literally tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, ballistic missiles, a nuclear testing ground in Semipalatinsk (Semey), and a spaceport in Baikonur.
What followed was truly a feat of turning nukes into ploughshares, as the U.S.-funded Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative, the brainchild of then-Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Sam Nunn (D-GA), funded the country’s nuclear disarmament and the removal of its HEU to the US and Russia. The Semey testing ground was shut down in 1991, but required a 17-year long cleanup process. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Kazakhstanis became deathly ill in the aftermath of the Soviet nuclear testing. Baikonur still operates, but now exclusively as a civilian spaceport under the Russian long-term lease.
After independence, Kazakhstan signed a number of key international arms control treaties, including START-I, the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) with the Additional Protocol, which ensures invasive inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In 2006, the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states signed a Treaty establishing the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone which entered into force in 2009.
The Soviets also had sited major biological and chemical weapons programs in Kazakhstan, including a massive bioweapons plant in Stepnogorsk, capable of the industrial production of plague on a scale sufficient to kill the entire population of the planet. These were painstakingly decommissioned with US assistance.
It is not surprising that after the life under the combined threats of illness from nuclear testing and bio and chemical weapons programs, under the Nazarbayev’s presidency Kazakhstan fully renounced the Soviet-legacy weapons of mass destruction. With full U.S. support, it became a leader in international non-proliferation. As a country committed to international integration, including modernization, economic reform, an investor-friendly climate, and boosting education, Kazakhstan gained much more than it lost when it relinquished its nukes.
Today, Kazakhstan is a magnet for foreign investment, especially in oil, gas and other natural resources. Major US companies, including Chevron, Exxon, GE, Boeing and others are doing billions of dollars worth of business in the heart of Eurasia.
This new wave of modernization has opened the gates for investment in services, transportation infrastructure, agriculture, the biomedical fields, and even high tech. Having given up its nukes, Kazakhstan still maintains a leadership position in the nuclear field. In August 2017, it opened the low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank, a store of fissile material from which countries anxious to develop civilian nuclear energy for power generation can obtain nuclear fuel under the IAEA supervision.
Kazakhstan is also the world’s biggest exporter of uranium ore, and boasts some of the largest uranium deposits on the planet – in addition to being a major exporter of crude oil.
Today, the lessons of Kazakhstan’s nuclear trade-off are particularly valuable for Korean crisis management, and the eventual disarmament of North Korea. Kazakhstan can be a positive model for the North Koreans and others on how to trade in a nuclear arsenal for a massive investment and technical assistance package from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, as well as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, as well as security guarantees from the UN Security Council five permanent members.
During their meeting at the White House, President Trump may ask his Kazakh counterpart about his ideas on how to advise North Korea on Kazakhstan’s experience, and possibly call on Astana to help conduct talks with Kim Jung Un, if the hermit communist kingdom is seriously committed to disarmament and reform.
Astana has already played an important role as a neutral negotiating platform for the Iranian nuclear deal as well as the Syrian cease-fire talks during last year, and may yet emerge as a venue to settle the most dangerous nuclear crisis in Asia.
- Ariel Cohen, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council (atlanticcouncil.org) and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics (CENRG) at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (iags.org)