Nuclear Disarmament Gravely Ill, but not Dead

by Scott Sharon

Scholars in the nuclear policy community have written off the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference as a failure, without any acknowledgment of the notable progress that has been made within the past few years. 

Yukiya_Amano_IAEAIAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the NPT Conference in New York on April 27, 2015. (IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

Yes, it’s true. According to the State Department, Russia did in fact violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Forces Treaty (INF) one year ago, and Vladimir Putin’s recent revelation that he was prepared to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea following the collapse of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s government harkened back to Cold War rhetoric. Yes, it’s true: Iran is most likely seeking a nuclear weapon to threaten its neighbors, and there is absolutely zero guarantee the nuclear deal with the P5+1 will be sealed at the end of this month. Yes, it’s true: North Korea might very well have doubled its nuclear arsenal in recent years.  Sure, these realities all sound like the drive for global nuclear disarmament is akin to beating a dead horse.  But is it really fair to say that this Herculean task is really moot?

It is convenient for one to brood over the apparent failures of the recent Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Sure, the long-sought conference on making the Middle East a WMD-free zone went nowhere given strong objections from the United States and Canada about Israel being singled out for its opaque nuclear policy.  It is also difficult to envision a strong amount of trust between the countries that possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States, in light of the Ukraine conflict, and what Russia views as NATO expansion on its front doorstep.  In spite of this, the movement toward disarmament—while moving slowly—is still taking place. A recent study conducted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed that the total number of nuclear warheads in the world is, in fact, declining due to the hard-fought efforts of the former Cold War adversaries.  Whilst Ukraine might render many areas of traditional cooperation next to impossible, the truth is that between 2010, the year New START was ratified by the U.S. Senate, and 2015, world stockpiles have dropped from 22,600 to 15,850.  Another survey, by the Federation of American Scientists, has current estimates as low as 15,700.  Though that may seem like a drop in the bucket for disarmament, the same studies had a global stockpile amount at just over 16,000 in 2014.  These decreases, however slight compared to total inventories, can still be considered a modest success and are proof that the drive toward global disarmament still remains.

Of course, one has to also look at how many of these nations are continuing to upgrade and modernize their nuclear forces.  And with the Cold War over, regardless of the state of affairs with Russia, the United States continues to spend $64 million annually on the maintenance, care, and production of nuclear weapons.  This conservative estimate, the result of a Ploughshares Fund study conducted in 2012, was a projected outlook over the course of a decade.  According to Arms Control Association, hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent over the next 20–30 years to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  The United States, along with Russia and a few other  states in possession of nuclear weapons, have made it clear they intend to follow suit, and these actions suggest none is ready to relinquish its arsenals anytime soon.

Given there has already been a decline of 30 percent since 2010, with almost one thousand nuclear weapons dismantled in the past year alone, how can the fact that countries plan to upgrade, and possibly expand, their arsenals be of any comfort?  For one thing, when you look at where the world stood almost thirty years ago, when the Cold War was ending, we have walked back quite far from the first precipice. Nuclear nations have moved from possessing well over 60,000 nuclear weapons globally to practically a quarter of that figure today.  Is that much progress when you consider what one single bomb can do?  Maybe not, but one less nuclear weapon will always be preferable to one more.  In 1963, President Kennedy eerily predicted that, by 1975, anywhere from ten to twenty nations might possess nuclear weapons.  Thankfully, we have never come anywhere near that number, but what has happened is that 15 countries in the past 40 years have either dismantled their nuclear weapons, sworn never to build them, or given up the quest.  That’s almost President Kennedy’s entire forecast, but in this case it has thankfully gone in the opposite direction.

In the meantime we have an aggressive Russia, a boisterous North Korea, and a calculating Iran. No one said the task ahead would be an easy one, and as history has shown, there are numerous stops and starts—but all the same, “nuclear nonproliferation successes have outnumbered failures and dire forecasts decades ago…have not come to pass.”  One can say the future of disarmament is at a crossroads judging by the lack of speed and progress. But one thing is for certain—as long as nuclear weapons exist, there will always be a will, and a universal need, to eliminate them.

Scott Sharon is an Editor at Tactical Defense Media. He is also a Manager of Job Link, YPFP’s jobs department. In addition to his love of Cold War history and nuclear disarmament, Scott is also a musician and avid film buff.