July 2004: The Case for Nuclear Disarmament

U.S. pre-emptive strike policy could trigger new nuclear arms race
July 1, 2004

[At the most recent (53rd) Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs in Halifax, Sir Joseph Rotblat, aged 94, the organization’s President Emeritus, delivered a speech on “The Nuclear Issue: Pugwash and the Bush Policies.” His incisive analysis drew a standing ovation. While Sir Joseph was serving as President of the Pugwash Conference, in 1995, he and the organization were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A summarized version of his speech follows.]

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The elimination of nuclear weapons has always been the goal of Pugwash. We have pursued this goal for moral reasons, because ethical issues have always played a major role in Pugwash: any use of nuclear weapons has been seen as immoral. But we have also seen in our goals a basic purpose: survival. Any use of nuclear weapons would carry the danger of escalation and a threat to our continued existence.

But the use of nuclear weapons is explicitly contemplated in the policies of the Bush administration.

These policies have been promulgated in a number of statements, most of them made during the last few years. The following documents are of particular importance:

• The Nuclear Posture Review, January, 2002;

• The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September, 2002;

• A National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002; and

• A National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense, May 2003.

These policies seem to have two aims: one, a defensive strategy to make the United States invulnerable to an attack from outside; the second, an offensive strategy, to threaten an unfriendly regime with military action, including the use of nuclear weapons, if it attempts to acquire WMDs for itself.

For the first purpose, the decision was made to give a high priority to missile defense. As a first step, the U.S. abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had previously been considered the bedrock of the arms control system. A hugely increased budget has been provided for a missile defense project, which is said to be essential in a world of potential threats from weapons of mass destruction.

But it is in the offensive aspect that the biggest changes have occurred. The new Nuclear Posture Review spells out a strategy which incorporates nuclear capability into conventional war planning. The previous doctrine of deterrence, by which the actual use of nuclear weapons was seen as a last resort when everything else had failed, has been thrown overboard. In the new doctrine, nuclear weapons have become a standard part of military strategy; they would be used in a conflict just like any other explosives. This represents a major shift in the whole rationale for nuclear weapons.

The main reason for this change seems to be the fear that states seen as unfriendly to the U.S. may acquire weapons of mass destruction: “We will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes and terrorists to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

In this pursuit, the Bush administration is prepared to go very far, including pre-emptive strikes: “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.” And it goes on: “To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively.”

The implementation of this policy has already begun. The United States is designing a new nuclear warhead of low yield, but with a shape that would give it a very high penetrating power into concrete, the “robust nuclear earth penetrator.” It is intended to destroy bunkers with thick concrete walls in which nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons may be stored, or enemy leaders may seek shelter.

To enable this project to go ahead, the U.S. Senate has already decided to rescind the long-standing prohibition on the development of low-yield nuclear weapons. Other types of warheads are also contemplated.

The new weapons will have to be tested. At present, there is a treaty prohibiting the testing of nuclear weapons (except in sub-critical assemblies), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States has signed but not ratified. Given the contempt of the Bush administration for international treaties, little excuse would be needed to authorize the testing of the new weapon. Indeed, the need to resume testing is now openly advocated.

If the U.S. were to resume testing, this would be a signal to other nuclear weapon states to do the same. China would be almost certain to resume testing. After the U.S. decision to develop ballistic missile defenses, China feels vulnerable, and is likely to attempt to reduce its vulnerability by modernizing and enlarging its nuclear arsenal. Other states with nuclear weapons, such as India or Pakistan, might also use the window of opportunity opened by the U.S. to update their arsenals. The danger of a new nuclear arms race is real.

Another worry about the development of the new bomb is that it would blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons. The chief characteristic of a nuclear weapon is its enormous destructive power, unique even in comparison with current chemical or biological weaponry, also designated as weapons of mass destruction. This has resulted in a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons in combat, a taboo that has held out since Nagasaki. But if at one end of the spectrum a nuclear bomb can be manufactured which does not differ quantitatively from ordinary explosives, then the qualitative difference will also disappear; the nuclear threshold will be crossed, and nuclear weapons will gradually come to be seen as a tool of war, even though the danger they present to the existence of the human race will remain.

For the U.S., the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons has already been eroded, as was made clear in the Nuclear Posture Review, but the situation has become even more threatening with the additional disposition to act pre-emptively.

The danger of this policy can hardly be over-emphasized. If the militarily mightiest country declares its readiness to carry out a pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, others may soon follow. The Kashmir crisis last year is a stark warning of the reality of the nuclear peril. India’s declared policy is not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. But, if the United States—whose nuclear policies are largely followed by India—makes a pre-emptive nuclear use part of its doctrine, this would give India the legitimacy to similarly threaten pre-emptive action against Pakistan. George Fernandes, India’s Minister for Defense, declared recently that India had “a much better case to go for pre-emptive action against Pakistan than the United States had in Iraq.”

Taiwan presents another potential scenario for a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the United States. Should the Taiwan authorities decide to declare independence, this would inevitably result in an attempted military invasion by mainland China. The U.S., which is committed to the defense of Taiwan, may then opt for a pre-emptive strike.

And we still have the problem of North Korea, described by Bush as one of the countries in “the axis of evil.” Under the Bush dictum not to allow the possession of weapons of mass destruction by any state considered to be hostile, North Korea will be called upon to close down all work on nuclear weapons. It is by no means certain that Kim Jong Il will submit to these demands, and a critical situation may arise in that part of the world.

A major worry in this respect are developments in Japan. So far, Japan has been kept out of the nuclear weapons club by Article 9 of its constitution:

“. . . the Japanese people forever renounce…the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

However, partly at the urging of the U.S., strong tendencies are now appearing—with the backing of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi—to revise the constitution so as to make it legal for Japan to become a nuclear-weapon state.

Altogether, the aggressive policy of the United States, under the Bush administration, has created a precarious situation in world affairs, with a greatly increased danger of nuclear weapons being used in combat.

Moreover, if the use of nuclear weapons is made legal, it would preclude the passing of laws to prevent the development of new types of weapons, with even greater destructive potential than current WMDs—a truly horrifying prospect. Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, gives civilization a 50/50 chance of surviving this century. Others believe that this is optimistic.

What should be the Pugwash stand on this matter? Does the new situation call for a corresponding change in our activities?

In 2002, in La Jolla, we adopted the Goals of Pugwash for the next five years. The relevant document states: “Pugwash is strongly committed to the goal of abolishing all nuclear weapons. It is imperative that Pugwash constantly remind the international community of the immorality, illegality, and peril inherent in nuclear weapons, and to propose concrete steps towards their elimination.” In the second year of the Quinquennium, it is high time to take these steps.

Any attempt to achieve our goals by persuading the Bush administration to change its policies through logical persuasion, or by appealing to moral instincts, would be hopeless and a complete waste of time. But it may not be a waste of time if such an appeal is made to the general public. Hope lies in a change of public opinion, particularly in the United States, to rise in opposition to the current policies, and throw them out in the process usually employed in democratic countries, namely, in free elections. Therefore, my suggestion is that the Pugwash effort should be towards an acceleration of that process in a campaign to influence public opinion, a campaign based on principles of morality and equity.

The immorality in the use of nuclear weapons is taken for granted, but this aspect is very seldom raised when calling for nuclear disarmament. We are told that a campaign based on moral principles is a non-starter, and we are afraid of appearing naïve and divorced from reality. I see in the use of this argument evidence that we have allowed ethical considerations to be ignored for far too long. We are accused of not being realistic when what we are trying to do is to prevent real dangers—the dangers that would result from the current policies of the Bush administration.

The public at large is ignorant about these dangers, and we urgently need a campaign of public education.

The other basic principle is adherence to international law. It is a sine qua non of a civilized society that nations fulfill their legal obligations and respect international law. World peace cannot be achieved without adherence to international treaties.

There is much deliberate obfuscation and brainwashing in this respect. Let me illustrate this with the example which happens to be at the heart of the problem, the problem of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Pugwash was very much involved in this treaty, in its earliest years, when we saw it as an important measure towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. Let me recall the salient facts about the NPT, to which 98% of nations have subscribed. In accordance with the treaty, all non-nuclear states that signed it undertook not to acquire nuclear weapons in any way. At the same time, the five states which officially possessed those weapons—by virtue of the fact that they had tested them by a certain date—undertook to get rid of theirs. The relevant Article VI reads:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

By signing and ratifying the NPT, the nuclear member states are legally committed to nuclear disarmament. The hawks in those states, however, in an attempt to retain nuclear weapons, utilized an ambiguity in Article VI, which makes it appear that nuclear disarmament is linked with the achievement of general and complete disarmament. But the NPT Review Conference—an official part of the implementation of the NPT—at its session in 2000, removed this ambiguity in a statement issued by all five nuclear weapons states. It contains the following:

“. . . an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States Parties are committed under Article VI.”

This makes the situation perfectly clear. The Bush policy, which is based on the continued existence (and use) of nuclear weapons, is in direct contradiction to the legally binding NPT.

But the Bush administration seems to have managed to convince the public that only a part of the NPT—the part that applies to the non-nuclear states—is valid, and that therefore states which violate it (as Iran now stands accused of doing) must be punished for their transgression. The part concerning the obligation of the nuclear states is deliberately being obliterated. Let me cite two items which recently appeared in British national newspapers:

“At a meeting of the IAEA today, the U.S. will urge it to declare Tehran in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty seeks to confine nuclear weapons to Russia, Britain, France, China and America.”

I have emphasized the second sentence because it displays the complete reversal of the purpose of the NPT.

The other newspaper—none other than The Times—reports similarly:

“It [the NPT] was established to stop the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the original declared nuclear powers of the U.S., China, Russia, the UK and France.”

Again there is no mention of the obligation of the five nuclear states.

We are being told all the time how dangerous nuclear weapons are and that they must not be allowed to fall into the hands of undesirable elements or rogue regimes: “Weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, biological, and chemical—in the possession of hostile states and terrorists, represent one of the greatest security challenges facing the United States.”

What we are not being told is that these weapons are just as dangerous in the possession of friendly nations. We are not being reminded that—with the realization of these dangers—even the United States has undertaken to get rid of its own nuclear arsenal. We are facing here a basic issue in which the ethical and legal aspects are intertwined. The use of nuclear weapons is seen by the great majority of people in the world as immoral, due to their indiscriminate nature and unprecedented destructive power. Their possession—and therefore likely use—is thus equally unacceptable, whether by “rogue” or “benevolent” regimes.

The elimination of nuclear weapons has been the declared aim of the United Nations from the beginning, and resolutions to this effect are passed, year after year, by large majorities of the General Assembly. These resolutions are ignored by the nuclear weapon states, as are all attempts to discuss the issue by the organization set up for this purpose, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

There is a need to keep hammering home the point that America’s stand on the NPT issue is iniquitous. It has signed and ratified an international treaty which commits it to get rid of nuclear weapons, yet it is pursuing a policy which demands the indefinite retention of these weapons.

We have to keep on highlighting the fundamental inconsistency in the U.S. policies. The U.S. must make a choice: if it wants to keep nuclear weapons, then it should withdraw from the NPT (which would probably result in a massive increase in the number of nuclear weapon states). Otherwise, it must abide by the terms of the NPT and get rid of its nuclear arsenal. Tertium non datur. There is no third way.

I believe that a campaign to educate and influence public opinion, centered on the issue of the NPT, would stand a good chance of being successful.

The task of influencing public opinion is far too big for an organization like Pugwash to undertake by itself. Collaboration with other organizations would be essential. This would go against our traditional modus vivendi; Puwash has often been accused—perhaps justifiably—of being an exclusive club. But even if our mode of work has been justified in the past, I believe that the time has come to open up. I am not advocating that Pugwash should become a mass movement; what I am suggesting is that we should be more willing to collaborate with other organizations in the sense of spearheading a large effort to provide information to the general public. Pugwash is a movement of scientists, but the job of the scientist is not only to do original research; education is an essential element, too. And this is in essence what I propose.

An initiative in this direction has already been started by the British Pugwash Group. In setting up a “Nuclear Weapons Awareness Project,” the British Pugwash Group is collaborating with about a dozen other British organizations, ranging from BASIC (the British American Security Information Council) to MEDACT (Medical Action), from CND to Greenpeace. I suggest that the Pugwash Council should take it up and find ways to implement it on an international scale.

Let me now conclude with some simple observations of a more general nature, but relevant to the problems I have raised.

I believe in the inherent goodness of humankind. What would be the point of keeping the human species if this were not true? But then our task must be to ensure that this belief gains general acceptance.

We still conduct world affairs on the outdated principle that our survival demands being militarily strong. This is a remnant of our early history, when humans had to resort to violence in order to survive or to ensure continuation of the species. It completely ignores the radical changes that have occurred as a result of the advances in science and technology, changes which make such a stand no longer necessary. If equitably distributed, our resources could be sufficient to meet the basic needs of the world population, despite its huge increase.

Moreover, thanks largely to the fantastic progress in technology, our world is becoming more and more interdependent, more and more transparent, more and more interactive. Inherent in these developments is a set of agreements, ranging from confidence-building measures to formal international treaties; from protection of the environment to the clearance of mine fields; from Interpol to the International Criminal Court; from ensuring intellectual property rights to the Declaration of Human Rights. Respect for, and strict adherence to, the terms of international agreements are at the basis of a civilized society. Without this, anarchy and terrorism would reign, the very perils President Bush is allegedly committed to eradicate. While he tackles this issue by military means, we must strive to achieve it by peaceful means. While the Bush administration plans to act unilaterally, we have to ensure that world security is entrusted to the United Nations, the institution set up for this purpose. And we must link our respect for the law with strong moral principles.

Many Pugwash members are professionals, trained to look at problems in a detached, realistic, non-sentimental approach. But we are all, primarily, human beings, anxious to provide security for our nearest and dearest, and peace for fellow citizens of our nation and the world. We want to see a world in which relations between people and between nations are based on compassion, not greed; on generosity, not jealousy; on persuasion, not force; on equity, not oppression.

These are simple, some will say romantic, sentiments, but they are also realistic necessities. In a world armed with weapons of mass destruction, the use of which might bring the whole of civilization to an end, we cannot afford a polarized community, with its inherent threat of military confrontations. A global, equitable community, to which we all belong as world citizens, has become a vital necessity.