Editorial: Nuclear posturing

IssueMay 2010
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

Two issues ago, in the run-up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference taking place this month in New York, we ran an article called: “The very, very least we should demand of the NPT”.

That article raised the issue of “negative security assurances” (NSAs), guarantees that nuclear weapons will not be used on non-nuclear-weapon states: “It is an absolute scandal that this is not part of the NPT. It is an absolute scandal that the nuclear disarmament movements of the declared nuclear weapon states have not made this Point One of their campaign programmes.”

No doubt responding to this pressure, US president Barack Obama amended the US NSA in the shape of the new “nuclear posture review” (NPR) launched at the beginning of April.

While presented as a step towards nuclear disarmament, the NPR was more about non-proliferation – or, from the US point of view, maintaining global nuclear inequality.

The NPR is a carrot-and-stick combination. The carrot is that if you sign the NPT, and if the US accepts that you are in “compliance” with the NPT, you will not be attacked with nuclear weapons (there’s an possible exception for biological weapons states).

The stick is that if you don’t join, or if you leave the NPT, or if you are seen – by the US – as being “not in compliance”, then “all options are on the table” as defence secretary Robert Gates has told Iran (see p7). In other words: “Obey, stay in line and keep your head down, or be threatened with annihilation.”

Let’s leave aside all the caveats and the loopholes (for example, the NPR says “no new nuclear warheads”, but allows old components to be re-used and re-assembled into effectively new weapons). Ignoring all the details, the basic shape of the NPR is the same as that proposed by South Africa to the NPT review conference in 2000: if you’re in the NPT and in good standing, you’re safe from nuclear threats.

So the real question is: if Obama believes in this policy, why not propose a legally-binding treaty along these lines, to be signed by the declared nuclear weapon states at the NPT review conference? Policy statements like the NPR can be amended or withdrawn at will. If Obama is serious, this should be part of international law.

It’s not serious. Any more than the New START nuclear “disarmament” treaty signed by Russia and the US in early April is serious.

As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted: “The treaty will set a ceiling of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads – technically a reduction of more than 30% from the current levels – but almost all of the reductions will be accomplished by changing the way the warheads are counted.”

The very, very least we should demand of disarmament treaties is that they actually cut the number of nuclear bombs in the world.

Topics: Nuclear weapons
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