A world without nuclear weapons is a conceptually desired utopia. Nuclear zero, a scenario in which all nuclear armaments are disarmed, would arguably make the world a safer place. But with several rogue states and terrorist groups still active in the pursuit of nuclear weapons, is complete disarmament actually possible?
Treaties have been put in place to reach this ideal. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is arguably the most far-reaching of the treaties designed to curb nuclear weapons activity. States who sign the NPT agree not to pursue nuclear weapons development and in exchange are guaranteed international assistance in developing a nuclear power program. Currently there are 93 signatory states, symbolizing a worldwide recognition that a world without nuclear weapons is desirable. Many have given up their pursuit of nuclear weapons in favour of pacifistic nuclear energy development, including Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa
Other treaties have focused on the disarmament of nuclear weapons. The Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) and New Start Treaty were signed by the United States and Russia in 2002 and 2011 respectively. Both treaties aim at the overall reductions of American and Russian nuclear stockpiles. The SORT calls for both sides to reduce their nuclear warheads to a number between 1,700 and 2,200, while New Start aims for further reductions to a limit of 1,550 by 2018. Currently, both possess roughly 1,800 deployed strategic warheads, demonstrating an overall decline of nuclear weapons by the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers.
The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) are two treaties that look to curb the demand and supply side of illegal nuclear transactions by state-to-non-state or non-state-to-non-state actors. Both focus on the prevention of proliferation of nuclear materials and information. The GTRI covers three aspects: converting nuclear weapons, removing excess materials, and guarding high priority materials from theft. Since 2004, the GTRI has converted 88 HEU reactors, removed 4,100 kilograms of HEU, and completed physical protection upgrades at more than 1,700 US facilities.
Meanwhile, the Proliferation Security Initiative seeks to criminalize the trafficking of WMD-related materials through international cooperation. The PSI is a joint initiative that aims to prevent the dispersion of nuclear materials to non-state actors. In securing and criminalizing the limited number of nuclear weapons available both the GTRI and PSI have put in place safeguards to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by non-state actors.
Given the success of these agreements, complete disarmament appears to be possible. However, these treaties may have already reached the peak of their success. The NPT has only been able to deter states up to a certain point in their desire to obtain nuclear weapons. North Korea was an original signatory but withdrew in December 2002. It continues to pursue nuclear weapons, as evidence by its nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013. The case of India and Pakistan is another example. Both are nuclear weapons states that have not signed on to the NPT. They have gone to war several times with each other since India gained independence in 1947 and their conflict continues to this day.
The SORT and the New Start treaties are also limited in their reach: they will be unable to motivate the United States and Russia to disarm past a certain point. As Peter Jones remarks: “Reductions…will begin to bump up against a variety of other technical issues…” Coordination is a core issue here. Russia will not disarm past a certain point unless China also reduces its stockpile. China will not disarm past a certain point unless the United States abandons its nuclear missile defense system. The United States is unlikely to disarm any more of its munitions due to domestic pressure and the emphasis on preserving national security. Reaching nuclear zero via SORT and New Start is an arduous task because it requires multiple actors with different motivations to disarm uniformly.
Lastly, as long as there is demand for nuclear or radiological weapons, there will be someone to supply them. There are many channels of operation that make these transactions possible, ranging from legal trade in dual use items for nuclear weapons between states to illicit smuggling networks to front companies that are able to sidestep rules and controls. Provided that there remains demand for nuclear materials and knowledge, and that there will be someone and someway to supply them, a world free of nuclear weapons is an unlikely reality.
The concept of nuclear zero is certainly one that is desirable. Questions, however, remain about its feasibility.
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Aleks Dzintars is an M.A. candidate at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He has written on several topics including diplomacy, security, and immigration. His primary research interest and working thesis focus on the challenges of the Swedish immigrant labour market, the Swedish government’s policies in response to amend them since 2000, and the ultimate efficacy of their programmes.
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