Is it time to rethink global nuclear weapons policy?

Is it time to rethink global nuclear weapons policy?

By Luke Vargas   
Published
Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, at Stratcom headquarters in Offutt, Nebraska. March 2, 2017. Courtesy: Department of Defense / D. Myles Cullen
Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, at Stratcom headquarters in Offutt, Nebraska. March 2, 2017. Courtesy: Department of Defense / D. Myles Cullen

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode 15, “Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Policy.”

Subscribe to weekly episodes of “Wake” on iTunes or Google Play, and follow the broadcast on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

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Earlier this month, 122 nations finished work on a nuclear weapons ban treaty. The goal? To rid the planet of nuclear weapons.

The Cold War is over, but states with nuclear weapons remain very attached to their 15,000 warheads.

Is it time to do away with those weapons or at least rethink nuclear weapons policy? Is the new global treaty the right way to do that?

We’re taking on those questions next on Wake.

Thanks for joining us. We’re coming to you today from UN headquarters in New York.

And we’ve got a lot to get to on the topic of nuclear weapons. We’ll be talking to two experts later who helped set US nuclear weapons policy, but first we’re going to take a look at this recent UN nuclear weapons ban treaty.

To help us do that we’re joined by Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Beatrice, thanks for much for joining us.

Beatrice Fihn: Thanks so much for having me.

Luke Vargas: Give us an overview of this nuclear weapons ban treaty. What’s the driving force behind the treaty, and what does it do?

Beatrice Fihn: Well, nuclear weapons were developed in another time – 1945, World War II. And after World War II and seeing the horrors of that war, not just nuclear weapons but the outcome of that entire war, governments got together and set up some rules: the Geneva Conventions that regulate the laws of war and we decided as an international community that we would no longer attack civilians in warfare, the military response had to be proportional and things like that.

And since then we have kind of adjusted our weapons policies based on those rules. We’ve banned biological weapons, we’ve banned chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions and things like that. But nuclear weapons have always been a bit of an exception. It’s like we don’t really see [them] as normal weapons. They are exempt from normal rules.

Negotiators at the United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. July 5, 2017. UN Photo/Manuel Elias
Negotiators at the United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. July 5, 2017. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

And really what we’ve done here with this treaty is to start treating nuclear weapons just like weapons, looking at what a nuclear bomb does when it goes off, the humanitarian consequences, the impact on civilians, long-term damage to the environment.

It’s impossible to say they should be legal. It shouldn’t be legal to have them. It shouldn’t be legal to use them.

So about 122 governments have worked and adopted this treaty just two weeks ago. The treaty comprehensively bans nuclear weapons – the production of them, testing of them, development and use of course. It also provides for obligations to assist victims of nuclear detonations, including tests and use of nuclear weapons.

So it’s a really strong treaty and very rooted in international humanitarian law.

Luke Vargas: You mention these 120-odd countries that backed the treaty, none of which, I believe, possess nuclear weapons. What is the goal to change policies in nuclear states, which are so much the focus of the language of this treaty?

Beatrice Fihn: We’re used to seeing treaties, especially nuclear weapons treaties, being sort of controlling behavior, whereas this is much more of a humanitarian law treaty. We’re inspired by human rights treaties and the laws of the war, as in an aspirational treaty.

So basically we think that this can set a norm, and it can change behavior even if states with nuclear weapons don’t sign on to it. We’ve seen that be very effective in the treaties that prohibit other weapons, like the Landmines Treaty, for example. The United States has never been a party to that treaty, but has still decided to follow the rules on the Landmines Treaty.

More recently, just a few years ago, the cluster bombs were prohibited through an international treaty. The United States, Russia, China did not participate in the negotiations, they did not sign it, but we’re already seeing a change of behavior. And I think that this kind of norm building is really powerful, even if they don’t participate in the negotiations.

And I think they know it, the nuclear arms states, and that’s why they’ve been so opposing this.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is joined by French and British diplomats while giving a statement in opposition to the U.N. conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. March 27, 2017. UN Photo/Mark Garten
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is joined by French and British diplomats while giving a statement in opposition to the U.N. conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. March 27, 2017. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Luke Vargas: Speaking of the strong US reaction to this treaty. Just minutes after it was finalized, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., put out a joint statement with her British and French counterparts really lecturing the treaty creators, saying they didn’t understand how nuclear weapons make the world safer. You’re saying that if this treaty was so meaningless, why would they have drawn attention to it like that?

Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, when the negotiations started, Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. envoy, stood outside the conference room and held a protest with her British and French colleagues, and a few other states. And I think that just really shows how seriously they take it – they felt like they had to respond to it.

And the idea that they don’t understand, I think that’s really patronizing language, and it comes from this kind of view that we are the biggest states, we’re the serious states.

But it’s actually the other states, those that are participating in these negotiations, that have experienced a lot of war and armed conflict, and who know exactly nuclear weapons do not address any of the current threats we face – climate change, migration flows, organized crime, terrorism. None of those things can be fought with a nuclear bomb.

So to say that nuclear weapons keep peace is just not correct today. We live in a very different world, and the fact is that a nuclear detonation, a nuclear war for example, would have such devastating consequences and would really be a risk to everyone in the world, not just the states that have nuclear weapons.

Just like climate change, this is not an issue we can just look to one or two or three states to solve – they’re not going to solve it, we have to solve it together. And this treaty is a good starting point. It’s a basis to work on to delegitimize nuclear weapons and make them much more unattractive and unwanted than they currently are today.

A statue by Soviet artist Zurab Tsereteli depicts St. George slaying a dragon made from ragments of Soviet SS-20 and United States Pershing nuclear missiles that were destroyed under the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987. UN Photo/Milton Grant
A statue by Soviet artist Zurab Tsereteli depicts St. George slaying a dragon made from ragments of Soviet SS-20 and United States Pershing nuclear missiles that were destroyed under the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987. UN Photo/Milton Grant

Luke Vargas: Finally, Beatrice, what is the route into this agreement for nuclear countries like the U.S.? Do they simply have to say they won’t acquire new nuclear weapons or do they really have to drain their entire nuclear weapons arsenals?

Beatrice Fihn: They would need to give up their nuclear weapons if they joined. So the treaty has provisions in that that say nuclear-armed states can sign it and ratify it, and they would immediately need to take their weapons off operational status. So you just put them in storage instead of having them active, ready to launch.

And then they would need to negotiate an agreement that is time-bound and verifiable about how exactly the dismantlement should happen.

So they do need to get rid of the weapons, but the treaty also allows for some flexibility in terms of the timeframe on how that will do. So obviously a state like the United States with over 7,000 nuclear weapons will take more time than North Korea, that has maybe 15. 

So I think that the treaty allows flexibility, and it will be part of an negotiations process between the states that are members of the treaty and the nuclear-armed states about how exactly that will be.

But they can definitely join it immediately and remove the operational status of their weapons.

Luke Vargas: Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Thank you for being with us.

Beatrice Fihn: Thank you very much for having me.

Luke Vargas: We’ll be right back.

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Luke Vargas: Welcome back to “Wake,” where we explore how events overseas affect our shores. I’m your host Luke Vargas at United Nations headquarters in New York City.

This week we’re considering nuclear weapons – the size of current arsenals, their value in the modern era and talking about recent efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Let’s bring in two guests now who have been involved in helping set U.S nuclear policy in their careers.

Alexandra Bell is the Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. She formerly worked at the State Department with the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. Alexandra, welcome to the program.

Alexandra Bell: Thanks so much for having me.

Luke Vargas: And also with us is Matthew Bunn, Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he leads the Project on Managing the Atom. Professor Bunn, thank you for being with us, too.

Matthew Bunn: Good to be here.

Luke Vargas: Matthew, what do you make of this U.N. treaty that tries to outlaw nuclear weapons? If nuclear states aren’t affected by this, should we just write this treaty off?

Matthew Bunn: Well I think the treaty expresses the hope of the vast majority of the world’s country for a world free of nuclear weapons. I don’t think it’s going to get us there anytime soon, because none of the nine states that have nuclear weapons today believe they can do without them right now.

The blast door to the Launch Control Center of the U.S. Delta 1 nuclear missiles at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. Courtesy: Department of Defense archives
The blast door to the Launch Control Center of the U.S. Delta 1 nuclear missiles at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. Courtesy: Department of Defense archives

I worry that while the intentions behind the treaty are good, that it may just further the political tensions between the states that have nuclear weapons and the states that do not. In the international treaty that bans the spread of nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty the states with nuclear weapons commit to negotiate with good face toward disarmament, and the have-not states have always felt that the nuclear weapons states are not holding up their end of the bargain.

And having this ban treaty that nuclear weapons states are refusing to have anything to do with, I think will be seen as clear evidence of that failure and make the politics of trying to strengthen the effort to try and stem the spread of nuclear weapons even more poisonous than it was before.

Luke Vargas: Alexandra, you’re no longer at the State Department, but imagine this treaty gets passed, and these 120 countries say we understand the nuclear threat and you don’t. Would you predict, as Professor Bunn does, that this treaty increases the divisions between nuclear and non-nuclear states?

Alexandra Bell: Unfortunately, I do worry that that’s the case. When I was at the Department of State, I was always an advocate of trying to talk to and work with the countries that were pushing for the ban treaty.

I honestly think it came from a place of justifiable frustration with the slow pace of disarmament. States without nuclear weapons felt that states with them were not moving fast enough toward nuclear reduction.

That being said, there has been an overall global reduction of nuclear weapons stockpiles by about 85 percent – there has been quite a bit of work that’s been done.

Unfortunately, we’re now at the point where the lower the numbers get, the harder it’s going to be to verify dismantlement, to have the sort of systems in place that we know that countries are actually adhering to the negotiated treaties that they’ve signed.

So there are folks inside the State Department and in a lot of the countries that were not signatories to the ban treaty, that really do want to move towards disarmament at a faster pace – we’re just dealing with quite a few obstacles, and there’s a feeling that this ban treaty just puts another obstacle in the way.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receives a site survey of nuclear launch facilities of the Minuteman III missiles while aboard a UH-1 helicopter over Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. June 17, 2013. Courtesy: Department of Defense / D. Myles Cullen
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receives a site survey of nuclear launch facilities of the Minuteman III missiles while aboard a UH-1 helicopter over Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. June 17, 2013. Courtesy: Department of Defense / D. Myles Cullen

Luke Vargas: Alexandra, earlier in the show Beatrice argued that this treaty isn’t about mandating a change in nuclear policy, but instead about trying to shape public opinion on nuclear weapons. Is there any evidence that the public can drive government thinking on nuclear weapons policy?

Alexandra Bell: Absolutely. Two of the most important parts of the disarmament movement – the push to ratify an end-to-end atmospheric nuclear testing that became the Limited Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in the early 1960’s and then the public push in the early 1980’s, the nuclear freeze movement, was quite influential in pushing leaders to come to the table and start reducing the global stockpiles, particularly the United States and Russia.

I don’t think that this is the same kind of mass movement that we saw back then. But on the flip side I think the American public and global public is in general supportive of disarmament efforts.

But I don’t necessarily know that they’ve been involved in the way that they could or should be since the end of the Cold War.

Matthew Bunn: I think Alex is exactly right.

We get real breakthrough progress when there’s serious public pressure and public concern, but the reality is that today, most of the American public, to the extent that they even think about nuclear weapons at all, mostly worry about things like North Korea or Iran or terrorists potentially getting nuclear weapons.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 3, 2017. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. William Collette.
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 3, 2017. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. William Collette.

There’s very little public concern about how many nuclear weapons the United States has, how many nuclear weapons Russia has, et cetera.

Although actually, I would argue U.S.-Russian tensions are now at a dangerous pitch we haven’t seen since the Cold War, and we do have a serious problem with North Korea, there’s an ongoing nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. So we have a lot of very near-term nuclear challenges that we need to deal with.

Luke Vargas: Matthew, you mention the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats, which may be serious concerns, but the U.S. has 7,000 nuclear warheads. We can’t possibly need that many to credibly claim that we possess a nuclear deterrent – is that right?

Matthew Bunn: Absolutely, I think we have way more nuclear weapons than we need, and there is room to go lower.

Alex is absolutely correct that there’s significant verification and other challenges you have to deal with, and right now unfortunately, we’re sort of frozen in the process. The Russians have violated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and seem to have no intention of addressing that violation.

They’re also accusing the United States of violating the agreement, and there’s no appetite on Capitol Hill for any further arms control with the Russians in an environment in which they’re hacking our elections, seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, doing what they’ve done in Syria and also violating their past arms control commitments.

So until we can get to a better place in U.S.-Russian relations and some better Russian behavior on the strategic front and the particular arms control issues, I think it’s going to be very difficult to go further in reducing U.S. nuclear weapons.

A Russian RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile launch system is paraded through Red Square during an event marking 70 years since the end of World War II. May 9, 2015. Photo: Luke Vargas
A Russian RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile launch system is paraded through Red Square during an event marking 70 years since the end of World War II. May 9, 2015. Photo: Luke Vargas

Luke Vargas: Alex, Beatrice had said basically, look at the global challenges these days – climate change, refugees – nuclear weapons don’t do anything to fix those issues. Are you prepared to say that these weapons are a deterrent to an outdated threat? Or is the thinking that there really is something that an arsenal of this size and sophistication really helps us with?

Alexandra Bell: So the previous administration put out a posture review – a sort of, here’s what we’re thinking about our nuclear weapons arsenal as it stands – and it made the very strong case that the nuclear arsenal here in the United States does not address the threats that we face, particularly those posed by terrorism and regional conflicts, and that we have different ways of maintaining deterrents – whether it’s through conventional means, economic means, you know enhanced diplomatic efforts.

I will point out one of the things that the United States is very big on, or at least has been in the past, is transparency. The U.S. actually has only 4,000 nuclear weapons in their active stockpile, and actually puts out that number and has been putting out that number on a regular basis, unlike a lot of the other nuclear weapons states that are a little bit more opaque about their stockpiles.

So the U.S. has been trying to be very clear about what we have, how we maintain deterrence for our allies with conventional capabilities, and hopefully we’ll see a continuation of that. But the Trump Administration is currently undergoing their own nuclear posture review, and they do have the ability to change their mind on some of these issues. I hope they won’t, but if they do sort of go back to some of the more Cold War policies, I think you’ll see the tension with non-nuclear weapons states go up.

But the Trump Administration is currently undergoing their own nuclear posture review, and they do have the ability to change their mind on some of these issues. I hope they won’t, but if they do sort of go back to some of the more Cold War policies, I think you’ll see the tension with non-nuclear weapons states go up.

Luke Vargas: Alexandra, earlier this year President Trump said it would be unacceptable for the U.S. to not be “at the top of the pack” when it comes to our nuclear arsenal.

I think he alluded to Russia doing something with its nuclear weapons that we’re not. Is that the case? Is there something the Russians that we should know about, and care about?

Alexandra Bell: I won’t try to necessarily get into Trump’s brain on all of the things he says, but I assume he was referring to the modernization program in Russia. It is something that we saw coming and we are not surprised by the fact that they are modernizing their nuclear arsenal.

We are actually…it was one of the main reasons we pushed for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was ratified in 2010 and that caps its stockpile at 1,550 deployed nuclear strategic weapons. And so, you know, we tried to put that fence around Russia from being able to get further down the road on its modernization program.

The U.S. is also undergoing a modernization program. It’s currently begun. There are appropriations bills going through Congress now to, I believe, put about $1.2 trillion into the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

So while Russia has embarked on a program, so have we.

Matthew Bunn: It is an amazing irony of history that President Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his soaring disarmament rhetoric, is also the president who laid out literally a trillion dollar program to modernize every aspect of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Courtesy: Department of Defense

Luke Vargas: A final question for you both: Is there any chance the US or other nuclear states join this U.N. nuclear weapons ban treaty, and if not, where should we look for any possible progress on denuclearization? Matthew, I’ll start with you.

Matthew Bunn: Well I think there’s very little likelihood that nuclear weapons states are going to sign up for this ban treaty anytime soon.

But the reality is, as Alex mentioned, that we have already reduced nuclear weapons by 85 percent from their peak.

The vast majority of countries that once had potential nuclear bomb materials – that is, highly enriched uranium or plutonium on their soil – have gotten rid of it. In the places that it still is, it is much more secure than it was 20 years ago. So we’ve already made substantial progress making sure that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists.

And one of the remarkable things is that other than the nine states that have nuclear weapons, all the other states in the world with one or two small exceptions like South Sudan – which has had other things on its mind since it became a state – are parties to a treaty promising never to get nuclear weapons and having verification for that.

It’s never been true in human history that the most powerful weapon available to our species has been so widely forsworn. And in fact there are more states today that started nuclear weapons programs and gave them up verifiability than there are countries with nuclear weapons. So our efforts to talk countries out of it succeed more often than they fail, even in those relatively rare cases when states start down the path in the first place.

So there’s a lot that can be done to reduce nuclear dangers and to reduce nuclear weapons over time. But we’re not, unfortunately, going to see nuclear disarmament in the next few years.

Luke Vargas: Alexandra, any final thoughts?

Alexandra Bell: I’m an optimist here. I actually do think long term we can be making progress, and while we’re in the difficult period that we’re in there are lots of things that we could be doing to build the space for further reductions down the road.

One of the most important things is to build the verification technology that we would need to reduce nuclear weapons at lower numbers, and that means partnering with the tech community out in California. It means countries need to help us start to think about what these systems would look like, so when we are ready to go to more bilateral or multilateral treaties we’ll actually have the tech behind it.

It’s one of the reasons that the Chemical Weapons Convention is particularly successful, because not only did they have the ban on the weapon itself, they had the means to verify that ban.

So I think the United States is very focused on making sure they don’t sign anything that doesn’t have the verifiability behind it, so we know that people are going to adhere to the law.

Luke Vargas: Alexandra Bell is the Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Alex, thanks so much for being with us.

Alexandra Bell: Thanks for much for having me.

Luke Vargas: And Matthew Bunn, Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom. Matthew Bunn, thanks so much as well.

Matthew Bunn: Thanks so much for having me. Pleasure to be here.

Luke Vargas: I’m Luke Vargas, signing off, join us again next week, on Wake.

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