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Nuclear arms control in a globalized world

We live in a dangerous and uncertain world. While terrorism is the most immediate contemporary threat, the dangers of nuclear weapons remain an ever present concern. During the Cold War a series of nuclear arms control agreements helped to mitigate the worst excesses of the arms race and contributed to the easing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective alliances. Since 1985, however, the salience of nuclear weapons in international relations has declined, even though the nine nuclear weapons states continue to possess in excess of 10,000 nuclear weapons between them. Many other states have the potential to develop nuclear arms, and fears exist that terrorist groups might acquire some form of nuclear capability. A key question in global security is whether nuclear arms control still has a future?

In 2010 the United States and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) which involved significant cuts to be made in strategic delivery vehicles (SDVs) and in nuclear warheads in the period up to February 2018. SDVs were to be cut to 700 and nuclear warheads to 1500. Despite the problems over the Ukraine and deteriorating US-Russian relations, both countries by 2016 are very close to these targets, and key provisions of the Treaty including data exchanges, notifications, and on-site inspections have all been met.

As well as New START, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) Process, initiated by President Obama has also resulted in some important improvements. Starting in 2010, 53 countries have participated in a series of meetings designed to reduce the amount of dangerous nuclear materials (enriched uranium and plutonium) and to improve security of these materials. 12 of 22 NSS participating states are now free of enriched uranium, and 35 states have signed up to a joint statement binding them to strengthen their nuclear security. These summits have helped to set the foundations for a global nuclear security regime.

Nuclear Submarine Normandy cherbourg by jackmac34. Public domain via Pixabay.

Another major advance has come with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015. As result of this agreement Iran made a series of commitments to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for 15 years; to accept an enrichment cap of 5060 centrifuges; and to modify its Arak Reactor so that it could not produce plutonium. In return international sanctions were suspended. The result, according to many commentators, is that Iran has been prevented from becoming a nuclear armed state for at least 15 years.

These are important agreements, but major hurdles remain in controlling weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has flouted the non-proliferation regime and continues to test both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Nuclear modernisation by the main nuclear powers, especially the United States and Russia, also continue to threaten the bargain at the heart of the Non-proliferation Treaty of 1968. Non-nuclear states signed up to the treaty on the understanding that the nuclear states would work towards the elimination of their nuclear weapons. Reductions have been made, but the modernisation process and the time involved since the treaty was signed has left many of the non-nuclear weapon states to argue that the goal of elimination is not being treated seriously by the nuclear states.

The United States has suggested a further one third cut below the New START levels, but Russia continues to link such cuts to the resolution of other issues including US missile defences in Europe, US non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe; and advanced conventional forces. These disagreements, together with a continuing dispute between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine, as well as compliance issues relating to the 1987 INF Treaty, is seen by many as an indication that future arms control agreements between them, is, for the time being, unlikely.

This pessimism is reinforced by a continuing problem over the ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Treaty requires 44 nuclear capable countries to ratify it before it can be implemented. So far only 36 of these countries have undertaken ratification, leaving 8 countries, including the United States and China, to do so. There seems to be no sign at present that the US Congress is willing to ratify the Treaty because of concerns about verification and the continuing reliability of the US nuclear stockpile.

Despite these problems, the answer to the question: ‘Does nuclear arms control have a future?’, must be ‘yes.’ The New START Treaty continues to cut the numbers of US and Russian nuclear weapons. The NSS framework has helped to control dangerous nuclear materials and the JCPOS has prevented Iran from becoming a nuclear power for the next 15 years at least. Clearly there are many hurdles to overcome, exemplified by the North Korean nuclear programme, the dangers of terrorist groups acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and the continuing difficulties over ratifying the CTBT. The continuing distrust between the nuclear powers themselves, and between the nuclear powers and many non-nuclear states, as well as the effects of globalization on the continuing availability of nuclear materials and knowledge, means that arms control can only have a limited effect on reducing tensions and preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the years ahead. Rather than highlighting these difficulties, however, and adopting a fatalistic approach, it is important for the international community to focus on nuclear arms control measures and renew its efforts to work towards improving the various regimes designed to control all weapons of mass destruction.

Featured image credit: Nuclear Weapons Test by WikiImages. Public domain via Pixabay.

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