Nuclear arms: A year of living dangerously

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Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un (image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr).

Last January, the Doomsday Clock was moved to two minutes to midnight — the closest it has ever been, matching the acute sense of crisis of 1953. The primary explanation for the heightened threat alert was disturbing developments in the nuclear realm.

There was little improvement during 2018. There is no sign that New START, which regulates U.S. and Russian strategic force numbers and deployments, might be extended by five years to 2026. China is upgrading its considerably smaller nuclear arsenal. India and Pakistan are enlarging, modernising and upgrading stockpiles while investing in battlefield tactical nuclear weapons (Pakistan) and systems to counter them (India).

U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for international institutions and rules established him as the disrupter in chief of the global nuclear order. U.S. nuclear policies reflect and fuel the fraying regimes, provoking countermeasures by adversaries, sowing doubts in allies and stiffening support among the non-nuclear states for banning the bomb. Expanding U.S. and Russian nuclear weapon developments and deployments lead to the normalisation of the discourse of nuclear weapon use.

They also embolden calls for nuclear-weapon acquisition by some others.

In February, Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review outlined an expansive vision of the role of nuclear weapons. Its fourfold effect will be to enlarge the U.S. nuclear arsenal, introduce new weapons, lower the threshold for their use and broaden the circumstances in which the threat of nuclear weapons can be made as tools of diplomatic coercion. Yet in an opinion poll published last January, 60% of Americans do not trust Trump to handle his nuclear command authority responsibly. With the departure of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the Cabinet lost its last adult.

Trump has become a bull who carries his own china shop everywhere.

Last March, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted of a new array of invincible nuclear weapons, using language disturbingly reminiscent of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the official paper of the People’s Liberation Army called for China to strengthen its nuclear deterrence and counterstrike capabilities in response to U.S. and Russian developments.

In October, Trump said the U.S. will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty because Russia has been violating it for many years. The decision is motivated also by China’s growing challenge to American dominance in the Pacific.

The development highlights two contemporary truths. First, the essentially dyadic nuclear equations of the Cold War are no longer adequate as the analytic frame for comprehending today’s interlinked nuclear chains that span several other nuclear-armed states; the Asia-Pacific is as relevant as the Euro-Atlantic. And second, the need to multilateralise the nuclear arms control architecture can no longer be denied.

The unreliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella under Trump continues to generate debate on nuclear self-reliance. Germany must cultivate an ambitious strategic culture that recognises the “nuclearisation of the 21st Century” and equips it to meet them through an independent German deterrent, says prominent political scientist Christian Hacke. Malcolm Davis canvassed the same option for Australia.

Regionally, 2018 began with unexpected positive developments on the Korean Peninsula that produced a summit in Singapore between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. By the year’s end, the irrational exuberance over imminent North Korean denuclearisation had faded but there was no return to the acute tension of 2017. While inter-Korean relations continue to improve, Washington and Pyongyang remain divided by sharp differences over the respective motivations behind the summit and meaning, scope and sequencing of key terms.

Although India and Pakistan remain as far away as ever from a peace regime in South Asia, there were no flare-ups in their relations, nor in India-China relations resembling the 10-week Doklam military standoff in mid-2017.

The world thought it had gained a 15-year respite from the twin threats, of an Iranian nuclear bomb and of Iran being bombed, with a multilateral deal that imposed a robust dismantlement, transparency, inspections and consequences regime to reverse Iran’s weapon-sensitive nuclear program. That double-sided comfort blanket has gone with Trump’s exit from the 2015 deal. The reimposed U.S. sanctions are in direct violation of Security Council Resolution 2231.

The unilateral and illegal U.S. exit reinforces every hardliner’s conviction that it cannot be trusted to honour an internationally negotiated agreement. Whether Iran continues to abide by or abrogates it, and perhaps even pulls out of the NPT to resume nuclear weaponisation, will depend on how successful other parties are in ensuring continued economic benefits to Iran. There are obvious proliferation implications for the region should the deal collapse.

The Nuclear Ban Treaty was adopted by two-thirds of U.N. members in July 2017. By year’s end, 69 states had signed and 19 had ratified it.

It will come into effect after 50 ratifications. There are reasonable prospects of this happening in 2019, at which point there will be two international treaties for setting global nuclear policy directions and norms. All nine nuclear-armed states and allies sheltering under their nuclear umbrella had strenuously opposed the treaty. Yet once in force, it will form part of the new international institutional reality.

There are signs of discomfort in some umbrella states at having been exposed as lip-service adherents of the cause of nuclear disarmament. The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund and the largest Dutch pension fund have decided not to invest in nuclear-weapon-producing companies. The Australian Labor Party conference in December unanimously approved a resolution committing a future Labor government to sign and ratify the ban treaty.

Because this will violate many existing bilateral security arrangements with the U.S., Labor is unlikely to give it high priority if the government changes after elections due by May. But it sets down an important marker for majority sentiment among Labor Party members and parliamentarians. Importantly, Australian accession to the Ban Treaty would be compatible with a minimalist reading of the ANZUS Treaty, but would have a significant impact on present security ties.

On 1 November, the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee adopted a Japan-sponsored disarmament resolution that calls for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. The explicit references to the disarmament Article 6 of the NPT were opposed by the U.S., which abstained on the resolution, calling it a “step back"

Opponents must learn to deal with the Nuclear Ban Treaty. Critics charge it undermines the NPT. This is odd. All signatories are members in good standing of the NPT while opponents have lined up alongside long-standing NPT rejectionists like India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia–Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission. 

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