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A World Without Nuclear Weapons

Many who once advocated the weapons now oppose them. But how can they convince the world it's not all pacifist pie-in-the-sky?

Bob Barry

As a US diplomat who has worked for every president from John F Kennedy to Bill Clinton, I did not believe that nuclear disarmament was practical or necessary. I have changed my mind, because like other cold war veterans, I believe nuclear weapons will be used in my children's lifetime, and nuclear deterrence will not prevent this. It is fear, not hope, that motivates me.

There have been parallel debates going on in the US and the UK concerning the future role of nuclear weapons. The Guardian published an editorial earlier this month attacking the decision to replace Trident, and musician and record producer Brian Eno debated the future of the UK Trident missile system with the chair of the Commons defence committee, James Arbuthnot, on the Today programme. Meanwhile in the US, cold war veterans George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn published an article in the Wall Street Journal calling for steps toward a nuclear-free world. The new programme outlined in the Wall Street Journal reflects work done at the Hoover Institution at Stanford since January 2007, when Shultz called a conference to commemorate the Reagan-Gorbachev Reykjavik summit in 1986, at which the elimination of nuclear weapons was seriously discussed. In both the UK and the US, the issue is whether the concept of nuclear deterrence is still relevant and whether the political will exists to move towards the goal of nuclear disarmament set forth in the non-proliferation treaty of 1968 (NPT).

The UK debate was framed by the government's commitments, made last March, in the debate over the renewal of Trident to re-inject energy into the multilateral disarmament agendas, taken further by the then foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, in June, when she called for "a scenario for a world without nuclear weapons and action - progressive steps to reduce warhead numbers and to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy". On Today, Eno argued that investing in a new Trident submarine missile system serves no useful deterrent purpose and encourages proliferation. Arbuthnot's response was that a viable nuclear deterrent, so he argued, is necessary to ensure the UK's voice is heard in negotiations.

In the US, critics of the group proposals dismiss them as "nice" but unrealistic. In a recent discussion on US National Public Radio former Reagan administration arms control agency head Ken Adelman took issue with author Jonathan Schell (Fate of the Earth, The Seventh Decade), an advocate of "nuclear abolition". This debate mirrors disagreements among members of the Hoover group itself. Some argue that getting down into the weeds of the multilateral building blocks of abolition would only mire us again in the fruitless debates of the last two decades. In their latest WSJ article, the "Hoover group" describes vision as a necessary but insufficient precondition for progress, and outlines the steps necessary to get there.

UK readers may be surprised to hear that the call in the US for abolition involves 17 of the surviving 24 former secretaries of state, defence and national security advisors from both parties - people devoted to and personally involved in the deployment of nuclear weapons when in office. In the US presidential primaries, all of the Democratic candidates have supported the goal of zero nuclear weapons to one degree or another.

The challenge "abolitionists" face in the US and the UK is in convincing sceptics that a world without nuclear weapons is not simply a pacifist pie-in-the-sky wish, and convincing others that outlining the vision is essential. True, abolition will not come any time soon, but without embracing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, nuclear arms control will remain in the dustbin of history where it now languishes, and our world will descend into a nuclear nightmare of horrendous and unacceptable risk. We do also need a credible path to the goal, otherwise cynics will have every reason to deride the concept as nothing but a "nice" idea.

Shultz et al do have a credible road map, which they continue to develop with the help of arms control experts who have worked both for Democrats and Republicans. These "mileposts" were already contained in the January 2007 Wall Street Journal article, but since then they have been elaborated in a series of technical papers. These demonstrate, for example, how to verify that nuclear weapons states, in particular the US and Russia, have abandoned the doctrine of launch on warning by ending operational deployment of strategic nuclear warheads. These are complex issues, but solutions are feasible.

In both the US and the UK, most agree that the concept of nuclear deterrence no longer makes sense, and that the danger of nuclear proliferation has never been greater. Multilateral solutions are required, involving detailed negotiations and binding treaties. But as long as the nuclear weapons states claim to be exempted from the NPT requirement to negotiate in good faith on nuclear disarmament, the nuclear danger will only increase.

On its 20th anniversary last autumn, the British American Security Information Council announced that it would be devoting its efforts to "Getting to zero", in support of the Hoover group, the US Nuclear Threat Initiative and other similar advocacy and security organisations. While the US and Russia have primary responsibility to lead international efforts, the UK has an important role to play in showing leadership by inspiration and example.

Ambassador Barry is a member of the Board of the British American Security Information Council.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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