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What is the prospect for a future without fear of nuclear weapons?

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 30 October 2003


The world has moved into the “second” nuclear age. The “first” nuclear age was the basis of the Cold War, with the United States and Soviet Union confronting each other. Much of that hatred has now gone but many of the nuclear weapons still remain. Even though there is little chance of a deliberate World War III, there is still a risk of an accidental nuclear war.

There is also the risk of Russian missiles getting into the wrong hands. National morale is very low. So much else of the country is up for sale that it is only a matter of time before the Russian Mafia are selling nuclear missiles.

Indeed, the October 2003 State of the World Population Report 2003 by the UN Fund for Population Activities shows that the Russian population, currently at 143 million, will go down to 102 million by 2050. Russia is the world’s most important developed country to have a declining population. The Russian collapse is amazing. People seem to be giving up living. Life has become so hard for so many people that it is becoming unbearable. At this rate of decline, the entire Russian population will be gone by the middle of the 22nd Century.

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Meanwhile, the US is not doing enough to honour its international commitments – and is, if anything, trying to get out of international commitments. At least the Russians are bound by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but the Bush Administration is not bound by it and there are fears that the Americans could resume nuclear weapons testing.

The “second” nuclear age is characterised not by one super power confronting another but by asymmetrical warfare – the US being challenged by small countries or entities that are not even countries (such as Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network). Nuclear weapons are no protection for the US against such entities. Nuclear deterrence will not stop a determined group of warriors willing to die for their cause.

Meanwhile, some other countries are determined to get nuclear weapons. Along with the three "other" nuclear powers - UK, France and China - India, Pakistan and North Korea have admitted to developing them. Israel is believed to have them and there are suspicious about Iran's development programs.

Are there any signs of good news in the field of disarmament? First, in the long sweep of history we are not as badly off as we could be. In the 1980s, there was speculation of some form of “limited” nuclear war, which could have escalated into a full-blown World War III. By the end of the 1980s, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev had negotiated the first disarmament agreement. It was not much but it was a start – and a deliberate World War III is no longer on the cards.

Going even further back, to the 1960s, there were speculations that by the year 2000 – which then seemed a long way off – there could be as many as 30 nuclear powers. These countries included Sweden, Canada and Australia. The concern over the spread (or “proliferation”) of nuclear weapons gave rise to the 1968 Nuclear Weapon Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Countries without nuclear weapons that agreed to be bound by the NPT agreed never to acquire them. Leaving aside North Korea, the NPT record of compliance has been a good one.

(Ironically the biggest violators of the NPT have been the nuclear weapon powers. Under the NPT, they agreed to negotiate general and complete disarmament and they have failed to do so.)

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Another sign of good news is that other countries are willing to do more for disarmament. For example, New Zealand announced on September 24 that it would build a nuclear test monitoring facility in Fiji. Japan has said that it will have 10 monitoring stations running by 2007.

Australia is also a major player in hosting stations. Australia is a geologically “quiet” continent and so it is well positioned to “listen” to other parts of the world. It will be very difficult for any country or terrorist group to carry out secret nuclear tests. The vibrations will be picked up somewhere. There will be a total of 321 stations around the world.

Finally, there remains concern among the general population and governments in working for disarmament. There are no longer the large peace marches of the 1980s (which were triggered by the fears of a “limited” nuclear war). But peace is now a “respectable” cause. Now the peace movement is middle-class, middle-aged, and middle-of-the-road.

The peace perspective has become institutionalised. Most governments – even a conservative one in Australia – now know that we need to learn to live together or we will perish separately. Hence Australia’s very positive role in monitoring nuclear tests. There is a public expectation that the government will do this work.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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