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Forget Iraq - plenty of other states are a threat with their nuclear arsenals

By Keir Semmens - posted Friday, 1 August 2003

While the debate rages about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, elsewhere diplomats remain focused upon nuclear proliferation. North Korea and Iran pose the most immediate concern. With the regime of their fellow "axis-of-evil" state consigned to history, these countries have redoubled their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. This represents the primary security challenge confronting the world.

The danger comprises two forms. First is the risk of state-to-state confrontation, most recently threatened during last year's showdown between India and Pakistan. The further spread of atomic warheads, whether in North-East Asia or the Middle East, would fracture the existing status quo and might well trigger a perilous regional arms race as neighbouring states sought their own deterrent.

Then there is the threat that terrorists might obtain and detonate a nuclear device with little or no warning. Significant fears already exist about possible transfers from existing nuclear stockpiles. Further proliferation would only increase the danger of weapons leakage. Aside from the destruction such an attack would unleash, it would also afford limited strategic responses for the targeted nation.


But can anything really be done to halt proliferation? Since both North Korea and Iran would appear to have violated international agreements to prevent them obtaining nuclear weapons, further diplomacy would appear to offer little prospect of a breakthrough. Some suggest that nothing short of military intervention can prevent them obtaining such a capacity. Senior planners at the Pentagon have reportedly drafted plans for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.

But make no mistake. An armed attack led by the United States upon either country, while likely to prevail in the end, would be much more costly in terms of political disruption, military expense and lives lost on both sides, than the recent war in Iraq. And given the failure so far to discover any significant weapons caches in Iraq, the possibility exists that nuclear arms or the ingredients to make them might be smuggled out of the country in the event of a strike. Indeed, an attack might have the perverse effect of accelerating proliferation to terrorists, hastening the nightmare outcome such action would intend to avoid.

The only credible alternative to check the spread and use of nuclear arms is to eliminate them completely. This was the conclusion reported by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons to the Australian Government in August 1996. Its prescience has only grown with time.

Since 1968, the principal mechanism to restrict nuclear proliferation has been the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This instrument legitimised a doubled standard in the atomic arms race. The five existing nuclear powers - the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Great Britain and France - were permitted to maintain their atomic arsenals. In return they pledged to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament. The remaining 183 signatories promised to forego any nuclear weapons development.

The inherent flaws in the compact are obvious. First it applies only to those countries that have ratified the accord. So while the 1998 nuclear test explosions in India and Pakistan marked a clear breach in the non-proliferation dam, their actions did not violate the NPT since neither nation was a sponsor. Furthermore, existing signatories can terminate their participation with only three months' notice. North Korea did so in January 2003. And the notion that a two-tiered membership can long endure in a constantly changing global strategic environment is fanciful at best.

But for 35 years it has worked, more or less. It remains the model for resolving the present crises and offers a path forward to a safer non-nuclear international order. The existing nuclear states should fulfill their NPT commitment to eliminate all nuclear weapons.


Much progress has been made during the past two decades. The SALT and START arms reduction treaties between the United States and the USSR, later Russia, ended the Cold War arms race and greatly reduced the number of warheads. South Africa and Ukraine both relinquished their nuclear arms in the early 1990s, a significant milestone in the disarmament struggle.

In addition, President Bush came to office pledging to reduce nuclear weapons unilaterally if necessary. He followed this promise with the signing in Moscow of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT). While criticised in some quarters as too vague, this accord pledges to slash existing US and Russian strategic warheads by two-thirds within ten years.

But the United States has been sending mixed signals. In December 2001 the Bush Administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, citing the need to prepare a "missile shield" against potential nuclear attack. Some analysts view this as a provocative step that may ignite another arms race, perhaps with China. At the same time the United States refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And with administration urging, Congress has just lifted the ban on research towards a new generation of tactical nuclear warheads for possible use as "bunker-busters".

This is a particular worry. Until now, the two principal safeguards against the use of nuclear weapons have been the difficulty of procurement and the stigma attached due to their indiscriminate and immense destructive power. With the first barrier eroding rapidly, any step towards legitimising the use of nukes would be a catastrophe. Although nuclear disarmament cannot, and should not, be the responsibility of the United States alone, there is no question that as the world's sole superpower its actions carry significant strategic and moral weight in the nuclear arena.

Of course, any move towards disarmament must be sustained by strategic rationale. No country will surrender this technology if by doing so it will feel less secure. But the threat posed by proliferation outweighs the present deterrent effect for the nuclear powers. Already we are witnessing a reckless disregard for international norms with the North Korean regime threatening nuclear blackmail. Left unchecked, atomic arms could soon be wielded by states where political instability is commonplace. This would only heighten the risk of interstate nuclear conflict or transfer to terrorists. Either way, it is simply not plausible that nuclear weapons can be retained without their eventual deliberate or inadvertent misuse.

Australia should lend its immediate and unconstrained support to this effort, by encouraging the nuclear powers that eliminating nuclear weapons best serves their own and the world's strategic interests. Our leadership in campaigning for the Chemical Weapons Convention demonstrates that we have a prominent role to play. As the Canberra Commission noted, nuclear weapons pose an intolerable threat to humanity and our habitat. Their elimination must be secured by political will, anchored by a binding and verifiable international framework.

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About the Author

Keir Semmens is an investment banker and longstanding member of the Australian Labor Party.

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