On Nuclear Collision And Disarmament (23 Feb 2009)

The terrorist with a nuclear bomb is the spectre that has now haunted us for some years. It has kept security agencies more than busy. The legal position of free citizens has been sacrificed in the process, and it has justified massive defense expenditures.
And then, suddenly, we hear about the collision of two nuclear submarines in oceanic depths, the British HMS Vanguard and the French Le Triomphant. Both were carrying nuclear ballistic warheads. Their names by themselves are suggestive of the military fairy-tale that has produced these vessels. As if we are still living in the time of Napoleon and Lord Nelson, the navies of these NATO allies and European Union partners are keeping their navigation details hidden from each other. With a near catastrophe as the result. It took several weeks before the world heard snippets of information about it.
A position analysis is overdue. The financial crisis demands all attention. We have “change”, the key promise of Obama’s election campaign, in abundance, but it is of quite a different kind than the new president would seem to have envisaged. He would re-unite the American nation, correct the disastrous excesses of the domestic and foreign policies of his predecessor, and establish affordable healthcare for all Americans. Last week he attached his signature to the most expensive economic stimulus program ever, meant to put a brake on fast rising unemployment figures, but one about which an apparent consensus among economists has concluded that it does not begin to be enough. Obama’s attempts to muster broad support from both parties have been wrecked by the refusal of the Republicans to listen to his siren songs; there exists nothing remotely resembling repentance prompted by the Bush disasters among that lot.
Inconsistent with what he ought to understand, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA – the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna – writes in the International Herald Tribune: “After two mostly wasted decades since the end of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament is again high on the international agenda”. “Wasted decades”, sure. But “high on the international agenda”? How does he get that idea?
Insofar any thought is given to “nuclear disarmament” this pertains to the disarmament of Iran and NorthKorea, and to the threat of a repeat of September 11, this time with nuclear weaponry. Obama’s foreign minister Hillary Clinton began her travels to East Asia with an ultimatum addressed to NorthKorea. Earlier in Munich, Vice President Joe Biden aimed threatening language at Iran. Both countries are suspected of being at the point of stepping over the nuclear threshold, but that has so far not inspired official America with new thinking.
It is possible to see ElBaradei’s musings as an attempt to encourage Obama to seek new directions by reminding him of his own earlier pronouncements. ElBaradei: “President Obama has pledged to seek a world free of nuclear weapons – a legal commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty”.
The last point is pivotal; or ought to be that. The NPT, dating from 1968, starts from the premise that there are two categories of countries: those with and those without nuclear weapons. The latter signatories committed themselves to forego the use, the manufacture and the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal. The haves committed themselves to eventually giving these up.
As it happened, various further treaties have been entered into, but “arms control” has been revealed as something rather different from disarmament. Notwithstanding all the treaties, new nuclear poweres have emerged: India, Pakistan, and Israël. The least that one can say about this is that in this matter countries are judged by contradictory criteria. Those three do not experience the slightest opposition to what they have done, while Iran and NorthKorea are without any hesitation labeled as rogue states.
The “road map” drawn up by ElBaradei leads to the implementation of the NPT in all its provisions. That would thus have to include the destruction of the existing nuclear arsenals – of which the American-Russian share constitutes 95% of the world’s total of 27.000 nuclear warheads. The IAEA chief presents himself as an optimist: “Former statesmen are getting together to demand the scrapping of all nuclear weapons. After eight years in which arms control was not a priority for the United States, the fog has lifted. The challenge now is how to ensure that this new enthusiasm does not fizzle out.”
Those former statesmen mentioned by ElBaradei are two former American foreign ministers – one of them Henry Kissinger – as well as a former defense minister, and a former senator – two Democrats and two Republicans. All four played a significant role during the Cold War. Two years ago they published a plea on the op-ed page of the The Wall Street Journal for abolition of all nuclear arms as the ultimate aim of a new arms control-regime.
The prestige and services rendered by those four have made the subject of total nuclear disarmament debatable. Which means that Obama did not risk his credibility when he mentioned it in his campaign, and that ElBaradei can run ahead of himself by stating that it is placed high up on the international agenda.
The unexpected effect of the financial crisis could well be that the international agenda has hardly any place for that other great threat to the globe – the atomic bomb, except for those selected partial problems of Iran en Noord-Korea.
Whether the new American government has enough courage, energy, and imagination in reserve for starting together with the other nuclear armed states on a path toward total nuclear disarmament, as imagined by ElBaradei, is very doubtful.
After all, nuclear arms are contemporary symbols of the virulent nationalism that easily may accompany the kind of crisis that we experience at the moment. France’s return to the command structure of the NATO is making some French people nervous. Was that the reason why a former French defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, wrote in Le Figaro: “La souveraineté nationale sur la force nucléaire est la base intangible de notre indépendance. Personne ne la discute.’’ (National sovereignty leaning on nuclear power is the inviolable basis of our independence. No one contests this).
Le Triomphant will therefore be at sea for some time to come. The idea of a world without nuclear arms will therefore remain an idea. The collision under the ocean surface reminds us of a world in which true change remains a wonderful wish.