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The Shape of the Nuclear- weapon World
by Rene Wadlow
2010-04-26 07:52:18
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The signing on 8 April 2010 of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in Prague by Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev is a modest but symbolic step to signal better US-Russian relations.  Prague was chosen also for its symbolism, being the city where a year ago President Obama had set out a vision for a nuclear-weapon free world.  But perhaps “not in my lifetime” he had added, knowing that even a sharp reduction in the number of nuclear weapons held by the USA and the Russian Federation will not change radically the nature of the nuclear weapon configuration of world politics.

    As Jozef Goldblat, a specialist on nuclear weapons negotiations pointed out “The main quantitative limitations of nuclear weapons apply to warheads operationally deployed on launchers and prepared for instantaneous firing. The parties may keep as many as 1,550 such strategic warheads.  According to the agreed counting rules, a heavy bomber designed to carry more than one weapon is to count only as one.  Consequently, the reductions are modest, but each of these weapons is capable of destroying a city with a population of several million inhabitants.  Warheads possessed by the parties in excess of agreed limits do not need to be  decommissioned.  They may be kept in storage whereas tactical nuclear weapons are not covered at all.  The verification of compliance provisions are far from allowing on-site inspections to the extent necessary to build mutual confidence.  The treaty is to last only seven years.  Even during this short period, each party has the right to withdraw.”

     The START is a welcome sign of improved US-Russian relations but does little to overcome a Russian impression that it is encircled by hostile forces in Europe and Asia.  Wider arms control negotiations are needed to address missile defense, Russia’s relations with NATO, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and North Korea, Iran, India-Pakistan and other Asian Security issues.

    This renewed concern about nuclear weapons control comes on the eve of the May 3-28 Review Conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which will be held at the United Nations in New York.  The Treaty which came into force in 1970 has an article requiring a review conference to be held every five years, as nuclear issues could change quickly.  The first review conference was held in Geneva in 1975 and has continued each five-year period.  There have been no modifications in the terms of the Treaty, but the Review Conferences are a prime occasion for States and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to review the conditions of the nuclear-weapon world.

    I chaired the NGO delegation to the 1975 and 1980 Review Conferences.  We were able to negotiate a more active role for non-governmental representatives than in most UN-related disarmament conferences.  NGO representatives have a place in the conference room, interact freely with State diplomats, and NGO recommendations are distributed to the government representatives.  The NGO delegation has been small, usually some 15 to 20 persons, well informed and specialists on nuclear issues, often coming from arms control research institutes. The NGO delegation, of course, does not have a right to vote.

    However, government representatives do not vote either, unlike sessions of the UN General Assembly. The government representatives try to draft a “Final Document” that must be adopted by consensus outlining the ways that nuclear rights and responsibilities have been met.  Work on the wording of this Final Document starts prior to the Review Conference and is carried out by a Drafting Committee during the Review Conference.  The Drafting Committee works in closed sessions without press, NGOs or the diplomats of States not on the Drafting Committee. A great deal of pressure builds up during the month-long Review as wording is agreed upon or not.  Words on which there is no agreement are put in square brackets and are discussed with the heads of delegations and the Foreign Ministry.  Since consensus is needed, each country has a “veto” power and so this gives small countries more say than if there were votes.

    Some years, such as the 1980 Review, it has been impossible to reach an agreement despite extending the Conference for several days and having a small drafting group work all night. In the 2005 Review, no Final Document could be agreed upon.  There is pressure not to have two Reviews in a row failing to issue a Final Document. In 1985, there were many pre-conference efforts made to reach compromises so that there would not be two failures in a row.  Repeated failures to issue a Final Document might weaken the Treaty which is the foundation of non-proliferation efforts.

    Thus, the NPT Review is an occasion to look at the political issues facing the nuclear-weapon world.  There are basically three categories of nuclear-weapon States: There are four Great Powers — the USA, the Russian Federation, China and India.  They are Great Powers by their land size, population, economic position, and culture.  They would be Great Powers even if they did not have nuclear weapons. On these four standards, the Russian Federation has been declining.  Its land size has lessened since its incarnation as the Soviet Union.  Its population declined from the Soviet period as Soviet Republics became independent States, but even the Russian population itself is declining due to poor health; its economy is too linked to the sale of energy.  Russian culture without the ideological drive of Marxism has little appeal to non-Russians. Thus nuclear weapons remain an important criteria of its Great Power status.  India realizes that its status and role in the world has been deeply transformed in the last two decades but is not fully at ease with the notion of having a Great Power status and universal interests.

    There are two Nostalgic Great Powers with nuclear weapons: France and England.  They still have a certain Great Power status because they have been at the center of world politics for a long time.  They had colonial empires so that elements of their culture are respected in other parts of the world.  Both have long-established diplomatic services which can use their national strengths to good advantage.  Both are part of the European Union which gives a certain economic depth.  Both England and France would have about the same role in world politics if they did not have nuclear weapons, but since they do, they play a certain role in nuclear-weapon strategic discussions.

    There are three Existential Nuclear-weapon States: North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel.  All three were created by partition of larger States after the Second World War.  Their continued existence is largely based on their having nuclear weapons so their neighbours will not attack them. Were the three States to disappear, they would not be missed by the larger world society so their existence as States depends on their having nuclear weapons.

    There is one State, Iran, which falls somewhere between a potentially Existential Nuclear-weapon State and a regional power whose position would be recognized by others even if it had no nuclear weapons.  For the moment, a large number of States would prefer not to see a nuclear-weapon Iran but have done little to confer on Iran the recognition of its Regional Power status.

    The NPT Reviews have always reflected specific geo-strategic issues even if the theme of the Treaty is non-proliferation and the disarmament of the nuclear weapon Great Powers in general. The 1980Review was influenced by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The 1985 Review nearly broke down as a result of the Iraq-Iran war and was saved only by an all-night session and a statement on the Iraq-Iran war relegated to an annex, largely neglected once the Conference ended at six in the morning. Regional issues such as Iran and Israel are likely to be the background issues in this 2010 Review.

    Therefore we will look in separate essays at the three Existential  Nuclear Powers:
1)    Pakistan  with its relations to India and Afghanistan in the background;
2)    Israel and the potential of a Middle East Nuclear-weapon Free Zone:
3)    Iran as a potential Existential Nuclear-weapon State.

And end with 4) The NPT Review — Are advances possible?

North Korea seems to be in a quiet stage for the moment and so we will not deal with it at this time. Each essay should be able to stand separately, but each is inter-related in this complex nuclear-weapon world.


Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens

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