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UNITED NATIONS, May 17 2013 (IPS) - In the late 19th century, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously touted one golden rule for dramatic productions: if you show your audience a loaded gun in the first act, that gun must go off by the last.
But Chekhov’s storytelling trope is troubling if applied to the world’s weapons technology today, which include an estimated 17,300 nukes – used primarily by nations as props to leverage international power.
According to the Ploughshares Fund’s World Nuclear Stockpile Report, an estimated 8,500 nukes belong to Russia and 7,700 to the U.S. The seven other nations with a nuclear arsenal trail far behind: they include France (300), China (240), the U.K. (225), Pakistan (90-110), India (60-110), Israel (60-80) and most recently North Korea (<10).
“It’s hard to imagine any military mission that will require the use of one nuclear weapon. The use of 10 weapons would be a catastrophe beyond human experience, and 50 is unthinkable,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation based in the U.S.
“The number you need to actually deter an enemy from attacking the U.S. with or without nuclear weapons is very, very low. To be on the safe side, you might want a couple of hundred,” he told IPS.
“The idea that we need thousands of nuclear weapons… is an outmoded, irrational, expensive legacy of the Cold War,” he said.
While the U.S.’s nuke budget is secret, Cirincione estimates that in the next decade, the U.S. will spend 640 billion dollars on nukes and its related programmes – such as missile defence systems, environmental clean-up of nuclear activity and the technological upgrade of the current nuclear arsenal.
Asked about the U.S.’s role in pushing for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation on the international scale, Cirincione said, “The U.S. is probably the most influential voice in this debate, but it can’t do it alone. Most importantly, it needs Russia to reduce the arsenals with them.”
On Feb. 5, 2011, the U.S. and Russia entered into force a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), in which both nations agreed by 2018 to limit the number of their warheads to 1,550; and the number of their combined intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments to 800.
“If the U.S. and Russia can agree to cut their arsenals in half, for example, as they did in the 1980s and the 1990s… it would be universally applauded, and it would be very difficult for bureaucracies and political opponents to resist that in either country,” said Cirincione.
But U.S. progress for disarmament and non-proliferation has stalled in the past few years. George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, attributes the U.S.’s balk partly to internal politics in Washington.
In his April 2013 monograph, Do Unto Others: Toward a Defensible Nuclear Doctrine, Perkovich writes, “A relatively small, specialized community of experts and officials shapes U.S. nuclear policy.”
Members of this community often distort nuclear threats to the U.S., as well as the best ways to respond to such threats, argues Perkovich. They do this not in the U.S.’s national security interest, but in their own career interests to prevent “their domestic rivals from attacking them as too weak to hold office”.
Nukes deter U.S.-led regime change
Perkovich also notes in his monograph that Iran, North Korea and Pakistan believe having their own nuclear arsenals deter U.S.-led regime change. They fear the fates of nuclear-free Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011.
Asked how the U.S. should respond if future world governments – oppressive or not, who are acting against U.S. interests – continue pursuing nukes to prevent regime change, Perkovich told IPS that would be a difficult problem.
“The one and only thing nuclear weapons are good for is to keep people from invading your country. So, states and leaders that worry about getting invaded tend to find nukes attractive, or alliance with the U.S. attractive,” he said.
“Non-proliferation would be easier to achieve if states didn’t worry they were going to be invaded and/ or overthrown if they didn’t have nuclear weapons.
“The problem, clearly, is that some governments are so brutal and menacing to their own people and neighbours that it is hard to foreswear trying to remove them,” he added.
Perkovich recommended that the U.S. limit pressure against repressive governments to political and moral means, as well as to sanctions; and that the U.S. clarify it won’t act militarily, if the repressive regime does not attack its neighbours or seek nukes.
Cirincione, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, argued that vying for nukes, in Iran and North Korea’s cases, may actually be counterproductive.
“I don’t think it improves their security, I think it isolates them even further,” he said. “It prevents them from forging the kind of international ties that can really aid their country, build their economies (and) increase their influence.
“That means that in order to stop those countries from getting or keeping nuclear weapons, you have to address their legitimate security concerns. A part of the engagement with those countries has got to be security assurances that guarantees then that you won’t attack them, or that their neighbours won’t attack them.”
Obama’s nuclear legacy
During his December 2012 speech at the National War College in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “Missile by missile, warhead by warhead, shell by shell, we’re putting a bygone era behind us.”
Cirincione explained that pursuing nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation has been important to Obama since his youth. Obama’s first foreign policy speech as president – in Prague in April 2009 – and his first foreign policy speech after re-election both focused on nukes.
“The president faces a multitude of pressing issues, but only two of them threaten destruction on a planetary scale: global warming and nuclear weapons,” said Cirincione.
While opposition to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation is prevalent inside Washington, it pales in comparison to opposition facing warming, immigration, or tax reform.
“This is an opportunity for the president to make a major improvement in U.S. and global security with a relatively small investment of his time,” said Cirincione, who explained that Obama’s efforts to curb nukes may conclude a historic arc, which started with President John F. Kennedy’s efforts in the 1960s and was accelerated by President Ronald Reagan’s efforts in the 1980s.
Cirincione said, “(Obama’s) got three and a half years to do it. If he starts now, he can get the job done. He can change U.S. nuclear policy to put it irreversibly on a path to fewer nuclear weapons, and eventually (eliminate) this threat from the face of the earth.”
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