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The Nuclear Threat is Real

Address to the
3rd World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates
Rome, Italy, 19-20 October 2002

Joseph Rotblat

We are in the midst of the crisis over Iraq now aggravated by the terrorist attack in Bali. The US government is determined to bring about the downfall of Saddam Hussein, and to achieve this by military means, with or without UN approval. In justification of this policy, we are told that there is a real threat of nuclear weapons being used by Saddam Hussein.

When I chose for my paper the title "The Nuclear Threat is Real," I did not have in mind the threat from Iraq. What I did have in mind was the threat from the United States: I had in mind the aggressive policy pursued by a team of hardliners, who have gained power in the Bush administration and are determined to ensure US supremacy in every field, including the nuclear one.

I am highly critical of this policy, but I want to make it clear that my criticism is not of the American people. I am sure that they are genuine in their quest for peace. With the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Jimmy Carter, of the 89 individual Peace Laureates, 19 are from the United States. In a recent public opinion poll, 76% of Americans were in favour of banning nuclear weapons.

However, I have to confess to a deepening worry about the unilateralist policy of the American government. Economic affluence has revealed the ugly face of capitalism: greed and selfishness have become a main driving force. The consequent need to protect the American way of life has resulted in a huge build-up of military strength, including the decision to proceed with ballistic missile defence despite strong opposition from other countries.

Against this background, the events of September 11th came as a terrible shock: the United States suddenly realized that it was not secure after all. The hawks immediately jumped on this realization to impose a change of policy, with the emphasis shifting from defence to offence, as we are seeing in the case of Iraq.

On the nuclear issue, the new aggressive stand is actually a confirmation of the policy pursued by the hawks from the beginning: the United States has always wanted to maintain superiority, indeed a monopoly, on nuclear weapons. Let me recall for you briefly the history of the first use of the atom bomb.

By August 1945 Japan was already militarily defeated and Japanese statesmen wanted to discuss terms of surrender. But President Truman rejected these overtures. By that time he knew that the atom bomb had been successfully tested and was ready for use. Despite strong protests from scientists on the Manhattan Project, he decided to explode the atom bombs on populated areas. Saving lives of American troops was no doubt an important factor, even though this meant a greater loss of Japanese lives, but more important was to demonstrate to the world, particularly the Soviet Union, the overwhelming military strength acquired by the United States. James Byrnes, the hawkish Secretary of State at the time, made this clear when he said: "Our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable."

After the use of the bomb, General Leslie Groves, the overall head of the Manhattan Project, outlined his views about US policy on nuclear weapons in a blunt statement:

"If we were truly realistic instead of idealistic, as we appear to be (sic), we would not permit any foreign power with which we are not firmly allied, and in which we do not have absolute confidence, to make or possess nuclear weapons. If such a country started to make atomic weapons we would destroy its capacity to make them before it has progressed far enough to threaten us."

Fifty-seven years later, this is exactly the US policy in relation to Iraq. The United States will not permit any country that is not a firm ally to make or possess nuclear weapons. At the same time it arrogates to itself the right to possess and use them, even pre-emptively.

During the Cold War years US nuclear doctrine went through a number of strategies, such as mutual assured destruction (MAD), all designed to prevent a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the actual US nuclear strategy became increasingly orientated towards the first use of nuclear weapons, along the lines originally advocated by General Groves. The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, under the Clinton administration, for the first time made explicit mention of the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with chemical or biological weapons. The latest Nuclear Posture Review, of January 2002, goes further still, it makes nuclear weapons the tool with which to keep peace in the world. As mentioned, this was partly provoked by the terrorist attack of September 11th, which painfully reminded Americans that they are vulnerable even at home.

In a reversal of the previous doctrine, whereby nuclear weapons have been viewed as weapons of last resort, the new Nuclear Posture Review spells out a strategy which incorporates nuclear capability into conventional war planning. Nuclear weapons have now become a standard part of military strategy, to be used in a conflict just like any other high explosive. It is a major and dangerous shift in the whole rationale for nuclear weapons.

The implementation of this policy has already begun. The United States is developing a new nuclear warhead of low yield, but with a shape that would give it a very high penetrating power into concrete, a "bunker-busting mini-nuke", as it has been named. It is intended to destroy bunkers with thick concrete walls in which public enemies, like Saddam Hussein, may seek shelter.

To give the military authorities confidence in the performance of the new weapon it will have to be tested. At present there is a treaty prohibiting the testing of nuclear weapons (except in sub-critical assemblies), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States has signed but not ratified. With President Bush's contempt for international treaties (as demonstrated recently) he would need little excuse to authorize the testing of the new weapon.

If the USA resumed testing, this would be a signal to other nuclear weapon states to do the same. China is almost certain to resume testing. After the US decision to develop ballistic missile defences, China feels vulnerable, and is likely to attempt to reduce its vulnerability by a modernization and build-up of its nuclear arsenal. Other states with nuclear weapons, such as India or Pakistan, may use the window of opportunity opened by the USA to update their arsenals. The danger of a new nuclear arms race is real.

Another worry about the development of the new bomb is that it would blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons. The chief characteristic of a nuclear weapon is its enormous destructive power, which classifies it as a weapon of mass destruction, unique even in comparison with the other known weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or biological ones. This has resulted in a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons in combat, a taboo that has held since Nagasaki. But if at one end of the spectrum a nuclear bomb can be manufactured which does not differ quantitatively from ordinary explosives, then the qualitative difference will also disappear, the nuclear threshold will be crossed, and nuclear weapons will gradually come to be seen as a tool of war, even though the danger they present to the existence of the human race will remain.

For the USA, the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons has already been eroded, as indicated in the Nuclear Posture Review. But the situation has become even more dangerous under the new National Security Strategy introduced by Bush a few weeks ago. "To forestall or prevent …hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively." The new planning does not specifically refer to nuclear weapons, but in the light of the Nuclear Posture Review we have to conclude that the statement includes pre-emptive strikes with nuclear weapons.

The danger of this policy can hardly be over-emphasized. If the militarily mightiest country declares its readiness to carry out a pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, others may soon follow. The Kashmir crisis, of May this year, is a stark warning of the reality of the nuclear peril.

India's declared policy is not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. But if the United States - whose nuclear policies are largely followed by India - makes a pre-emptive nuclear attack part of its doctrine, this would give India the legitimacy to carry out a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan. Even more likely is that Pakistan would carry it out first.

Taiwan presents another potential cause for a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the United States. Should the Taiwan authorities decide to declare independence, this would inevitably result in an attempted military invasion by mainland China. The USA, which is committed to the defence of the integrity of Taiwan, may then opt for a pre-emptive strike.

Altogether, the aggressive policy of the United States, under the Bush administration, has created a precarious situation in world affairs, with a greatly increased danger of nuclear weapons being used in combat.

Surely something must be done to prevent a catastrophe. Surely a meeting of Nobel Peace Laureates cannot pass without an attempt to take some action.

There is a need for measures to alleviate the immediate danger. Short-term measures, such as: ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; taking nuclear weapons off alert; ending development of mini-nukes; and adopting a treaty on no-first-use of nuclear weapons, should be called for urgently. This we should do.

On the general issue of world security, we should call on the United States to abandon its unilateralist policies, and for the Security Council of the United Nations to be recognized as the sole authority in initiating military operations for the resolution of conflicts.

The threat to world security posed by terrorist groups of the al-Qaeda type - which may acquire weapons of mass destruction - will be removed only if we deal with the underlying reasons for the enduring of these groups. In the meantime, the threat can be greatly reduced by the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, with a safeguard system to prevent clandestine production.

This brings me to our main goal, the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free world. In order to achieve this goal, a campaign based on fundamental principles is necessary.

One of these principles is morality. Due to their indiscriminate nature and unprecedented destructive power, the use of nuclear weapons has always been considered as immoral. Yet, this aspect is very seldom raised when calling for nuclear disarmament. We are told that a campaign based on moral principles is a non-starter and we are afraid of appearing naïve, divorced from reality. But the use of this argument is itself an indication of how far we have allowed ethical considerations to be ignored; we are accused of not being realistic, when all we try to do is to prevent real dangers.

"How many divisions does the Pope have?" Stalin reportedly asked. "Might is right" is the guiding principle of the hawks, who currently dictate the US policies. By utilizing the tremendous advances in technology for military purposes, the United States has built up an overwhelming military superiority, exceeding manyfold the combined military strength of all other nations. It is claimed that this is necessary for world security, but for the hawks this is a guarantee of world domination by the United States. Nuclear weapons are horrible - we are told - and their possession must not be allowed by countries like Iraq, but possession and use of these weapons by the United States is justified for the sake of world peace.

Actually, what such policies amount to is to rest the security of the world on a balance of terror. In the long run this is bound to erode the ethical basis of civilization. I would not be surprised if evidence were found that the increase of violence in the world - from individual mugging, to organized crime, to groups such as al-Qaeda - has some connection with the culture of violence under which we have lived during the Cold War years, and still do. I am particularly concerned about the effect on the young generation.

We all crave a world of peace, a world of equity. We all want to nurture in the young generation the much heralded "culture of peace." But how can we talk about a culture of peace if that peace is predicated on the existence of weapons of mass destruction? How can we persuade the young generation to cast aside the culture of violence, when they know that it is on the threat of extreme violence that we rely for security?

I do not believe that the people of the world would accept a policy that is inherently immoral and is likely to end in catastrophe. I do believe that - if properly explained - the moral argument would win general support - including the American public - and lead to a new campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Another fundamental principle that needs to be invoked concerns the equitable relations between nations (as well as individuals). It is a sine qua non of a civilized society that nations fulfil their legal obligations and respect international treaties. World peace cannot be achieved without respect for international law.

In this respect the US nuclear policy has been one of dissemblance and equivocation. The general abhorrence of nuclear weapons, following their use in Japan, resulted in a strong desire, expressed both in public opinion and in the United Nations, to abolish nuclear weapons. This led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which all but three members of the United Nations are now party. Under the terms of the NPT, the 183 non-nuclear countries have undertaken not to acquire nuclear weapons, and the five overt nuclear states have undertaken to get rid of theirs. There was some ambiguity in the formulation of the relevant Article VI of the NPT, which provided the hawks with an excuse for the retention of nuclear weapons until general and complete disarmament had been achieved. But - under pressure from the New Agenda Coalition and the Middle Powers Initiative (of which Senator Douglas Roche is Chairman) - this ambiguity was removed two years ago in a statement issued after the 2000 NPT Review Conference. This statement, signed by all five nuclear weapon states, contains the following:

"…an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI."

Thus, the United States and the other official nuclear states - China, France, Russia and the UK - are formally and unequivocally committed to the elimination of all nuclear arsenals. The creation of a nuclear-weapon-free world is a legal commitment by all signatories of the NPT.

But the de facto policy of the United States, as outlined above, implies the indefinite existence of nuclear weapons, in direct contradiction to the NPT commitment.

This blatant violation of an international undertaking should be the second fundamental principle on which to base a campaign.

Let me summarize. Thanks largely to the fantastic progress in technology - our world is becoming more and more interdependent, more and more transparent, more and more interactive. Inherent in these developments is a set of agreements, ranging from confidence-building measures to formal international treaties; from protection of the environment to the clearance of mine fields; from Interpol to the International Criminal Court; from ensuring intellectual property rights to the Declaration of Human Rights. Respect for, and strict adherence to, the terms of international agreements are at the basis of a civilized society. Without this, anarchy and terrorism would reign, the very perils President Bush is allegedly committed to eradicate. While he intends to tackle this issue by military means, we must strive to achieve it by peaceful means. While Bush plans to act unilaterally, we have to ensure that world security is entrusted to the United Nations, the institution set up for this purpose. The world order we want to establish must be based on the moral principles of peace and justice.


Sir Joseph Rotblat is co-founder and past President of the Pugwash Conferences, and was co-recipient with Pugwash of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.
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