Turning Away from Nukes
For the US and Russia, nuclear weapons have become a mindless addiction. They are normalized. The two countries seem unable to contemplate an existence without their nuclear forces, let alone a path towards elimination of nuclear weapons. Fortunately, the majority of the world’s countries have either completely avoided a nuclear option or walked away from their initial efforts. Their examples are heartening and instructive. Unfortunately, there are those that have gone in the opposite direction to build arsenals (North Korea) and aspire to have nuclear weapons (Iran).
Few countries have sampled the power to influence with nuclear weapons programs or actual devices, and then pushed away from the table…never to return. Australia, caught up in the scare of the communist threat, thoroughly embraced the post-World War II views of the US and Britain and even hosted British nuclear testing. However, the Vietnam War, rapprochement with China, and a right to left shift in political party supremacy all led Australia to remove nuclear weapons and become a leading proponent of nonproliferation.
South Korea and Taiwan sensing by the 1970’s that the US could not or would not continue to guarantee their security, both covertly embarked upon nuclear weapon development efforts. A renewed US security commitment and a transition to a more democratic society coupled with a desire to maintain strong external economic ties led to a termination of South Korea’s atomic arms program. Taiwan’s rollback in nuclear ambitions came about from world pressure and like South Korea, a wish to retain ties to the global economy.
South Africa became a nuclear power through internal development. A deteriorating economic isolation (due to apartheid) and a reduced influence with Western powers started South Africa down the road towards nuclear abandonment. During the Cold War, South Africa's atomic weapons made it attractive to the West, but the breakup of the USSR made that leverage relatively meaningless. Ending apartheid, terminating its nuclear program, and joining the NPT helped normalize relations with the West.
Even Sweden had a nuclear weapons program in the first decades of the cold war. However, no nuclear arms were ever deployed. Due to budget constraints, internal opposition, and redundancy in the form of the US nuclear umbrella, Sweden chose to walk away from development and join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT.
There have also been international collaborations. The 1990’s brought a new landscape still dominated by the slightly reduced (still massive) nuclear arms repositories of the US and Russia, yet now having a number of new nations with nuclear weapons. Those of the Newly Independent State (NIS) category were nuclear threats on their own and held the additional potential of being suppliers for others (nation-states and terrorists) to get nuclear weapons. A new type of thinking was required to advance the cause of nonproliferation. This is where the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR), also known as the Nunn-Lugar legislation came into play. American Senators Nunn and Lugar understood the threat of unsecured nuclear devices and technology and they reasoned that Russia was incapable of overseeing the nuclear weapons that were located in their former republics. They obtained funds and cooperation from a number of countries to secure NIS nuclear arms and knowhow and greatly diminish the threat of nuclear proliferation. A total of 7,514 nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine were dismantled.
Another international collaboration involved the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), naval powers that prevented shipments of material related to nuclear weaponry or associated delivery systems. The interdiction of weapons grade uranium production equipment designated for shipment to Libya and Libya's subsequent renunciation of nuclear weapons pursuit was partially attributed to the PSI.
The US and Russia have 90% of nuclear devices on the globe. That’s down from 95% in 2010, a combination of superpower reduction and growth in the other countries’ arsenals. This is where the bulk of the work has to happen. Because these countries must set the standard, model best behavior; especially when they tell others to forgo nuclear programs. And there are precedents. There is the successful culmination of the Cold War (success being defined as the absence of a third global war or further detonation of atomic devices upon human environs). Nuclear arms expansion began to recede when Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, were influenced by the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980’s to address proliferation. Significant drawdowns in atomic weapons were achieved when Presidents George W. H. Bush and Gorbachev signed a comprehensive strategic arms reduction treaty in 1991. Known as START I, the agreement eliminated the largest nuclear weapons and reduced overall atomic forces by 30 percent. Most recently, a New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement has been signed and ratified; an agreement that continues nuclear reduction momentum.
If nukes do somehow go away, we will have to contend with new/old problems. So many of our leaders, so many of our politicians, the two are not always synonymous, fail to grasp the systemic, the relational nature of existence. They are in for the short-term, selflessness on limited display. If we get rid of nukes, we have to take a hard run at conventional, chemical, biological, and now cyber-attack capabilities. Because without nuclear weapons, each of the other areas assume greater prominence. Studies show regions without nuclear weapons or areas with unilateral capability (Israel and the Middle East) have an increased likelihood of conventional warfare.
Our world history shows that nuclear weapons can be reduced through grassroots efforts, courageous leadership, economic incentives, and big picture thinking.
Dr. Chuck Powell is a Daisy Alliance board member and the CEO for Encompassing Leadership Associates. He specializes in leadership development at the individual and team levels, executive and life coaching, organizational development, and healthcare consulting services. Dr. Powell has served as a caregiver for thousands of patients, an Air Force officer with joint authority for up to 150 nuclear warheads, and a healthcare executive in rural, for profit, and academic settings.
Dr. Powell will be giving a companion talk to his blog piece, On High Alert: An insider's perspective on US nuclear posture, on Tuesday November 15, 2022. For more information or to register for this talk, email firstname.lastname@example.org. This talk is part of Daisy Alliance's monthly virtual lecture series, Spotlight on Nuclear Weapons Issues.