Not much time is left before President Obama leaves the Oval Office in January 2017. When people count his legacies in the nuclear arena, he deserves credit for the Global Summit on Nuclear Security that he initiated in 2009, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia in 2010 and the historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear issue between Iran and six world powers in 2015.
However “a world without nuclear weapons”, which he championed in Prague in 2009, looks very distant. Today no nuclear-weapon states have given up efforts in modernizing their nuclear weapons, although for different reasons. Wildcard DPRK brazenly challenges the world with nuclear tests. American presidential candidate Donald Trump even suggested that South Korea and Japan should consider developing their own nuclear weapons rather than being protected by the US nuclear umbrella. IAEA’s record of 2,200 attempts of theft and smuggling of nuclear materials reveal loopholes in nuclear security and the danger of nuclear terrorism.
The best way to a world without nuclear weapons is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security. For that to happen, nuclear-weapon states should, among others, abandon the policies of nuclear deterrence and pledge no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Here are some reasons:
First of all, no-first-use demonstrates the moral responsibility of nuclear weapon states. After the Cold War, China has gradually abandoned quite a few “taboos” in defense policies such as no joint exercises with foreign countries, no stationing troops abroad and no military base overseas. But China vows it will never change its nuclear policies of not being the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and in any circumstance and not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. China is not the strongest power either in nuclear weapons or in conventional weapons. If China can make such a commitment, why can’t the US, Russia, Britain and France do the same? It is a shame for the strongest military powers with superiority in conventional weapons to talk about using nuclear weapons first.
Secondly, a pledge of no-first-use does no harm to the nuclear capability of the nuclear-weapon states. A commitment of no-first-use is defensive in nature, but it doesn’t exclude nuclear retaliation. If a nuclear power decides to launch a nuclear strike against another nuclear power, it has to consider the assured nuclear retaliation from the other side. Therefore a first use by one nuclear power against another is highly improbable.
Thirdly, no first use is the best means to avoid miscalculations. Reportedly there are some 800 weapons the US and Russia each keep that can be fired within seconds. During the Cold War there were quite a few cases of false alarms of nuclear attacks from two superpowers. Former US Secretary of Defense William Perry believes that the US at least three times received false alarms when the military thought the Soviets had launched a nuclear attack, and “we know of at least two (false alarms) in the Soviet Union”.
Finally, the allegation that the US needs nuclear weapons to protect its allies does not really hold water. How likely is the DPRK to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on American troops or American allies ROK and Japan? No matter how DPRK tries to bluff about its nuclear capability, it has only done four nuclear tests. The maturity of its nuclear technology is questionable. Its possession of nuclear weapons is more for survival rather than a suicidal attack.
A no-first-use is a natural step forward from de-targeting of nuclear weapons at each other. In September 1994, China and Russia declared mutual no-first-use and de-targeting. In June 1998, China and the US declared mutual de-targeting. In May 2000, China, together with the other four nuclear-weapon states, issued a joint statement declaring that their nuclear weapons are not targeted at any country.
So far China remains the only nuclear weapon state that pledges no first use, although India, a de facto nuclear-weapon state, made a similar promise. In January 1994, China formally presented a draft text of the Treaty on the No-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons to the other four nuclear-weapon states. Could they accept China’s proposal one day? For quite some time the US was not warm towards China’s proposal of de-targeting. The US believed de-targeting was not verifiable and intentions could change overnight. But the nuclear test of India and Pakistan in 1998 prompted US to quickly accept the Chinese proposal to show solidarity. This eventually led to the joint de-targeting agreement among five nuclear-weapon states in 2000.
President Obama admitted that a world without nuclear weapons may not be seen in his lifetime. That, however, should not be an alibi for inaction. The US and Russian arms reduction has slowed down. It should continue to the extent that Britain, France and China —which have much smaller nuclear arsenals — agree to join in the disarmament. At same time, China’s no-first-use pledge deserves new consideration by other nuclear powers. It doesn’t cripple their nuclear capabilities. It boosts confidence that a world free of nuclear weapons is eventually possible.