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Toward a Nuclear-Free World

How can the world ensure that nuclear weapons are a “historic accident”?

April 11, 2007

How can the world ensure that nuclear weapons are a "historic accident"?

Ultimately, reducing the risks from nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century cannot be just a military or nuclear energy strategy. At the beginning of the nuclear age, it was already clear that unless we solved the underlying political conflicts that encourage some states to seek security in nuclear arms, we would never prevent nuclear competition.

Oppenheimer said, "We must ask, of any proposals for the control of atomic energy, what part they can play in reducing the probability of war. Proposals which in no way advance the general problem of the avoidance of war, are not satisfactory proposals.”

Thus, nuclear-weapon-specific efforts should be joined by focused initiatives to resolve conflicts in key regions. A quick look at the map should make clear that nuclear weapons have not spread around the world uniformly. It has not been like a drop of ink diffusing evenly in a glass of water.

Vast areas of the world — entire continents — are nuclear-weapon free. There are no nuclear weapons in South America, Africa, Australia or Southeast Asia. Rather, the states of proliferation concern are in an arc of crisis that flows from the Middle East through South Asia up to Northeast Asia.

In other words, the concern is in regions where unresolved territorial, political and religious disputes give rise to the desire to gain some strategic advantage by acquiring nuclear weapons.

Countries have given up nuclear weapons and programs in the past only when these disputes have been resolved. The pattern of the past should be the template for the future. Avoiding nuclear war in South Asia requires continuing the progress in normalizing relations between India and Pakistan, achieving a permanent resolution of the Kashmir issue, and assuring that China's rise is, indeed, peaceful.

Ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons and new nuclear programs requires normalization of relations between Israel and other regional states and groups based on a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ending all war may be a utopian dream, but we have made more progress in the past two decades than most people realize. Since the end of the Cold War, and in large part because of the end of the surrogate struggles that competition engendered, there has been a steady decline in regional conflicts.

The 2005 Human Security Report, an independent study funded by five countries and published by Oxford University Press, recorded a 40% decline in deadly conflicts from 1992 to 2003. The report noted that there was an 80% decline in both the deadliest conflicts — those with 1,000 or more battle deaths — and in the number of genocides and other mass slaughters of civilians.

How did this happen? "In the late 1980s, Washington and Moscow stopped fueling 'proxy wars' in the developing world, and the United Nations was liberated to play the global security role its founders intended,” Andrew Mack, the director of the project, concluded. "Freed from the paralyzing stasis of Cold War geopolitics, the Security Council initiated an unprecedented, though sometimes inchoate, explosion of international activism designed to stop ongoing wars and prevent new ones."

As this record of success becomes more widely recognized, it may become possible to convince national leaders to devote more effort to resolving the conflicts in Korea, South Asia and the Middle East. Resolution of some of these may come more quickly than most imagine.

Others will take more time, but as history teaches us, it is the direction in which we are moving that informs national attitudes and shapes each state's security decisions. The more arrows we can get pointed in the right direction, the easier it becomes to make progress on all fronts.

There is every reason to believe that in the first half of this century, the peoples and nations of the world will come to see nuclear weapons as the "historic accident" Mohamed El-Baradei says they are. It may become clearer that nations have no need for the vast destructive force contained in a few kilograms of enriched uranium and plutonium.

These weapons still appeal to national pride, but they are increasingly unappealing to national budgets and military needs. It took just sixty years to get to this point in the nuclear road. If enough national leaders decide to walk the path together, it should not take another sixty to get to a safer, better world. We may finally be able to correct the one mistake Einstein thought he made.

This excerpt is adapted from “Bomb Scare” by Joseph Cirincione. Reprinted by arrangement with Columbia University Press. Copyright 2007 by Joseph Cirincione. All rights reserved.