London meeting on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

Pugwash Meeting No. 241

The Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
A Public Meeting at the Royal Society in Honor of the 90th Birthday of Sir Joseph Rotblat,
7 November 1998, London England

Report by Robert Hinde

ON November 4th, 1998, Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat celebrated his 90th birthday. To honour the occasion, British Pugwash organised a three-day workshop which included a public meeting in the Royal Society on November 7th. This centred round presentations from members of the five official nuclear weapons states — Field-Marshal Lord Carver (formerly Chief of the Defence Staff of the British Army), Professor Paul Doty (Director of the Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University), Ambassador Qian Jiadong (formerly China’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva), Dr. Alexander Nikitin (Director of the Centre for Political and International Studies in Moscow) and Dr. Michel Rocard (formerly Prime Minister of France, Member of the European Parliament). The meeting was chaired by Sir Michael Atiyah, President of Pugwash.

Each speaker paid tribute to Jo Rotblat’s steadfast dedication to making possible a nuclear-free world and to eliminating wars of all sorts. The achievements of the past have been due in no small degree to his efforts.

There was general agreement that the ten years since the end of the Cold War had seen considerable progress — not only in international agreements but practically, for instance in the reduction by half of the number of strategic weapons deployed. In addition, the course of events in Iraq and North Korea suggests that the international community has some capacity to inhibit the illicit acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, more recently a number of factors give cause for considerable anxiety.

Although, with the disintegration of the USSR, all Soviet nuclear weapons have been transferred to Russia, doubt has been expressed about the availability of resources for their safe keeping. The decommissioning of weapons can lead to less strict control by civilian authorities although, thanks in large measure to the USA, modern methods of safeguarding them are now being put into place. Nevertheless there is some evidence that plutonium and highly enriched uranium have become more available to illicit buyers. The clandestine production of nuclear weapons by Israel, and the recent testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, have opened the door for further proliferation.

Russian policy is turning towards the retention of nuclear weapons. The expansion of NATO to its borders, and the presence of Islamic regimes along its southern borders, are seen as threats, and its current relative weakness in conventional forces increases the attractiveness of a nuclear option. This is exarcebated by anti-Americanism in the general public and its general apathy towards disarmament. The expansion of NATO has also hindered the ratification of Start II. This tendency towards the retention of nuclear arms in Russia is making the USA less willing to diminish its own massive nuclear capability. Yet another disturbing issue is the continuing development of space weapons and of missile defence systems, with its potentially destabilising consequences.

Whilst all the speakers were in favour of nuclear disarmament, they differed over the immediate steps to be taken. M. Rocard emphasized how much France has achieved already — for instance by reducing the nuclear capabilities of its air force and submarine fleet by one third, closing its testing facility, and supporting the CTBT and NPT. Emphasizing the disproportion between the arsenals of the USA and Russia on the one hand, and those of the other nuclear powers on the other, he argued that the latter had little incentive for further steps until the START III stage. He therefore suggested a Franco-British initiative towards staged disarmament, a treaty between the five official nuclear powers gradually to reduce their strategic weapons, and the immediate elimination of all non-strategic weapons and stocks of fissile materials. Nuclear disarmament should be linked to similar steps involving other weapons.

Paul Doty outlined the progress that had been made in the USA in the last decade, but emphasized the need for action resulting from the alarming availability of plutonium and of highly enriched uranium. While believing that Russia and the USA have an obligation to the world to get rid of their nuclear weaponry, he pointed out that there is a wide spectrum of opinion in the USA, and that the Government seems inclined to maintain the status quo with no long-term strategy. However it is recognised that Russia needs more aid in order to accelerate the rate of weapon reduction and to increase transparency.

Ambassador Qian Jiadong emphasized that China supports the NPT and seeks total elimination of all nuclear weapons. He called for the USA and Russia to abandon their policies of nuclear deterrence and to further reduce their stockpiles. The lesser nuclear powers should join this reduction process, but he saw it as unreasonable to expect them to do so now. Further reduction would be facilitated if all states, like China, had a commitment to No First Use. All states should withdraw weapons from outside their borders immediately, and cease development of outer space weapons.

Alexander Nikitin asked for a better understanding of Russia’s position. Aiming to correct misperceptions, he emphasized that the vulnerability of the nuclear material in Russia has been over-stated, and that the country is moving towards full democracy with political pluralism, democratic elections, individual freedom, and stable federalism. But Russia now feels humiliated, without allies, and with a diminished national identity. It faces acute problems at home, and threats and challenges from abroad. Perhaps as a result of such issues, it can accept the lack of nuclear parity as of no consequence. In Nikitin’s view, Russia has accepted the expansion of NATO, but must see it as having a primarily peace-keeping capability, with the political side dominating the military. But Russia had reservations about NATO’s role in Yugoslavia, where it tended to marginalise the UN. It is important that NATO should not invade the Russian sphere of influence any further. Nikitin expected a continuation of low-level rivalry and low-level cooperation between Russia and NATO. He hoped for a strategic partnership involving no launch on warning, de-alerting, de-targetting, and gradual elimination of warheads and launchers. He looked forward to START III with still lower ceilings for strategic weapons and the inclusion of maritime and tactical weapons.

Lord Carver went farther than any of the other speakers in advocating total and immediate nuclear disarmament by the UK, whatever the policies of other nuclear powers. While supporting the recommendations of the Canberra Commission, he argued that they did not go far enough because they accepted that the lesser nuclear powers would retain their nuclear weapons until the major ones made substantial further reductions in their stockpiles. He argued that the only possible use of nuclear weapons is to deter a first strike, for to use them first would invite reprisals and be suicidal, and to use them against a non-nuclear power would be morally unacceptable. The UK no longer has need for deterrence, and the value for deterrence is in any case uncertain, because there will always be inhibitions against their use. They are a waste of money. There is no possible situation in which France or the UK could benefit from having nuclear arms, and such arguments as the British Government uses for retaining them could equally well be used to justify their use by others. So long as the UK has nuclear weapons, we cannot criticize others for having them. But for Lord Carver the crucial point emerges from a comparison between the relative risks of a situation where there was no serious attempt to eliminate them and one in which there was genuine commitment by USA and Russia to eliminate weapons down to a point where final elimination was the course of least risk. In the former case there would be more states with nuclear weapons with less sophisticated methods of control, and a high risk of intentional or accidental use. In the latter case, other states would follow suit and eliminate their weapons. Of course, some risks would still remain, and further work on verification and on the elimination of other weapons of mass destruction would be necessary. But there is little doubt that the latter course involves least risk.

The meeting concluded with some remarks from Jo Rotblat, who endorsed the case for complete nuclear disarmament on pragmatic grounds, emphasizing especially the intransigence of the USA, and also stressed the immorality of a policy involving a balance of terror — a policy that must eventually erode our moral standards.