Getting Over Our Nuclear Denial

The disarmament goal Barack Obama has set for the world is not impossible

Resolution 1887, adopted unanimously by the 15-member United Nations Security Council yesterday (September 23, 2009), embodies a sweeping call for nuclear disarmament. “The historic resolution we just adopted,” Barack Obama told a rare heads-of-state session, “enshrines our shared commitment to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The Security Council is charged by the governments of the world to take “collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.” Nuclear war is not the only such threat, but it’s the most immediate. If we fail to address it, the hopes that we can find common ground on the other threats – resource depletion, climate change, poverty and oppression – will be gravely weakened.

Yesterday’s resolution could mark the date we finally came out of denial regarding the dangers of a nuclear-armed world. In 1996, the Canberra commission made the essential point: “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility.” Three years ago, the Blix commission hammered home the brutal fact: “Twenty-seven thousand nuclear weapons are not an abstract theory. They exist.”

The impetus for Resolution 1887 came from the realization that the dam that keeps civil nuclear capabilities from spilling into military ones is in danger of bursting. As with any such erosion, it can sweep away years of restraint. Nuclear weapons in North Korea or Iran will be met by widespread increases in nuclear armament in both regions.

But yesterday’s affirmation went far beyond that; Iran was not the focus. “This is not about singling out an individual nation,” Mr. Obama said. “International law is not an empty promise, and treaties must be enforced.” Prominent among the treaties in need of enforcement is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been law since 1970 with almost universal endorsement (the notable exceptions being India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea).

Attempts to bolster the NPT by enforcement and by subsidiary treaties banning the testing of nuclear weapons (there is a tenuous moratorium on testing) or banning the production of fissile material for weapons have foundered on a major obstacle: the reluctance of the nuclear weapons states to disarm. This, despite the fact that the NPT bound them to do so.

Beginning with his April speech in Prague, and continuing yesterday at the Security Council, Mr. Obama has pointed his administration in the opposite direction: “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” The recent U.S. withdrawal of a European missile defence proposal that stood in the way of future agreements with Russia was surely intended as a first step along the difficult path to a disarmament agreement.

The goal that Mr. Obama has set for the world, and that the Security Council has now endorsed, is not an impossible one. The thinking that underlies it is half-a-century old. At its peak, the nuclear arsenals of Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States totalled 70,000; today, they amount to a third of that.

Why should they not dwindle to the hundreds, or even less? This will require inspection – not beyond the reach of science. What’s lacking is a commonality of purpose, bringing with it the force of international law.

Many reasons will be raised why this won’t happen – that such an eventuality lacks historical precedent, that the weapons can’t be un-invented. But the objective is different: It’s to render them illegitimate.

A third objection stems from the fact that human nature is unalterable. That’s probably true. But most of us are quite fond of humans. So much so that we are loath to see such inhuman instruments as nuclear weapons stand as our feeble guarantors of peace.

John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate and professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto. His article was first published by the Globe and Mail on September 24, 2009. Dr. Polanyi attended a meeting with President Obama on April 12 and 13 to discuss nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.