With the United States now having added its considerable weight to the list of countries officially advocating global nuclear disarmament, it seems only a matter of time before a movement to initiate a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty gathers momentum. On the long road to a nuclear weapons free world there will be many bottlenecks and tenuous points, but none is so pressing is the moment this momentum takes hold and the parties commit themselves to negotiations. How might this come to pass? How could nuclear weapons states credibly commit to negotiate in earnest—toward submitting their treasured arsenals to rigorous international inspection, verification, and dismantlement—rather than trying to preserve a way out?
Reading through Ivan Oelrich and Steve Fetter’s excellent contribution on verification standards under a hypothetical disarmament regime to Barry Blechmann and Alex Bollfrass’ Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, it occurred to me that the most important events with regard to the feasibility of verifiable disarmament may well occur while the Convention is under negotiation or even before. Oelrich and Fetter stress the fact that it is the more advanced countries that are more difficult to disarm because the small error rate for the tracing of these countries’ vast supplies of fissile material represents hundreds of weapons rather than dozens or handfuls. These countries are also the ones better able to circumvent the strictures of a verification regime through the manufacture of false warheads, dummy plutonium pits or subassemblies, parallel weaponization programs, concealed facilities, and so forth.
The result is that it ought to be more difficult for established nuclear weapons states to credibly commit to a robust verification regime, and so difficult to bring non-nuclear weapon states to the table in the first place. Though Oelrich and Fetter do not quite say so, the best opportunity for a country to slip the noose of a disarmament treaty would be to prepare to do so before they sign the treaty and submit themselves to initial inspection. This means that the process of convening a disarmament treaty drafting convention could be expedited by taking steps now to establish a reputation for cooperation, a base of data upon which to build, and facilities that simplify the inspection process (like the new Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant). Nuclear weapons countries could:
- compile data from existing arms control treaties and databases;
- expand voluntary IAEA inspections;
- unilaterally divulge information about the size and character of their nuclear arsenals (as the United States and Britain recently did);
- renovate existing mining, reprocessing, research, and civilian power facilities to promote inspection, or construct new ones to these standards;
- refrain from producing weapons systems that could be easily converted from conventional to nuclear delivery, or renovate or retire old ones that meet this description;
- develop uniquely conventional systems to assume the roles plausibly occupied by nuclear systems;
- rewrite nuclear and military doctrine to deemphasize nuclear deterrence and warfighting.
It might be thought that there is nothing nuclear weapon states can do to facilitate disarmament short of disarming. In fact, the path to disarmament can start well before; it can start now.