Another nuclear-weapons commission? Wait, this one's the bomb!

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — In December, what for all intents and purposes looks like the mother of all reports on nuclear weapons was issued. The entity responsible is called the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND). A joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese Governments, it was launched to reinvigorate global nuclear disarmament in time for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The ICNND is chaired by Gareth Evans, Australia’s respected one-time foreign minister who has since dedicated his life to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, and Yoriko Kawaguchi, Japan’s former minister of foreign affairs. Its other members are mostly individuals who’ve held high positions in government, including a former chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff, a former prime minister of Norway, and Prince Turki Al Faisal of the Saudi royal family.

Come to think of it, the commission’s mainstream membership is reminiscent of that of the recently concluded Congressional Commission on the Nuclear Posture of the United States. The latter included, on the one hand, Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry, since reborn as a disarmament advocate, and, on the other, former CIA director and noted hawk James Woolsey. Among the Nuclear Posture Review Commission’s recommendations were ratifying the follow-up treaty to START, but not the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In effect, it nullified itself.

But disarmament itself was central to its deliberations, while in the ICNND’s case, it was its raison d’etre. Titled “Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers,” the ICNND’s report counsels disarmament in studied steps.

Reading it proves slow going — it’s as nuanced as it is comprehensive — but it’s no slog. To those of us who’d like to see a shortened route to disarmament and one shorn of the nuclear-energy programs ICNND considers essential to its agenda, the results of the report disappoint to a degree. On the other hand, it’s awash in keen observations and sound reasoning. As I work my way through it (about one-third thus far) I’ll highlight some of those — as well as have some fun with it.

Let’s begin with what the report refers to as nuclear weapons “delegitimation” (which, apparently, is to “deligitimization” as “preventive” is to “preventative”). The report reads:

If we want to minimize and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons, the critical need is to change perceptions of their role and utility: in effect, to achieve their progressive delegitimation, from a position in which they occupied a central strategic place to one in which their role is seen as quite marginal, and eventually wholly unnecessary as well as undesirable.

We’re part way there, according to the report, because. . .

. . . it is now broadly accepted that nuclear weapons have little or no utility as instruments of warfighting [because, among other things nuclear weapons], creating impassable terrains and causing long-lasting environmental damage, cannot rationally be used to take territory.

Not only are nuclear weapons weighed down by the irony that they’re inherently unusable, but one rung down the hierarchy of irony resides the humbling knowledge that the biggest, baddest weapons ever invented are of absolutely no use when it comes to seizing territory. If one state covets another for its resources or whatever and were to attack it with nuclear weapons, the resale value on the acquired state immediately plummets.

Even if the conquering state were willing to help rebuild its newfound acquisition, needless to say, great swaths of it are rendered uninhabitable by radiation. Of course, a nuclear-weapons advocate might make the case that not only do nuclear weapons deter a world war, they’re the reason that while states may fight over disputed territory like Kashmir, they no longer seek to acquire new territory.

As opposed to conquest or world wars, today small wars are all the rage. But nuclear weapons. . .

. . . lack finesse in a world where advanced militaries increasingly focus on reducing collateral damage and civilian deaths. …. weapons of choice in war these days are precise in both targeting and effect.

The last sentence might be amended to read “weapons of choice in war these days are intended to be precise in both targeting and effect.” Meanwhile lacking finesse is an understatement when speaking of strategic (high-yield) nuclear weapons. But what about tactical, or battlefield, nukes?

A claim that those lack finesse could, in fact, be taken as a challenge to proceed with the development of nuclear bunker busters or to resurrect the infamous Davy Crockett, a glorified grenade launcher for the smallest tactical nukes. Never mind tactical, would a nuclear handgun be a “tactful” nuke? Meanwhile, here’s another sleeping dog we should let lie.

. . . there is a strong taboo on the actual use, if not possession, of nuclear weapons: a profound. . . constraint. . . against using weapons of such indiscriminate and disproportionate destruction.

The frequent use of the word taboo as an explanation for why nuclear weapons remain holstered is enough to make one flinch. As we all know, the adjective taboo only increases the allure of an action and makes it that much more tempting.

Next, the report reads (emphasis added):

Nuclear weapons are essentially self-deterring for actors who depend upon public support from their own populations, their allies, and broader international society. Every time states have come close to their use they have recoiled.

In other words, a nuclear power may operate under the assumption that its possession of nuclear weapons deters another nuclear power from attacking it. But the other state is at least as likely to be deterred from using its nuclear weapons by the prevailing zeitgeist. What’s more, it’s conceivable that even if the United States were attacked with nuclear weapons, a president such as Barack Obama might disdain a nuclear response and retaliate instead with conventional weapons.

Deterrence aside, a more recent argument that the proponents of nuclear weapons proffer for the retention of nuclear weapons is “the notion that because nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented they can never wholly disappear.”

No question — refuting the uninvented argument isn’t easy. But that’s why God created compliance and verification: Vigilance is all. Besides, mankind hasn’t been able to uninvent torture and slavery, but they’ve been eradicated. Oh wait, no they haven’t. Moving on, the report reads. . .

If these perceptions [about the uninvention of nuclear weapons] are to change, they have to be tackled. . . in a way which recognizes and respects. . . the weight of opposing arguments. … The necessary commitments to disarmament will not be achieved by simply denouncing the nuclear-armed states. . . for being in thrall to false theories and prey to unwarranted anxieties.

In fact, said states. . .

. . . can both recognize [the] long-term risks and at the same time fear the short-term impact on their security posed by the processes of disarmament. … They must be convinced that there is no incompatibility between nuclear disarmament and security.

As you can see, despite how hypocritical a state sounds when it calls for disarmament while also insisting on retaining nukes, concerns about a disarmament time frame are legitimate. Thus (emphasis added). . .

Those who advocate elimination need to break the process into manageable steps, countering perceptions that it is a leap into the unknown. … the number of diverse states that must cooperate to make nuclear abolition feasible is too great, and the issues too complex, to allow anything but incremental movement. Here as elsewhere in public policy, inertia tends to be the norm, major change the rarity, and sustaining major change extraordinarily difficult. The real alternative to an incremental approach is not more rapid change, but stasis. But doing nothing is not an option.

Advocates of our right to a speedy disarmament may not like the commission’s findings, but it’s difficult to dispute them. Next: solutions.

First posted at the Faster Times.