Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Building NATO Security Through Arms Control and Disarmament

A number of media including the Daily Telegraph and Global Security Newswire have reported on a Wikileaks cable describing a briefing to NATO ministers in 2009 on nuclear issues. The headlines have concerned Al-Qaeda attempts to acquire nuclear materials for a dirty bomb, but the briefing was said to concern that, Russian tactical nuclear forces and Iranian nuclear and missile programmes.

It was particularly striking that there was reference to non-proliferation being the first line of defence against these threats, something with which NATO Monitor concurs.

Nuclear terrorism is a threat which, while remote, would have catastrophic consequences if a full nuclear bomb were used, and devastating ones if even an explosive radiological dispersal device were used in a major western city. It is also a threat which is absolutely impervious to deterrence. The only solution is a serious effort by the international community to secure all radioactive sources, a massive undertaking and one which is not sufficiently high up the international agenda - despite President Obama's best endeavours. And end to the civilian use of plutonium and highly enriched uranium are also essential, or the prospective spread of civilian nuclear reactors will bring enormous dangers in its wake. The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which has languished in the Conference on Disarmament for year, must be pursued whether in that body or elsewhere if progress is impossible.

The discussion of Russian tactical nuclear forces could also have benefited from this perspective. While NATO is able to deter any putative Russian attack, it is likely that a negotiation which reduced and redeployed Russian and US tactical nuclear weapons, while also re-establishing the currently suspended Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty - adapting it beyond the 1999 to focus on the realities of post-enlargement NATO - would do much to enhance the security of all NATO members, especially those in the Baltic States who most fear Russia. Transparency and stability can be achieved through arms control, and can save enormous amounts of money. CFE fulfilled this function in the 1990s, when stable relations with Russia were far from a given for NATO. They could do so again.

Iran is likely to prove the most intractable of these problems, and success on the non-proliferation front is only likely if placed in the context of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East. It is far from clear the President Ahmedinejad wants to negotiate, or that he or any other part of the Iranian ruling structure is strong enough to do so. It is also clear that they will be more encouraged to do so if they feel there is something in it for them in the shape of enhanced regional security, and less threat of their overthrow. This would, of course, require action from actors including Israel, NATO and Syria and would be exceptionally hard to achieve. But even the effort can bring some worthwhile change to an incredibly tense situation.

In short, NATO needs to get back into the business of arms control and disarmament. It used to be serious about such things, and should be now. It would find its secuirty much enhanced if it succeeded, and if it failed, well, it would still be the largest military bloc on the planet.