Dear nuclear powers: Don’t even THINK about starting a nuclear war!

Some plain speaking in conjunction with the release of a NoFirstUse Global Open Letter to the States Parties of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 

By Aaron Tovish, Director, Zona Libre. Member, NoFirstUse Global Steering Committee

Dear President Biden, President Putin, President Xi, Prime Minister Johnson and President Macron (with copies to Prime Minister Modi, Prime Minister Khan, Prime Minister Herzog and Supreme Leader Kim), 

By now you will have received a “preview” of the Open Letter that is being circulated by NoFirstUse Global with the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty Tenth Review Conference (NPT-X) in mind.  As a member of the NoFirstUse Global Steering Committee, I write this letter just in case the calm and respectful tone of the Open Letter leads you to believe you can safely ignore it.  The cost of ignoring it, of course, has nothing to do with direct consequences to your persons; it has everything to do with the danger to all of humanity and the precious world we call home.  So please, listen up! 

The plain truth is that you have shamelessly abused the privileges accorded to you under the NPT.  

Whereas over 185 of the Non-Nuclear-Weapon States (NNWSs) parties to the NPT have, for over half a century, scrupulously honoured their obligations to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, placing their nuclear energy facilities under safeguards, each of you blithely continues to allocate vast financial and human resources to acquiring nuclear weapons, including “modernising” and deploying them. Collectively you spend around $100 billion per year on these activities – resources that are acutely needed to address public health and the pandemic, the climate crisis, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and sustainable development. 

And while – thank goodness! — you do not threaten to escalate to nuclear warfare against NNWSs that are not allied to your nuclear adversaries, four of you (China excepted) continue to threaten, and prepare for, such escalation against nuclear armed states and their allies.  This puts the world on the brink of nuclear catastrophe every time a crisis develops between you and a nuclear armed adversary.  How can you even THINK about starting a nuclear war? 

Basically, on both these scores what the Open Letter says is: “Enough is enough!”  

To get to the root of this pile-up, let’s start at the beginning.   

By 1964, nuclear weapons had proliferated to five countries (yours), the Nuclear-Weapon Ststes (NWSs).  When negotiations began on curbing further proliferation, the three of your countries (UK, USA, & USSR) involved in the talks made it clear that the restrictions would only apply to “horizontal proliferation”, i.e., more new nuclear arsenals, not “vertical proliferation”, i.e., further increases in existing arsenals.  Since the world was witnessing an unbridled competition for greater explosive power and numbers of nuclear weapons, with nuclear explosion being conducted almost weekly, the NNWSs persisted until they extracted a commitment from the three NWSs on “cessation of the nuclear arms at an early date.”   

Fourteen years after the NPT entered into force, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev acknowledged that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, pledging “not seek to achieve military superiority.”  To many that meant an end to the nuclear armsm race and, indeed, several nuclear arms reduction measures followed.  By the time the States Parties met to consider extension of the original term in force of the treaty in 1995, negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty were – at last! – nearing completion.  With arm-racing apparently a thing of the past, agreement was reached to extend the treaty indefinitely on the basis of a commitment by the NWSs to make “systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons.”   

So how is it then that the world is again confronted with a nuclear arms race? 

Racing for greater numbers and greater yields was addressed by reductions and the test ban, but not the drive for new roles for and uses of nuclear weapons.  After the late 1970s, notwithstanding a small circle of nuclear mandarins still harbouring delusions of “nuclear primacy”, it was widely recognized that no matter how many nuclear weapons were launched in a first strike, they could not successfully suppress a devastating nuclear retaliation.   Another form of superiority — “escalation dominance” — continued, however, to hold sway.   

In case anyone has forgotten, the “logic” of escalation dominance goes as follows.  There is no point in escalating to nuclear warfare if it does not yield a decisive advantage.   Indeed, the threat to escalate lacks credibility unless at “each rung of the escalation ladder” it would be wisest for the enemy to back down.  An entire array of specialized nuclear weapons were called upon to ensure such dominance from nuclear “warning shots” to all-out war.  When dominance is in effect, the enemy should be deterred from capitalizing on a conventional advantage out of fear of triggering a spiral of nuclear escalation in which he cannot prevail. 

Arguably, the USA asserted escalation dominance over the USSR from the 1950s into the 1970s.  Even when the logic no longer really applied, it continued to drive weapon acquisition decisions.  Until recently, the USA could assert escalation dominance over the PRC.  Clearly, a major motive for China’s current expansion of its nuclear arsenal is to disabuse the US of any notion of escalating to nuclear warfare.  In this context, it is very important that the US and its allies recognize that nuclear escalation is a dead-end strategy.  Indeed, there is no setting in which any of you can benefit by initiating nuclear war.  Pretending otherwise, by feigning suicidal madness for example, simply courts disaster. 

Thus, the Open Letter calls upon you to: 

Start the process to permanently end arms racing and phase out the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines by supporting the adoption of no-first-use policies and the cessation of the production of nuclear weapons no later than the 11th NPT Review Conference in 2025; 

Our call for an end to nuclear weapon acquisition is meant not only to put a practical brake on nuclear arms racing, but also to begin the process of eliminating the explicitly discriminatory (NWS vs NNWS) nature of the nonproliferation regime.   What sense does it make that because you five started the proliferation ball rolling, that you should be exempt from the restraints placed upon those who have not proliferated?!  You got away with that in 1970, but times have changed and so must you.

The Open Letter generously allocates up to five years for you to get your acts together.  The sooner you can declare a policy of No First Use, the better – like immediately.  What could take more time is weeding out all plans and preparations for first use.  Likewise, production and acquisition plans can be cancelled forthwith.  Some of you have declared moratoria on the production of weapon-grade fissile material. Good, but not nearly good enough.  Your vast stockpiles of such materials allow you to continue to modernize your arsenals without further production.  Working out – and funding – the arrangements for the IAEA to monitor the closure of all your nuclear-weapon-production facilities and downgrade your stockpiles of weapon-grade fissile materials, should be doable by NPT-XI. 

As NWSs, all five of you are under treaty obligation, underscored in 1995, to eliminate your nuclear arsenals.  What kind of “good faith” have you shown by meeting year-after-year and producing nothing more than a “Glossary of nuclear weapons terms”!  Since you seem to be at a total loss on how to proceed, the Open Letter makes a vital suggestion (points (b) and (c)):  

Commit to a timeframe of no later than 2045 to fulfil the Article VI obligation to achieve the global elimination of nuclear weapons; and agree to adopt a concrete plan to implement this commitment, including through the systematic and progressive reduction of nuclear arsenals, at the Conference on Disarmament or the NPT-XI. 

Before you start thinking, “Well, no rush there.”  Remember that the NPT review process was strengthened in 1995 as part of the extension decision.  It provides for three meetings of the “Preparatory Committee” between review conferences.  You (and the Conference on Disarmament) will be called to account at each meeting.  If necessary, even stronger means of accountability can be brought to bear. 

At this late date, please give us “an early date” — obviously nothing later than 2045 the 75th anniversary of the NPT and the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – for completing this task.  

The final demand, (d), of the Open Letter is: 

Agree to shift budgets and public investments from the nuclear weapons industry to instead support public health, climate stabilization and sustainable development. 

The ongoing public health crisis and its glaring inequalities, cast a stark light on the obscene quantities of cash being shovelled into the nuclear arms industry (not to mention arms in general).  Meanwhile the planet is on a slow burn and progress toward the Millennium Sustainable Development Goal has stalled.  There is something deeply amiss with your priorities.  It’s past time to wake up to this reality. 

Separately, the NoFirstUse Global Steering Committee has also appealed to the nuclear-armed states not parties to the NPT, to attend NPT-X and subsequent NPT Preparatory Committee Meetings as observers, and to engage in concrete nuclear risk reduction and disarmament plans. India is a giant’s step ahead with its longstanding no-first-use policy and posture (See NFU Global letter to India); Pakistan needs to catch up (see NFU Global letter to Pakistan).  In the case of Israel, the UN deliberations on establishing a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone provide a pathway to nuclear disarmament while maintaining national security (See NFU Global letter to Israel).  In the case of North Korea, re-invigoration of the peace and denuclearization process initiated at the 2018 Winter Olympics would provide a secure pathway to a denuclearized Korean peninsula at peace, at last (See NFU Global letter to the DPRK).  

NPT-X could go down in history as the great turning point of the Nuclear Age.  NoFirstUse Global is ready to engage with you to pursue common security instead of military superiority. We are ready to help you to end the threat of nuclear war and to achieve the real security of a world in which these ultimate weapon of terror have been forever banished.  

Most sincerely,

Aaron Tovish, Director, Zona Libre. Member, NoFirstUse Global Steering Committee