This week saw the fortieth anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
One thing that has often perplexed me is how much the public anxiety about the proliferation of nuclear and other armaments has diminished over the last twenty years. The end of the Cold War could explain some of it, but given the repeated references by various political leaders to the threat of terrorism, a ‘War on Terror’, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and the like, plus the fact that the Doomsday Clock is now back at five minutes to midnight, one could reasonably expect greater public pressure for action to increase disarmament. Yet on the whole community concern remains relatively muted.
Some argue it is more important to put energy into reducing arms proliferation in general. According to Worldwatch, “more than 500 million military style hand-held weapons exist now- enough to arm every 12th human on earth – and millions more are produced each year.” Personally, I think there needs to be far more effort put in on all fronts.
Kevin Rudd’s proposal for an international commission on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament has to be welcomed as offering potential, although as I wrote in Online Opinion, I’m not yet convinced that he is going to give it the necessary political and diplomatic priority. The answer I got to a question I asked in the Senate about the proposed commission shows the whole thing is all still very much at the preliminary stage.
But scepticism about the depth of the government’s commitment shouldn’t divert attention from the importance of the stated goal and the need for everyone to put more energy behind that goal. There is a real potential that a significant shift in approach may soon occur in the USA. The Centre for Arms Control and Non-proliferation has produced this side by side comparison of Barack Obama and John McCain’s views on nuclear weapons and other related security issues. This piece in The New Republic highlights both the limitations of the ‘good guys versus bad guys’ approach to international engagement and the historical apprehension of US conservatives to the NPT.
For a bit more background, this piece from Foreign Policy in Focus by Masako Toki, a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, is also worth reading. As it notes,
One of the most prominent developments in the area of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament is the initiative of four former high-ranking U.S. officials – George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn – to establish a world free of nuclear weapons.
It gives significance to Kevin Rudd’s proposal, but also emphasise the need for the major powers to support new energy being put towards disarmament, and “more assertive stances from non-nuclear powers like Japan.”
Given the Rudd proposal, the initiatives of Shultz and company, and growing support for these efforts, the world stands at a rare and extraordinary moment of opportunity to pursue nuclear disarmament. But the major nuclear powers need to take the first steps.
Importantly, it also recognises the essential role that civil society must play in these efforts. Which gets me back to the point I raised at the start – increased, continuing and widespread public pressure on this crucial issue is vital if we are to have much chance of making genuine progress.
Here are links to some other pieces on the NPT anniversary:
- The Free Government Information site reports that the National Security Archive has published a briefing book, “The Impulse towards a Safer World”, which is “a thorough and intriguing history of one of the most significant multilateral arms control achievements of the nuclear age”
- Various info from the Abolition 2000 network.
- A report from AFP emphasises both the success of the NPT and the urgent need for it be overhauled or updated.
- A report from The Age gives emphasis to the Bush Administration reputedly being miffed at not being consulted about Kevin Rudd’s proposal.