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Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate

Edited by George Perkovich and James M. Acton

Reviewed by Laicie Olson

Published in February, 2009 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, is a comprehensive look at the challenges of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.  George Perkovich and James M. Acton draw on their previous Adelphi Paper, published in September 2008 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, to provide a multitude of reactions and subsequent response.  What emerges is a thorough examination of the steps that must be taken if the possibility of nuclear disarmament is to become a reality.

The book is essentially an extension of Perkovich and Acton’s previous Adelphi Paper.  One of the paper’s main goals was to “prompt serious international analysis, discussion, and debate, recognizing divergent views within and between nuclear-armed states and those that do not possess these weapons.” (1)  To accomplish this goal, Perkovich and Acton invited experts from thirteen countries, nuclear and non-nuclear, to critique the Adelphi Paper.  The diverse views of those eighteen experts are printed within Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate.

To set out the issues to be discussed, the book begins with a reprint of Perkovich and Acton’s Adelphi Paper.  This paper examines the topic of nuclear disarmament from a mostly technical viewpoint.  It discusses the obstacles posed by nuclear proliferation, nuclear energy and missile defense, along with a profile of each nuclear weapon state and the arguments for and against each of these issues.  The central thesis of the paper appears to be a case for steps toward nuclear disarmament through further research and discussion, rather than the cynicism that often prevails today.  The authors point to the challenges of verification and enforcement and state that the biggest challenges to nuclear disarmament are largely political.  They do not, however, attempt to offer a way to overcome these political challenges, instead offering multiple questions that must be answered before disarmament might move forward.

In the pages that follow, eighteen experts weigh in on Perkovich and Acton’s paper, fueling the debate.  The critiques are wide-ranging.  While some charge the authors with “minimizing the difficulties of nuclear abolition,” (2)  others state that the list of obstacles presented is “daunting”. (3)  One particularly salient point in the debate over the abolition of nuclear weapons comes from Takaya Suto and Hirofumi Tosaki:

Although the abolition of nuclear weapons may very well be ‘justice’ …blind pursuance of this cause could disturb order and stability… However, in the nuclear age, order and stability are provided under the sword of Damocles.  The [argument] that deep reductions and the subsequent abolition of nuclear weapons cannot be initiated without the assurance of security and “strategic stability” is prone to be used as a pretext for maintaining the status quo under the premise that the present order and stability would continue.  But there is no guarantee that this premise would hold indefinitely. (4)

It is this point that fuels the nuclear debate: trust and mistrust; faith and cynicism.  Lawrence Freedman cuts through the debate on Article VI of the Non-Prolifieration Treaty (NPT) by writing:

The problem is not that the nuclear powers are in breach of a binding promise to disarm; the legal requirement was never more than best efforts.  [The problem] is more the impression of cynical disdain, as the nuclear powers insist that the non-nuclear weapon states strictly follow treaty obligations while showing indifference of their own.  Solemn undertakings by junior officials and backed by no more than lists of relatively minor activities and discussions will no longer suffice. (5)

It is this disdain that often stops the debate on nuclear disarmament short.  Though Perkovich and Acton do not expressly advocate for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, they ask for a debate that might lead to better understanding of the true obstacles and steps toward a peaceful resolution.

Through the authors’ call for research and debate, the argument emerges that with time, the goal of nuclear disarmament may become more realistic.  Perkovich and Acton pay particular praise to the view expressed by Achilles Zaluar:

If combined with a firm political commitment toward the implementation of Article VI of the NPT, moving first from thousands of nuclear weapons with high profile (today) to a few hundred with low profile (an intermediate step toward abolition…) would present many of the benefits and none of the alleged dangers and risks of the abolition scenario.  Committing to this agenda of reducing the total number of nuclear weapons globally to the hundreds and taking them out of the foreground of international politics would represent positive change in the direction of the NPT’s ultimate objective.  In fact, the change would be so enormous that its consequences would ripple throughout the international system, without the risks that some fear from the tidal wave of going to absolute zero.  It would, moreover, provide the international community with a ‘to-do list’ that would take at least a decade – a decade in which the loss of credibility of the non-proliferation regime could be reversed. (6)

It is this view that transcends the cynicism to provide a spark of hope for eventual steps toward zero nuclear weapons.

Perkovich and Acton provide an extensive debate of the issues pertaining to the abolition of nuclear weapons.  The eighteen experts involved in the debate only add to the questions raised.  The books falls short only in the answers in provides.  This accomplishment, however, is beyond the scope of the book.  Perkovich and Acton do not attempt to solve the debate today.  Conversely, they recognize that a solution will take more than a little time to discover.  There are many steps along the way to zero nuclear weapons; Perkovich and Acton take one very important step in their book, by providing a set of concrete questions we must at least begin to debate.

Download a copy of the book here.

Notes:
1 Peace, Carnegie Endowment for International. Publications. 2009. 7 April 2009
<http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=22748&prog=zgp&proj=znpp>.
2 Perkovich, George and James M. Acton. Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate. Carnegie Endowment Report.
Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.

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