The Role of the U.S. in Nuclear Disarmament

An address to "The Atlanta Consultation"
Carter Center, Atlanta, Georgia

January 27, 2000

By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.
Chairman, Middle Powers Initiative

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to speak in the presence of President Jimmy Carter whose immense efforts at mediation have won him the continuing esteem in which he is held around the world.

I speak as a Canadian, which almost by definition means a friend of the United States. Moreover, I had the good fortune to live in this country for ten years; three of my children were born here. I know, from first-hand experience, the greatness of the U.S. The human energy and creativity, so abundant here, have animated me.

Now that greatness is called upon as we consider the role of the United States in the over-arching issue of our time: the future of nuclear weapons.

That future will be decided at the 2000 Review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

I led the Canadian government's delegation to the 1985 Review and have worked with several U.S. representatives in the disarmament field through the years. I was present at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference and at all three PrepComms leading to the 2000 Review. Thus I am able to affirm that the non-proliferation regime is in crisis. The world is staring into an abyss of nuclear weapons proliferation. The danger of the use of nuclear weapons is growing. The recognition of this should galvanize intelligent and committed people - in both governments and civil society - to action.

Indeed, such action is under way as seen by steps taken in the legal, military, political, religious and NGO communities. This action, to be effective, needs the vigorous participation of the U.S. government. As a Canadian citizen, it is not my role to interfere in how the U.S. manages its affairs. But because the nuclear weapons issue sweeps across borders in the most dramatic way, what the U.S. does or does not do in this issue affects the life of every person on the planet.

Of course, the other nuclear powers bear their share of the responsibility to stop proliferation. Russia, China, the U.K. and France - and now India, Pakistan and Israel - are all in varying degrees of attachment to nuclear weapons. But their position in justifying the retention of nuclear weapons would be untenable if Washington made an unequivocal commitment to engage without delay in an accelerated process of negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.

It is the United States that is in a decisive position. It is the Western leader, the lynchpin of NATO, and by far the strongest military power in the world. In any weapons negotiations, the U.S. deals from a position of strength.

At this point, we must recognize and applaud the fact that the U.S. has brought its deployed strategic nuclear weapons down from 12,000 in 1989 to about 8,000 today, and that 80 percent of the tactical warhead stockpile has been eliminated. Reductions notwithstanding, the U.S. continues to rely on nuclear arms as a cornerstone of its national security for the indefinite future. In addition, recent planning documents show that the U.S. contemplates nuclear retaliation against chemical or biological attacks against U.S. vital interests, an action that would not only violate negative security assurances which were politically affirmed in 1995 as part of the bargain to obtain the indefinite extension of the NPT, but would also vitiate its own efforts to persuade non-nuclear weapons states to refrain from developing nuclear weapons. Large investments in research and testing continue. The failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the CTBT has reinforced a perception that the U.S. is not honouring its commitment to Article VI of the NPT.

When to this pro-active stance in the maintenance of nuclear weapons is added the work now under way to develop a ballistic missile defence system, it is understandable that others in the world are concerned that the window of opportunity for nuclear disarmament opened by the end of the Cold War may now be closing.

If we are to go through the opening years of the 21st century maintaining the status quo in which the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are the five major nuclear weapons States, then those who feel insecure or seek more power will be tempted to follow their example -- witness India and Pakistan -- and will pursue nuclear weapons programs.

If the NPT is to survive, the U.S. must find ways to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs. The old pattern of threat and counter-threat, which has led to the unacceptable risk of maintaining nuclear weapons indefinitely, must be broken. No state, however, powerful, can find security in unilateralism. We must work together for our common security.

Some say the risk of cheating by would-be proliferators down the line is an impediment to nuclear disarmament. But I believe the risk of trying to maintain the status quo, without a nuclear confrontation or accident, is far higher.

Some say that Russia is reverting to dependence on nuclear weapons and that that is an impediment to nuclear disarmament. But I believe that NATO's continued insistence that nuclear weapons are "essential" is the main driving force behind the current breakdown of the non-proliferation regime.

Some say that it would be irresponsible to dismantle Western nuclear capability before new and reliable systems for preserving stability are in place. But I believe that would-be nuclear States must be convinced that the nuclear powers are serious about negotiations and that going nuclear would vastly exacerbate any regional disparities they may be involved in.

Here the international community must give much stronger backing to the kind of conflict-mediation procedures for which the Carter Center is renowned. Because of its strength, the United States can provide the leadership needed to encourage all States to foster dialogue, openness and other trust-and-confidence-building measures with their neighbors. A credible American commitment to a nuclear weapon-free world would encourage other States to strengthen collective and cooperative means of addressing their security concerns.

The time to break the stalemate is at the 2000 Review of the NPT - the very treaty that is supposed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The NPT calls for the good-faith pursuit of negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. The International Court of Justice reinforced this by unanimously agreeing that negotiations must be concluded.

No one is talking about immediate elimination of nuclear weapons. The process also requires the construction of a reliable global security system, which will take many years. The length of time this will take is not important. Rather, today's urgency is caused by the refusal of major powers to even start down that road.

The U.S. can and should send a powerful signal to the NPT Review Conference that it is willing to do this. Concrete steps can prepare the way for negotiations.

The U.S. should take this positive action for two sets of reasons: First, it is in its own direct security interest to head off the complete breakdown of the non-proliferation regime. Second, it is the right thing to do in the interests of humanity.

A U.S. president once said: Let us not negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. The world will benefit from the start of comprehensive nuclear weapons negotiations.