Opinion: Back to square zero

Peace & Security13 Apr 2010Jan Pronk, Jan Gruiters, Miriam Struyk

Nuclear disarmament is finally back on the agenda. The international political will to create a world free of nuclear weapons is becoming more pronounced and mainstream. While some critics view President Barack Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world as illusory, analysts, proliferation experts and former statesmen all consider the elimination of nuclear weapons a practical and crucial security requirement.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, nuclear proliferation continues to threaten world peace. Yet the nature and intensity of the threat has radically changed. The world has seen the number of nuclear powers expand from five to eight – and with Iran and North Korea’s ambitions there may soon be ten.

The have nots are becoming inpatient with the haves not living up to their obligation to disarm. Meanwhile, terrorism has gone global and terrorists are now fiercer in their determination to obtain and use nuclear weapons or materials. ‘A nuclear arsenal of many thousands of weapons will do nothing to deter terrorists from using a nuclear bomb should they acquire one; indeed, the more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the more likely it is that the terrorists will get their hands on one’, Ivo Daalder, now the US Permanent Representative to NATO, and Jan Lodal stated in their article ‘The logic of zero’ in Foreign Affairs.1

In 2009, we witnessed a remarkable resurgence of the will to disarm. Obama’s call for a nuclear weapons-free future was followed by similar statements by many of his colleagues. But politicians must turn those pledges into action now. The coming months will define the future of nuclear disarmament in a series of conferences where new treaties can be signed and binding decisions made. Negotiations for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the Global Summit on Nuclear Security, the US Nuclear Posture Review, the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference and discussion on NATO’s Strategic Concept offer major opportunities for concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament.

A relic of the past

New plans for disarmament and unexpected responses are emerging at an almost dizzying pace. What, or who pushed the agenda? It began with an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal on 4 January 2007 by four high-level US security veterans – George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn – who became known as the Gang of Four or the Four Horsemen.

Their statement was important because they are no longer advocating drastic reductions alone or minimum deterrence, but instead regard zero nuclear weapons as the only solution. In fact, two-thirds of all living former US secretaries of state and defence and national security advisors now support this proposal. This call for zero sparked off new initiatives and exceptional alliances around the world.

In the Netherlands, the IKV Pax Christi peace movement, with former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers as one of its advisors, reiterated its call for nuclear disarmament. Statements by other gangs of four in Western Europe, most notably in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, have globalized this call meanwhile. The Dutch group headed by Ruud Lubbers states, ‘Given the clear indications that the United States takes nuclear disarmament very seriously and that the original objective of deterrence has lost its validity, we need to ensure that neither the United States nor the other NATO allies wait for each other. The Netherlands should play an active role so that the revision of the Strategic Concept will lead to the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from the territories of non-nuclear weapon states.’2

It is therefore high time to reassess the value of deterrence. Around 200 US tactical nuclear weapons are still deployed across Europe, in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Turkey and the Netherlands. But experts and politicians increasingly agree that their deterrence value is a relic of the Cold War past, and not a viable means of ensuring peace in the future. Therefore, the recent German move to eliminate nuclear weapons, a priority for Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice-Chancellor Guido Westerwelle, needs international support, and not only from other NATO countries hosting nuclear weapons. The timing of these kinds of initiatives and statements is crucial. A thorough discussion on the role of nuclear deterrence within the new NATO Strategic Concept is key at this point, and visible progress must be demonstrated at the NPT Review Conference. Westerwelle clearly made this link and thus recognized that the political weight of a withdrawal decision in advance of the NPT Review Conference is much greater than the political weight these weapons provide as an outdated and unusable deterrent.

Calls for an end to NATO’s nuclear sharing programme illustrate the need for a shift in thinking about the role of deterrence. NATO partners, whether they host nuclear weapons or not, must demonstrate the political determination to choose for a nuclear weapons-free world. The NATO Strategic Concept Review process will demand from NATO member states that they critically re-examine their threat perceptions, asking themselves whether tactical nuclear weapons have any logical role as deterrents. Terrorism, fragile states, climate change, access to energy – these are the problems facing NATO countries, and nuclear deterrence does nothing to solve them.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen recently spearheaded a vanguard group of five NATO member states (Benelux, Germany and Norway) urging on 6 March the organization’s secretary general to discuss nuclear policy during the next ministerial meeting in Tallinn, Estonia. This was a positive initiative, indicating a gradual shift in the Dutch government’s position. Whereas Verhagen previously voiced his resentment towards unilateral steps, he now stated that if a nuclear-free Europe would contribute to actual worldwide reduction, unilateral steps are an option.

Make me do it

It is thanks to former politicians such as Henry Kissinger that disarmament is back on the table and that the global zero initiative has attained mainstream recognition. All the more reason for the peace movement to support the call for disarmament. Whether we can agree on how to go zero remains to be seen, but it is important that activists, academics and others actively support the call itself so we can sustain the new momentum for total disarmament.

The current process may have started from the top down, but we need a vocal, bottom-up process to make a real impact. We need to be active when progress is slow. We need to analyze and if necessary criticize developments and proposals. It is up to global civil society to assume the role of watchdog now. We need to provoke reactions from our leaders similar to that of President Roosevelt, who replied when urged by activists to implement major changes, ‘I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it’.


  1. Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal (2008) The logic of zero: Toward a world without nuclear weapons, Foreign Affairs 87(6), November/December. See
  2. See