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Key Issues Ethics Issues Pugwash and the Nuclear Issue

Pugwash and the Nuclear Issue


by Joseph Rotblat

This article was originally published on pugwash.org

It is now more than a year since the Secretary-General initiated a review of the Pugwash nuclear agenda. It took place in several forums: in La Jolla and London (January and March 2000), by correspondence and in person among the "Gang-of-Five" (George Rathjens, Michael Atiyah, Francesco Calogero, Ana María Cetto, and myself), and at Pugwash Council sessions during the 50th Pugwash Conference in Cambridge, UK (August 2000). To these should be added several plenary sessions at the 50th Conference in which Pugwashites at large had the opportunity to express their views.

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In an article in the Pugwash Newsletter (June 2000), the Secretary General draws attention to substantial differences of opinion on these issues: ". . . there is now much support for the view that abolition of nuclear weapons is a remote and, perhaps, receding and misleading or unrealistic, goal; and that, accordingly, the primary focus as regards nuclear weapons should be on measures that might, in the short and medium term, be effective in reducing the likelihood of their use. . ."

I took part in all but one of the above-mentioned forums. In addition, I had numerous conversations with Pugwashites in Cambridge. I did not detect much support for the views expressed in this quotation. On the contrary, it is my impression that the great majority of Pugwashites want the abolition (or prohibition)f of nuclear weapons to continue to be the main focus for Pugwash.

In this paper, I want to present my opinion that our policy should be based on the premise that the elimination of nuclear weapons remains our principal goal, and that, priority should be given to discussing measures which lead directly to that goal. In view of the suggestion that Pugwash should abandon, even if only temporarily, that goal, I believe that we should begin by revisiting some fundamental aspects of Pugwash.

Some basic notions about Pugwash

The main task for Pugwash is to provide a forum for learned debate, but this was never intended to be a purely academic exercise, solely for the purpose of acquiring knowledge. Michael Atiyah put it in a nutshell in his Schrödinger Lecture when he said: "Knowledge brings responsibility." Pugwash has a strong moralistic element. There is a motivation for our actions. We aim at specific goals.

This was so from the beginning. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto implores: "Remember Your Humanity." At the First Pugwash Conference we discussed the social responsibility of scientists on a level with the political aspects. Later this became enshrined in the "bylaws" of our (unwritten) constitution, which we have debated and adopted at successive quinquennial conferences. The document "Principles, Structure and Activities of Pugwash" states:

The Pugwash Movement is an expression of the awareness of the social and moral duty of scientists to help to prevent and overcome the actual and potential harmful effects of scientific and technical innovations, and to promote the use of science and technology for the purpose of peace.

At these quinquennial conferences we also adopt a document entitled "Goals of Pugwash", which sets out the objective of Pugwash activities for the forthcoming five years (and thus are mandatory on the Council). The goals adopted at the last Quinquennium (Lillehammer, 1997) specifically include the elimination of nuclear arsenals. I believe that the time has come to reaffirm this goal, not only because of our belief that this is necessary for the security of the world but also because of equity requirements and ethical considerations.

There are many organizations, institutes and commissions which study the nuclear issue in its various aspects. We are different from most of them through our expressed concern with ethical values, yet we are disinclined to highlight this distinguishing feature. Indeed, we seem to shy away from mentioning this aspect probably because we are afraid of the criticism this might evoke; we are afraid of being labelled as naïve, amateurs and not a serious group. The so-called realists, many of whom are hawks, and some are simply cynics, view ethical arguments with contempt. Remember the question reportedly put by Stalin: "How many divisions does the Pope have?"

Another probable reason is related to the general problem of specialization. Those who study a specific topic in its minutiae, and become experts engrossed in it, do not like to be diverted by other concerns.

I do not think that we should be influenced by such considerations. Of course we should be pragmatic, but not at the cost of abandoning basic values. We should try to put some idealism into realism; we should study topics in depth but be motivated by worthy ideals. We should not lose sight of the wood for the trees.

The fact that Pugwash has a good reputation in the world - evidenced by the award of the Nobel Prize - should encourage us not to be affected by negative reactions. Far from being ashamed of raising ethical issues we should be proud of it. It is the cynics who should be made to feel ashamed, and we can do this by exposing the hypocrisy of their policies.

Moral and legal aspects

I make the above points in direct reference to our policy on the nuclear issue. Our ultimate aim is to create conditions for lasting peace in the world. Such a world would have to be based on moral principles, on equity and justice, on respect for the law, both as individuals and as a society. The integrity of international treaties is of particular importance to Pugwash.

From the very beginning nuclear weapons were abhorrent to people everywhere and attempts were made to eliminate them by international agreements (e.g., the Acheson-Lilienthal Report). The potential use of these weapons was generally described as a crime against humanity. It was in response to such feelings that the NPT came into being in 1970, and now counts among its members 98 per cent of the nations of the world. I am sure that even in the four countries that have not signed the NPT the people have the same sentiments about nuclear weapons.

The NPT has been criticized as being discriminatory, which indeed it is. But the underlying concept was laudable: to get rid of all nuclear arsenals and thus end the discrimination. There was an apparent difficulty relating to the ambiguous wording of the all-important Article VI, in which the pursuit of nuclear disarmament is called for in the same sentence (though separated by a comma) as a treaty on general and complete disarmament. The hawks in the nuclear-weapon states deliberately interpreted this as meaning that nuclear disarmament can proceed only together with - and as part of - general and complete disarmament. Until the latter has been achieved, the nuclear weapon states are legally entitled to retain their nuclear arsenals, they claimed. This ambiguity has now been removed.

In the General Assembly of the United Nations there has always been strong pressure on the nuclear-weapon states to proceed with nuclear disarmament. This pressure has been steadily increasing since the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995. A new group of seven nations, the New Agenda Coalition, was very vocal in this respect, and its efforts seem to have been successful. The NPT Review Conference in April/May 2000, in New York, came out with a long and comprehensive statement, signed by all five official nuclear-weapon states. It makes the issue quite clear. The section related to Article VI of the NPT includes inter alia: "An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI." The previous description of nuclear disarmament as being an "ultimate goal" has also been dropped.

The objective of ". . . general and complete disarmament under effective international control" is still mentioned in the statement, but in a separate paragraph, much further down in the document. The link between the two objectives is unambiguously broken. There is no longer any excuse not to fulfil the objectives of the NPT.

This is where the hypocrisy comes in. The solemn declaration is belied by the actual policies pursued by the nuclear-weapon states (or at least by four of them). The pursuit of the policy of extended deterrence, whereby nuclear weapons would be used - if necessary - against attacks with chemical, biological, or even conventional weapons, implies the indefinite retention (or retention at least until general and complete disarmament) of nuclear weapons. This is the actual policy of the USA; it is enshrined in the 1997 Presidential Decision Directive (PDD-60 document) which sets out the US nuclear posture, and clearly implies the first use of nuclear weapons.

If, at this stage, Pugwash were to give up the elimination of nuclear weapons as the primary focus, this would imply our connivance with the United States and the others in the violation of an international treaty. I do not think that this would be acceptable. On the contrary, we must strongly oppose such an attitude; we must use every opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the nuclear-weapon states in proclaiming one policy and pursuing just the opposite. We should keep hammering home the fundamental thesis, that compliance with international commitments is an essential requirement of a civilized state. We should keep on reminding people that world peace cannot be achieved without respect for international law. We should encourage other NGOs working towards nuclear disarmament to make the call for the adherence to international treaties an important part of their campaigns.

I suggest that we make this issue the subject of a Pugwash Workshop. We need to study the various aspects of international treaties; their role in national and international policies; the ways and means of dealing with their violation. Some of the study would be concerned with legal issues but this should not put us off, (we are, for example, dealing with legal issues in the Pugwash study group on Intervention, Sovereignty and International Security).

The ethical dimensions of deterrence

In reviewing the nuclear issues with which Pugwash should concern itself, as a group with moral responsibilities, we should - in my opinion - take up explicitly the ethical aspect of deterrence.

The concept of nuclear deterrence is historically and substantively at the heart of the whole nuclear issue. I used it way back in 1939 as the rationale for starting the work on the atom bomb (but soon realized its fallacy); it was the rationale for nearly all the scientists in the pre-Manhattan years. Deterrence - in its various forms - was the reason for the build-up of huge arsenals during the Cold War period, and it is being used now to justify the retention of nuclear weapons.

The problem of deterrence has of course been frequently debated in Pugwash, as well as in numerous other forums. But the arguments have usually been on the political, strategic or military aspects; little attention has been paid to the ethical aspect. The reason for this is the one mentioned earlier: ethical issues have no place on the agenda of the cynics. But for Pugwash the ethical dimension of deterrence should be of prime importance. If the use of nuclear weapons is a crime against humanity, how can the threat of their use ever be justified?

In discussing the problem of deterrence I am primarily concerned about the doctrine of extended deterrence, although the ethical element applies of course to all aspects of deterrence. The argument that nuclear weapons are needed to prevent any aggression is the chief reason for policies of indefinite retention of nuclear weapons. I believe that if this argument were shown, and accepted, to be invalid it would open the way to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

The extended deterrence argument lacks credibility, largely arising from the general abhorrence of nuclear weapons. The existence of these weapons has not prevented the several hundred wars that have taken place since 1945. Nor has the possession of them prevented the USA and the Soviet Union from being defeated (in Vietnam and Afghanistan). No doubt, there were political and military reasons for the non-use in these cases, but the opprobrium associated with such use must have played a significant role. The taboo against the use of nuclear weapons is still strong and this weakens the threat of deterrence. On the other hand, if the taboo is too strong the deterrence argument would cease to be valid. The whole thing is based on a deliberate ambiguity. We have made our security hang on uncertainty: on whether or not a would-be aggressor will take the threat seriously.

The deterrent would be effective only if it is made absolutely clear that the threat will be converted into action; otherwise it would have no value and the bluff would be called. This means that George W. Bush, or Tony Blair, have to show convincingly that they will push the button and unleash the most destructive and omnipotent weapon in a dispute which could otherwise be solved with much less destruction. The threat may work for a time but eventually an aggressor will gamble on the uncertainty. In the meantime, the security of the world is based on a balance of terror, and as Francesco Calogero pointed out a long time ago: "The fact that the survival of human civilization is predicated on such a policy may, in the long run, result in the disintegration of the ethical basis of civilized society."

Although the ethical aspect of nuclear deterrence is as old as nuclear weapons themselves, there are valid reasons for raising it now as an item for our agenda. There is growing awareness in the world community about individual and collective responsibility for one's deeds. With the establishment of the International Criminal Court, people may be put on trial for offences against international law even if these are legal under national laws.

This raises the much wider issue of the personal responsibilities of scientists working on military projects. If the use of a given type of weapon is illegal under international law should not research on such weapons also be illegal, and should not the scientists also be culpable? And if there is doubt even about the legal side, should not the ethical aspect become even more compelling?

In this connection we should be reminded of the call issued in 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, by Hans Bethe, the most senior scientist in this field:

I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons - and, for that matter - other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.

It seems to me that there are enough items for investigation in connection with the ethical issues of nuclear weapons, to justify at least one workshop.

Steps towards a NWFW

Apart from the two suggested topics for Pugwash study, centred on the social responsibility of scientists, I want to recommend other projects on measures that would lead to the achievement of a NWFW.

A nuclear-weapon-free world will not be achieved in one go; it will require a series of steps. Some of these steps may be the same as suggested by the "realists". There is, however, a significant difference: the latter view each step as an endpoint in itself, while we see them as part of a comprehensive programme of disarmament. Among the many steps that can be taken, we should give priority to those which lead us directly to the objective.

No-first-use treaty

As I have stated several times already, I consider the doctrine of extended deterrence - which means the potential first use of nuclear weapons - to be the major obstacle to the achievement of a nuclear-weapon-free world. This is a fundamental issue. If we concede that nuclear weapons are needed to deter even non-nuclear attacks, then these weapons will have to stay for as long as disputes are settled by military confrontations. And if they are needed for that purpose by the United States, then they are needed even more by weak states. Hence, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is bound to happen, with the eventual near certainty that these weapons will be used in combat.

The doctrine of extended deterrence has been discussed and potent arguments against it were presented in several studies in the 1990s, notably in the Report of the Canberra Commission. The matter was also discussed in two relevant reports from the US National Academy of Sciences (CISAC) published in 1991 and 1997. In the first of these the following is stated in the Executive Summary:

We conclude that the principal objective of the U.S. nuclear policy should be to strengthen the emerging political consensus that nuclear weapons should serve no purpose beyond the deterrence of, and possible response to, nuclear attack by others.

The 1997 Report goes a step further when it recommends that

To this end, the United States should announce that the only purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies, adopting no first use for nuclear weapons as official declaratory policy.

The great importance of a no-first-use policy is that it would pave the way to an agreement on the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

The no-first-use policy is usually presented in the form of unilateral declarations, or pledges, by the individual nuclear-weapon states. While this could be achieved quicker than the alternative (a treaty), it would not be satisfactory, in my opinion. There is nothing - legally - to stop a unilateral declaration from being unilaterally revoked. This has in fact happened: the Soviet no-first-use pledge, in existence since 1982, was withdrawn by Russia in 1993. In the USA, a new President may decide that he does not like the policies of his predecessor and scratch a pledge. This cannot be done easily with international treaties, signed and ratified.

International treaties can also be terminated by states parties giving suitable notice of withdrawal, but this usually creates quite a commotion (witness the current situation of the ABM Treaty), and does not occur often. Treaties may of course be violated by cheating but this too is an infrequent event. In general, there is a tendency to adhere to the terms of a treaty. Certainly, in the light of what I said earlier, we in Pugwash should promote international treaties and seek ways to ensure that they are conformed with, both in letter and in spirit.

In line with this, I believe that a no-first-use policy should be enshrined in a No-First-Use Treaty to be signed and ratified by all official and non-official nuclear-weapon states.

As far as I am aware not much research has been done (certainly not in Pugwash) on the terms of such a treaty and its possibly far-reaching consequences for military doctrine and nuclear force postures. For example, the treaty would probably have to include a formal agreement to abolish tactical nuclear weapons, in place of the 1991/2 unilateral declarations by Bush (senior) and Gorbachev/Yeltsin, since these are weapons most likely to be used to counter a non-nuclear attack. De-alerting of nuclear warheads, necessary to reduce the probability of an accidental or unauthorized launch, would be an essential part of a No-First-Use Treaty.

These, and other types of measures to make first use less likely, as well as possible obstacles to a NFU treaty, need to be discussed in detail, and should be the subject of a Pugwash project.

Verification of nuclear disarmament

The Pugwash study on the desirability and feasibility of a nuclear weapon-free world (published in the trilogy of Pugwash monographs on this subject) makes out a consistent (in my opinion) case for a programme of nuclear disarmament leading to the abolition of nuclear weapons. In the last of these books (A Nuclear Weapon-Free World - Steps Along the Way), John Holdren makes a penetrating analysis of the pros and cons of going to zero, coming to the conclusion that ". . . prohibition is clearly desirable under appropriate conditions. . ." It is to these conditions, discussed in the last part of Holdren's paper, that we must apply ourselves.

The argument used by those who would like to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely is that even if a NWFW were desirable it would not be feasible, because there are no means to guarantee that a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons would not be violated, either by some nuclear-weapon state hiding away a small nuclear arsenal (the bombs in the basement argument), or by some rogue state acquiring such weapons clandestinely at a time in the future (the breakout argument).

In a paper by Tom Milne and myself in the second book (Nuclear Weapons - the Road to Zero), it is argued that the probability of such events occurring, once a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons has been agreed to, is very small, although not zero. A 100 per cent security can never be achieved. Our main proposition is that a world without nuclear weapons would be safer than a world with them (quite apart from being a better world for moral reasons as outlined above). All the same, we have to substantiate this proposition by showing that it is possible to realize a safeguard regime, with a verification system - both technological and societal - robust enough to reduce the probability of breakout to a vanishingly small value.

Although the topic has been studied by Pugwash sporadically, a new systematic study is warranted, to take into account the changes that have occurred as a result of the development of new technologies and the greater opportunities provided by the advances in information technology, such as the Internet.

Methods of technical surveillance are improving all the time. Although the advanced technology may also be used by those who contemplate illegal schemes, the overall balance probably makes feasible enhanced verification (the relative advantage should be part of the study). Similarly, reliance on societal verification is becoming stronger with the much greater openness and better facilities for transmitting information through the Internet. In general, the current tendency to greater openness makes verification easier. The various agreements between the USA and Russia to improve strategic stability, e.g. the decision to set up a Joint Data Exchange Centre, should also be helpful in this respect. A workshop devoted to these issues seems to me to be highly desirable.

Nuclear weapon-free zones (NWFZ)

The second method of achieving a nuclear weapon-free world - by gradually reducing the area of the globe where nuclear weapons are allowed - is making steady progress. More than half of the surface of the earth is now officially a nuclear weapons-free zone, although in terms of the world population more than half live in the eight countries with nuclear weapons (plus NATO), this number having gone up considerably since 1998.

There is an urgent need for instituting NWFZs in at least three more areas, in Central/Eastern Europe, in Northeast Asia, and in the Middle East. Efforts to establish these seem to have evaporated recently and there is a need to revive them, in view of the heightened tension in Eastern Europe following the expansion of NATO, the concern about the nuclear policy of North Korea (described again as a "rogue" state by the administration of George W. Bush, and the chief excuse for national missile defense), and the extremely volatile and dangerous situation in Israel/Palestine. All three potential NWFZs present special problems since they would border directly on official nuclear weapon states, or include an unofficial nuclear weapon state.

The controversial issue of transit and deployment of nuclear weapons in the waters of all the nuclear weapon-free zones also requires more study, as does the formal recognition of the status of NWFZs with appropriate verification systems.