The weapon is the enemy

Why attacking Iraq will not solve the problem of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Feature story - September 24, 2002
What did we learn from the cold war, the disarmament movement of the last three decades, and the intricate history of arms control?

What we should have learned is this:

The development, production and use -- or threatened use -- of nuclear weapons is a vicious cycle. Weapons of mass destruction don't buy greater security. They don't bring stability. Mutually Assured Destruction didn't end the cold war. The escalation of nuclear arsenals stopped when the perception of hostility and threat was diminished, buffered by a global perception of the moral and political limitations of nuclear weapons as tools of diplomacy.

It's especially important that we remember those lessons now, as the world community ponders a war which is allegedly against weapons of mass destruction.

War on Iraq would bring enormous financial benefit to western oil interests, and we remain convinced that US strategy is not only about routing terrorism or stopping weapons of mass destruction but also about dominating fossil fuel supplies.. But let's take, for the moment, the argument on its own merit, that the US is going after Iraq out of fear of the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons.

Greenpeace has opposed the development, production and use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction since its inception more than 30 years ago. The testing and production of nuclear weapons has already wreaked havoc on ecosystems and human health; the use of nuclear weapons by accident or through conflict could spell -- at best -- severely radioactive sacrifice zones with many thousands of people affected, or at its worst -- the end of our planet's ability to sustain life as we know it.

We believe that nuclear disarmament by all nations is a fundamental prerequisite of a sustainable future for Earth in the 21st century. It is therefore imperative that the international community - including the Bush Administration -tackle the question of nuclear proliferation and nuclear disarmament in a coherent manner.

A full-scale attack on the nation of Iraq for seeking to acquire nuclear weapons would be without precedent. The US did not threaten to attack Israel, India or Pakistan for acquiring nuclear weapons.

There are three military strategies available to prevent proliferation: counter-proliferation strikes, nuclear deterrence, and military assault to create a "regime change". All are flawed.

Military counter-proliferation -- the Israeli strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 is an example -- may deal temporarily with the technical manifestations of proliferation,yet it raised the very tensions which drive weapons programs in the first place. They're also only as good as the intelligence they're based on. In the case of Iraq, the IAEA dismantled a clandestine programme to obtain nuclear weapons. If the US believes that the threat of a military counter-proliferation response is an effective deterrent, how can the US claim that Iraq has relaunched that clandestine programme?

If nuclear deterrence was a viable strategy, it would be working now. In Cold War logic, deterrence would dictate that Iraq -- or any other state -- would be cowed by the overwhelming superiority of the US nuclear arsenal and military machine. This clearly isn't the case. For a regime facing destruction whether it uses a nuclear weapon or not, even a single nuclear strike is easily rationalised as legitimate self-defence, and an appropriate response against a nuclear-armed aggressor. Can the US successfully disarm Iraq by invading the country, taking over its infrastructure, and placing a puppet regime in power? Possibly. Will a regime change bring peace to the region and deter other states or agents from pursuing weapons of mass destruction? Of course not. Quite the opposite.

Take Iran. It's a country with a chequered history of relations with the US. It's politically inconvenient for the US to notice at the moment that Iran is also moving swiftly toward nuclear capability, just as it was politically inconvenient for the US to note Saddam Hussein's use of biological weapons against his own people in a different time. To Iran, the lesson of an invasion on Iraq will be to ensure the swift development of its own weapons of mass destruction, and to develop them while America is focused elsewhere.

Military strategies will not succeed. A toolbox of responses is required, but clearly the first and fundamental question is one of leadership and political will. President Bush has said that the real issue in Iraq is not the acceptance of UN weapons inspectors, but verifiable disarmament. This is true. The problem is the enormous inconsistency of such a statement coming from the possessor of more then six thousand nuclear warheads.

The formal non-proliferation regime has been undermined year after year by the "official" nuclear weapon states, which by their behaviour clearly show they believe nuclear weapons are necessary for their security. The nuclear weapons states have effectively thumbed their noses at the United Nations and international agreements with an alacrity equal to that of Iraq's.

The US and the other "official" nuclear weapon states have legal obligations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. They should be leading by example. Instead, the US Senate has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Bush administration has undermined the proposed verification protocol of the Biological Weapons Convention. And arms control with Russia has devolved into politically convenient bilateral deal-making rather than transparent, legally binding and verifiable disarmament agreements that actually destroy nuclear weapons.

The Bush Administration cannot reinforce the non-proliferation norm by edict. It cannot act with any credible authority to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction of others without addressing its own. The case against these weapons must be a moral one, not a strategically convenient one.

Second, diplomacy. Pressure from other Arab states as well as western countries is clearly important, particularly as a contribution to a more effective and positive US Middle East policy. Solving the Palestinian issue is a necessary prerequisite for any movement by Israel to join negotiations on weapons of mass destruction in the region. The US can play a key role in resolving that conflict.

Thirdly, containment followed by engagement. Continued pressure on Iraq must include a comprehensive approach to the problem of the proliferation of nuclear technology and know-how, particularly but not exclusively from Russia. There must be a containment of the feasibility of the weapons programme. But there must also be a containment of the ambition behind it. Furthermore effective measures need to be taken to stop the spread of weapons usable material ,and technology, thus further reducing the threat.

Ultimately, what we need is a new theory of deterrence when it comes to nuclear weapons. At its root, deterrence is and always has been a matter of perception: the perception of threat, imagined response, and a close calculation of exactly what either of two combatants believe they can get away with.

Morality and what's deemed acceptable behaviour by states and their leaders is also a perception, and one which changes over time. As we move toward a globalisation of civil society, we need to build a world-wide moral deterrence against the possession of nuclear weapons. The cornerstone of any state's claim to moral authority, and any leader's, must be based on their accountability to civil society. They must abide by global agreements for the global good, they must conform to the most global definitions of acceptable behaviour.

The ability of a state to exert its will upon the world community should be measured in its demonstrable commitment to the common benefit of that community. The authority of its leaders, at home and abroad, must rest in a new, global and inclusive definition of the public trust. That would mean nuclear weapon states would commit to, and begin, the process of eliminating their nuclear weapons in the certain knowledge that such weapons are incompatible with sane and sustainable security policies from a global perspective.

Any state thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons would have to be deterred by the strength of global repugnance -- at both the state and individual levels, to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Any leader driving a state in that direction must know that they will face a credible worldwide outrage,untainted by hypocritical inconsistencies, and with a moral authority that will be daunting to their futures as leaders, domestically and abroad. This moral outrage needs to be effectively backed by agreed obstacles and sanctions that can be applied in an impartial and objective manner.

It is evident that the Bush Administration is unenthusiastic about the use of multilaterialism in general and the United Nations in particular as tools for conflict resolution, preferring instead to use its military power to ensure that its strategic objectives are met. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for the international community of the 21st century. We can no longer afford to continue as a planet made up of self-interested nations and national leaders. A world in peril needs world leaders, accountable to the needs and moral imperatives of our common future.

If every inhabitant of Earth were a voter, what future would nuclear weapons have in a global plebiscite on their elimination?