“Being able to make nuclear arms doesn’t mean having them” – expert

Russia and the US have about 27,000 nuclear warheads – enough to destroy the planet several times over. Nuclear disarmament specialist Gareth Evans says reducing stockpiles should be the main priority of global powers.

Australia’s former nuclear research and foreign minister Gareth Evans is the president of the International Crisis Group. Evans also coaches International Commission for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament which held its third meeting in Moscow on June 20-21.

RT: Mr. Evans, thanks for being with us.

GE: Nice to talk to you!

RT: The commission has been set up for little less than a year, and not many people have heard about it. What is its actual role in the current nuclear debate?

GE: The object of the commission is essentially to energize a high-level political debate among decision-makers all around the world on these crucial issues of the nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and the future of the civil nuclear energy and the contribution that that might in turn make to heightened proliferation risks. We have had something of a change of atmosphere over the last year as compared with the last decade. The world has really been sleepwalking on all these issues for more than a decade. But now, with the new US administration, the beginning of the US-Russia bilateral arms reductions, energy being shown elsewhere, renewed interest, in international multilateral negotiations – I think this commission is for the first time actually riding a wave rather than trying to resist the tide. And as a result we are quite optimistic that we will make some progress.

RT: Just to make sure, because I don’t quite understand, it’s been set up by two countries: Australia and Japan that don’t actually have nuclear weapons. What’s in it for them?

GE: Australia is the world’s biggest producer and supplier of uranium. We have a moral responsibility to ensure that uranium is for peaceful purposes. Japan has the characteristic, as everyone knows, of being the only country in the world that’s ever been attacked by nuclear weapons and has that moral authority that, I guess, flows from that direct experience of the extraordinary suffering that’s involved from these weapons as compared with any other. Between us our belief was that a couple of countries that are very engaged in the nuclear debate, that are not themselves nuclear weapon states, could be the best to energize a serious debate. The leadership has got to come clearly from the US and Russia because between them you guys have got nearly 95% of the world’s stockpile of something like 27,000 nuclear warheads. But if we are really going to get progress not only on disarmament but on nonproliferation there has to be a buy-in, there has to be commitment by the rest of the international community.

RT: Well, like you mentioned, the stakes are very different at this point with the new US president. Both Obama and Medvedev have made it very clear that they are committed to reducing the world’s nuclear stockpiles. Do you think they will stick to the commitment? Do you think that the world can be a safer place?

GE: Yes, but it’s going to take a long time to get there. It’s very unsafe at the moment because we have nine countries now either fully declared or with substantial nuclear arsenals or in the process of creating them, and not very confident can we be about ensuring that those weapons will never be used by miscalculation or by accident if not deliberately. We really, really have to work hard to put that in place, and the first step is to get some major achievements accomplished between Russia and the US. I think everyone is reasonably confident at the moment with the present atmosphere. At least by the end of this year we can get an agreement on the continuation of the basic treaty between Russia and the United States, we can get some significant reduction in the number of strategic weapons that are actually deployed. And that this, in turn, will create a further momentum not only for further US-Russia negotiations, but for everybody else.

RT: Do you think that North Korea’s belligerence could have a domino effect and spread to other countries that have their eyes set on gaining nuclear power and weapons?

GE: It never helps for a country to thumb its nose at the disciplines and constraints of the nonproliferation treaty, to say “we can only guarantee our security by having nuclear weapons.” And it’s very important that all of us work collectively together to reverse that and to get North Koreans back to where they were with a commitment to actually denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

RT: If North Korea had begun to use its nuclear weapons they would obviously be destroyed right away, so how much of a threat really is North Korea? Is it about something else in North Korea?

GE: I don’t think it’s an immediate threat in terms of their actual willingness to use nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapon because that would be, as you say, totally suicidal. Where it’s a particular threat is we know that the North Koreans are being only too keen to sell their missile technology and hardware to other countries because they are desperately short of hard cash and it’s quite possible that they might be tempted to sell the technology or to sell even the fissile material, the nuclear material, to other rogue states or rogue actors. So we have to be very, very cautious about allowing that to happen and trying to establish a containment ring around North Korea in this respect, which is largely what the Security Council has done in its recent resolution.

RT: Iran is obviously another stumbling point when it comes to nuclear ambitions. What can an organization like yours do to prevent those ambitions? Are you listened to at this point? Does your Commission have teeth?

GE: Well, the Commission will have the teeth that the qualities of its arguments have. If we can articulate the arguments for various policy movements, if we can articulate a very clear correction plan, with sequences and timing, I think we can make some progress. On the Iran case, I think where we are at, as an international community is facing the reality that Iran is absolutely determined to have a weapons-making capability. But I emphasize capability – this is not the same thing as having weapons themselves. I think we are going to have a great deal of difficulty in winding Iran’s capability back. But I don’t think it would be that hard to draw a big fat red line right now, which says, “don’t cross that”. I think Iran’s going to be very careful looking at the attitudes of China and Russia in particular, before it crosses that line.

RT: What should Russia do?

GE: Russia should go on being quite tough in making it clear to Iran that weaponization – actually crossing that big line and making weapons – is absolutely unacceptable. Well, the rest of the world would’ve quite liked Russia to have been a bit tougher at earlier stages as well, and try and get Iran to wind back its fissile materials, nuclear material manufacturing capability, because we’d all feel more comfortable if Iran had no capability at all. But I think, realistically, as I’ve just indicated, it’s not going to be doable, and what we could hope and expect from Russia is a lot of clear messages to Iran about the absolute unacceptability of them acquiring weapons.

RT: So, you think being tough is the way to approach Iran and North Korea – not by diplomacy or maybe…

GE: It’s a combination. I mean, you have to be tough with deterrence, tough with containment measures, tough with messages… But you also have to leave the door open for negotiations. That’s very, very true in the case of Iran, which has not yet stepped across the red line and, I think, is perfectly capable of negotiating a mutually acceptable outcome, as we’ve just been saying. In the case of North Korea, it’s a little bit more difficult to be confident about negotiations and diplomacy, because so often in the past the North Koreans have stepped down that particular path, then stepped away, and tried to sell the same horse twice as someone has said. So, it’s going to be tough, but at the end of the day a negotiated settlement, I believe, is possible with the North Koreans, where they would completely give up nuclear weapons and nuclear ambitions, and accept in return a normalization of diplomatic relationships and a lot of economic support from their neighbors and from the wider international community.

RT: Now, in the midst of the global economic crisis, do you think the world is dealing with a set of problems… Do you think things like nuclear disarmament may be further down on the agenda for the politicians and for the public?

GE: The truth of the matter is that the problem of nuclear proliferation and disarmament is right up there as one of the Big Three global problems. Problem number one, on all our minds now is the economic meltdown. Problem number two is climate change and the long-term implications of that for the whole planet. But problem number three, of equal significance, is the issue of the dangers associated with the continuing possession of nuclear weapons and the risk that they will be used. And the risk that more and more countries will go on acquiring nuclear weapons for misguided reasons about their own security, if we don’t turn around our system as it now is. And remember that with nuclear weapons we are talking about a class of weapons that are perfectly capable of wiping out the planet, and wiping out the planet in a space of just a few weeks, compared with the fifty hundred centuries of climate change. So, it’s a real problem that demands the real attention of policy-makers and a much greater sense of urgency than we’ve had so far.

RT: This is your Commission’s third meeting this year and first here in Moscow, Russia. What do you expect of this particular meeting?

GE: Mainly our visit to Moscow is just to demonstrate our understanding of how central this whole debate is to Russia and Moscow is. We’ve been to Washington, been in Japan, Australia… It’s just part of the strategy of outreach, along with other regional meetings we’ve been having.

RT: Can you draw at this point on conclusions… on what the final report will be like… on the suggestions that will be stated in Japan?

GE: Well, it’s a little premature to be specific about this. But basically we are talking about a short, medium and long term action plan. The short term is over the next four years, in which there is a whole bunch of really important things that need to be accomplished, or at least got well and truly started. Deep reductions in arsenals between Russia and the US is a short term objective. Getting the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty finally in place. A number of short term objectives of that kind and, above all, successfully strengthening the non-proliferation regime for the meeting next year. In the medium-term – through 2020-2025 – we want to be rather more ambitious and try and identify a point at the end of that sort of period at which on the disarmament side there will be dramatic reductions from 27,000 warheads down to just a few hundred in the world, combined with a lot more confidence that we have regimes in place, which mean that those weapons will never in fact be used and won’t be part of military thinking in the way that they still are. That’s the medium term objective. In the long term objective after that – as soon as possible, but it is very hard to put a date on it – is to actually get to zero, to get to a world without nuclear weapons at all. But what this Commission is all about is drawing a detailed map of what is realistically achievable: short term, medium term, long term – keeping in mind that that ideal, that vision of a world without nuclear weapons, a world in which we can breathe a lot more safely than we can at the moment. Devising a realistic strategy of step-by-step, getting there.

RT: Hopefully we can live to see that. Thank you for your time, Mr. Evans.