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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Chapter 8: Shared Responsibilities, Shared Rights
Shared Responsibilities for Nuclear Disarmament: A Global Debate

Chapter 8: Shared Responsibilities, Shared Rights

Achilles Zaluar1

We may not have a nuclear power renaissance yet—significant regulatory and economic hurdles remain—but the past two years have indeed brought about a renaissance in the nuclear disarmament debate, at least in the debate conducted in the English language. After a dark age in which leading policy-makers and theorists in nuclear-weapons states (NWS) either denied the reality of their nuclear disarmament obligations or regretted them—as Scott Sagan recalls in his paper on “Shared Responsibilities for Nuclear Disarmament”—a rebirth started, perhaps, around 2007.

The first prophecies appeared in The Wall Street Journal in an op-ed written by the “Four Statesmen” under the title “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”2 They were followed by British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett’s keynote speech at the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, which added a somewhat cautious, if practical-minded interrogation point to the now famous piece.3 Then came the studies funded by the United Kingdom and Norway on the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement. From this came George Perkovich and James Acton’s Adelphi Paper 396,4 which was vigorously debated, by Sagan and me, among others, in a volume published by the Carnegie Endowment.5

We had, of course, the groundbreaking Prague speech on April 5, 2009, by U.S. President Barack Obama, which was very well received around the world, including in non-nuclear-weapons states (NNWS) such as Brazil. We saw the report by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi,6 a useful and quite detailed update to the more pithy report from 1996 of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which had been sponsored by the same Gareth Evans when he was Australia’s Foreign Minister. Attentive readers paid attention to Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects, 7 particularly Chapter 12—“The abolition of nuclear armouries?”—in which Michael Quinlan, the brain behind NATO’s nuclear deterrence doctrine, engages in serious and constructive discussion of the eliminationist perspective. Last but not least are the two special issues of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ journal Daedalus “On the Global Nuclear Future,” edited by Steven E. Miller and Scott D. Sagan. (Sagan’s paper on “Shared Responsibilities for Nuclear Disarmament” is published in volume 1.)8

What are the causes of this renaissance? There can be little doubt that it is motivated by serious concern, among scholars and politicians alike, that the global nuclear nonproliferation regime might be in jeopardy. The regime had had, shall we say, a bad decade: the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan; the 1999 rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the U.S. Senate (a decision that impacted nonproliferation in the way the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 impacted the world financial system); the 1999 NATO Nuclear Doctrine, the 2001 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, and nuclear policy statements by other NWS, which gave nuclear weapons renewed salience and seemed to debase the validity of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); the revelations about the A.Q. Khan network and the Iranian, North Korean, and Libyan nuclear programs; the attempts to discredit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the political manipulation of intelligence about nuclear issues in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the neglect and obstructionism that drove the 2005 NPT Review Conference off course, despite the best efforts of its president and of the New Agenda Coalition of major NNWS; the North Korean nuclear tests; the Israeli-Syrian incident of 2007; the controversy about the relationship of the regime with non-NPT nuclear-armed states; and the forced paralysis of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament.

On top of it all, while two of the three pillars of the nonproliferation regime—non-acquisition (Article II) and disarmament (Article VI)—were, as we recalled, under stress, sectors in the think-tank and academic world could think of nothing better than to attack the third pillar, peaceful uses (Article IV).

Fueled by ingenuity and grants, a cottage industry of reports, articles, op-eds, and think-tank pieces appeared, in which danger to the regime was identified not in clandestine bomb-making programs, nor in failure to disarm, but in the exercise of the “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination,” even if such actions are in conformity with the non-transfer and non-acquisition provisions of Articles I and II, and even if they are performed under IAEA safeguards.

Like new Mark Antonys, the proponents had come not to praise, but to bury the NPT, which they claimed was full of “loopholes.” Like the Roman demagogue, they may not have fully thought through the consequences of their ideas. If we would in haste bury the NPT, is it at all likely that, in today’s world, we could come up with something safer and better?

The danger that this approach, if tried by influential states, could bring to an already debilitated regime was quickly identified. It seemed to be on the cusp of forcing many NNWS to exercise their inalienable right earlier and more vigorously than they may have envisaged, because of the prospect of losing that right. Nations that had abandoned or mothballed their nuclear fuel-cycle programs started rushing to reactivate them. Even states that had been calmly and patiently building up their national capacities, in full compliance with non-proliferation commitments, were tempted to become more vigilant and guarded in their international intercourse.

By themselves, each of these developments may not be particularly worrisome, but overall they point to a gradual loss of trust in the viability of a rules-based international order and to a correspondingly greater recourse to self-help. Fortunately, President Obama put these concerns to rest when he pointed out in his speech in Prague that “the basic bargain is sound” and that “no approach will succeed if it is based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules.”

Scott Sagan’s piece belongs, of course, to a much sounder lineage than Loophole Theory. Sagan, like me, is a true believer in the NPT. He proposes to shore up the nonproliferation regime as it exists by seeking creative, realistic ways of implementing its provisions, and drawing new avenues of consensus among its parties, NWS and NNWS alike. By underlining that the commitments in Articles IV and VI are common to all, Sagan rightly rejects a selective reading of the text of the Treaty (“I like this part and that part. . . . But this other one is not convenient for me; there’s a loophole!”). This is an endeavor that merits constructive, good-faith answers. Shared responsibility is the right approach—the only one likely to succeed in maintaining nonproliferation norms, promoting gradual nuclear disarmament, and making the world safe for nuclear energy.

It also merits an honest expression of differences. There is a valid idea behind Sagan’s description of the respective roles of the IAEA Secretariat, IAEA Board of Governors, and UN Security Council in dealing with noncompliance with safeguards agreements. But the choice of words—“this ‘inalienable’ right is in reality a conditional right”—is unfortunate and maybe misleading. The word “inalienable” is not in Article IV by chance. It means what it says. It is part of a careful balance of rights and obligations that—particularly pending further progress in disarmament—is already considered skewed toward NWS as it is. Countries that are found in noncompliance with their safeguards agreements have one obligation: to come back into full compliance and provide assurances to the international community that they did not acquire, and are not seeking to acquire, nuclear weapons. This is precisely the purpose of safeguards: “preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” (Article III, section 1).

If Article IV on peaceful uses is “conditional,” Article III on safeguards would be as well: “The safeguards required by this article shall be implemented in a manner designed to comply with Article IV of this Treaty, and to avoid hampering the economic or technological development of the Parties or international cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities” (Article III, section 3). In fact, these are not conditions, but parameters that clarify the purpose behind each commitment in the Treaty. Article IV is not to be abused in order to conceal development of nuclear explosives. Article III is not to be abused in order to stifle the development of nonexplosive nuclear applications in the NNWS. But abusum non tollit usum—the abuse does not take away the use. One does not restore confidence in the NPT by moving the goal posts.

It is also not clear that the “NNWS should recognize that entering into negotiations about international control of the nuclear fuel cycle is an essential part of their Article VI commitment” because the “NWS will be less likely to accept deep reductions to zero (or close to zero) if there are more and more states with latent nuclear-weapons capability because of the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies.” There are several logical leaps here. Accepting this argument would mean that the NNWS would be legally bound to do whatever the NWS feel is proper and useful because if they don’t, the NWS will be “less likely” to fulfill their Article VI obligations. Of course, the world would be simpler for the NWS if they, and only they, had fuel-cycle capabilities. But that was not the deal we all agreed to.

The main contribution that the NNWS may give to nuclear disarmament, and the only one that is legally binding, is to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, while adhering to IAEA safeguards, which provide assurances that they are indeed refraining. Apart from that, there are plenty of things that everybody could do to make the world a better place and help other states feel more secure. But there is no legal obligation to commit to this or that course of action, in particular the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle, about which there is no agreement, either on its feasibility (the NWS themselves would not agree to relinquish national control over their fuel facilities, and any discriminatory regime would be unacceptable), or even in its desirability in principle (one has only to think of the manifold controversies that would spring forth, relating to technological secrecy, industrial development, energy security, commercial advantage, and even proliferation).

The internationalization of the fuel cycle is an impossible solution in search of a problem. It derives from an unproven and, in my view, false assumption: that capability breeds proliferation. Instead, it is the other way around. It is the intent to proliferate that breeds capability. (There are, of course, other, more legitimate causes that may also breed capability.) This has been true in the history of nuclear weaponry, especially in the nuclear-armed states themselves. Nobody is terribly worried, for instance, about the fuel-cycle capabilities, extant or potential, of countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, or The Netherlands. Their capabilities are large, but they have no cogent reason to proliferate. We can therefore be confident of their intent. The same is true for Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa. But for countries that had no fuel-cycle capability, once the intent appeared, driven by political and strategic reasons, the capability was not far behind. It is therefore far better to address the cause, not the symptom.

This does not mean, and I have expressed this sentiment elsewhere, that all 192 member states of the United Nations should have nuclear fuel-cycle facilities. Autonomous control of the nuclear fuel cycle, like most valuable things in life, carries certain costs and risks, and not all states will want to accept them. For most states, buying or leasing fuel in a competitive market, under IAEA safeguards, will be the best option. The more competitive the market and the more free of political considerations, the better this option will look. Each new supplier will only help further to clog the market.

These are the two major disagreements that I have with Sagan’s excellent paper. The general lines of his argument are robust and most of his advice is sound. He is also quite accurate in pointing out that even in a zero-nuclear-weapons world, nuclear deterrence would still exist, albeit in a latent, virtual, nonsalient way. The capability will still be there. If we are lucky and wise, however, we will learn not to exercise it.


1. The views expressed in this comment are exclusively the author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Brazilian government.

2. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.

3. Margaret Beckett, “Keynote Address: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace International Nonproliferation Conference, June 25, 2007.

4. George Perkovich and James M. Acton, “Abolishing Nuclear Weapons,” Adelphi Paper 396 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008).

5. Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, ed. George Perkovich and James M. Acton (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009).

6. “Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers,” Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, December 15, 2009.

7. Michael Quinlan, Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

8. “On the Global Nuclear Future,” volumes 1 and 2, ed. Steven E. Miller and Scott D. Sagan, Daedalus 138 (4) (Fall 2009) and 139 (1) (Winter 2010).