How to denuclearise a country

How to denuclearise a country

What makes a good deal, when seeking to denuclearise a country? The most important considerations to keep in mind are that neither the process of denuclearisation, nor the reciprocal enticements of economic and political development, are on-off switches. They are procedures, extended over time. Any agreement to denuclearise must create a virtuous circle of trust between previously hostile parties, in which each side takes gradual steps in furtherance of the other side’s agenda, each of which is reciprocated before the next stage is reached.

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By Matthew Parish

Possessing usable nuclear weapons would apparently carry a number of advantages. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all substantial nuclear powers. If you have nuclear weapons, other states are unlikely to declare war upon you; invade your territory; or attack your troops. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that a number of states with poor international community relations – recently Iran and North Korea, and previously Libya under its idiosyncratic leader Muammar Al-Qadaffi – want them. A state that fears invasion would do, because they might be interpreted as the ultimate deterrent. Moreover nuclear weapons, and the ballistic missiles that carry them, have become cheaper and easier to acquire by reason of technological advances.

Nuclear weapons are appallingly destructive, and have never been used since 1945. But that isn’t really the point. The purpose of nuclear weapons is not to fire them. That would be disastrous: somebody might fire them back. Instead the purpose of nuclear weapons is to point them at people. Their value lies not in winning wars (like the latest tank), but instead in deterring wars. Aren’t they therefore the perfect weapon: the weapon that makes all weapons redundant? Why, upon this hypothesis, would anybody want to denuclearise another country?

The reason is that this hypothesis is false. Proliferation of nuclear weapons has proven itself tremendously destabilising to the international polity. Put aside for one moment thoughts of Dr Strangelove in the political satire of that name made in 1964, in which the deterrence threat of mutually assured destruction breaks down through error and nuclear powers find themselves in irreversible out nuclear war. This has never actually happened; if it had then we might all not be dead. The historically more established danger of nuclear weapons proliferation is that new nuclear states create such devastating changes in the established balance of power that the struggles between states to acquire or prevent others from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability itself generates wars, economic instability, regional political foment and geopolitical conflicts that did not exist before (or not with such a degree of intensity).

Moreover the threat of nuclear proliferation makes other countries themselves want to proliferate. The worst thing about nuclear proliferation is if your enemy has nuclear weapons but you don’t. Then you can be bullied and intimidated. Hence you need nuclear weapons too. Soon everyone decides that they need nuclear weapons, and we might find ourselves suspended in a dangerous void of potentially perennial nuclear proliferation.

In this context, stemming the tide of nuclear proliferation might be viewed as ttrying to stem the flow of water from a hole in a leaky hosepipe. The problem the world has now is that nuclear proliferation has become too easy. The technology can be learned in a university textbook. Uranium enrichment requires some sophisticated equipment. But if an impoverished, backward country like North Korea can do it, then it is fair to infer that many countries can do it. Designing, manufacturing and maintaining accurate ballistic missiles than can carry a nuclear warhead is more difficult, but the main factor to achieve it is to test the missiles in prototype. The most important feature of nuclear proliferation is that given modern intelligence, satellite and surveillance technology, if a country is seeking nuclear proliferation then it is very hard to hide it.

The only country whose embryonic nuclear proliferation facilities are believed to have been destroyed by pre-emptive foreign military action are those in Syria. While both Iran and North Korea are known to have been developing nuclear weapons, military attacks were excluded as a means of retarding their process. There were several reasons for this. The geopolitical and military importance of each country is such that military action would risk serious regional escalation and the possible involvement of a protective Great Power (Russia for Iran, China for North Korea).

A military attack upon North Korea by the United States might have precipitated a military attack upon South Korea by North Korea. The reason is because the humiliation inflicted by a US attack might have toppled North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong-Un, who thereby concludes either (a) he has nothing to lose; and/or (b) the only way of staying in power would be to trigger a broader regional war to deflect attention from the domestic power crisis. After an attack by North Korea upon South Korea, the United States would feel obliged to take (further) military action. Depending upon the extent of that action, China might bar drawn in. (This narrative is remarkable in its parallels to the events that initiated the Korean War in 1950 leading to a divided Korea peninsula.) The results would be unpredictable. There might be widespread casualties in both North and South Korea. The governments in Pyongyang and/or Seoul might fall. Both the US and China might find themselves financing massive reconstruction costs. The military stalemate on the Korean peninsula would surely persist, but with substantial amounts of death and destruction in the meantime.

This is precisely the sort of geopolitical instability risked by nuclear proliferation. The real danger underlying nuclear weapons is not the death and destruction caused by their use, but the death and destruction that may be triggered in attempts to stop states from acquiring them.

Consider also the harm that has resulted from the United States’ preferred prior solution to North Korean nuclear proliferation: incremental sanctions. Until recently, these have not worked chiefly because North Korea’s principal trading partner, China, has elected not to enforce them. Aside from a negligibly small frontier with Russia, North Korea’s sole open border is with China. It is is fanciful to imagine that North Korea is not principally a Chinese problems. If the North Korea state were to collapse, or renewed conflict were to start on the Korean peninsula, China would pay a far heavier price than the United States in managing the fallout.

Beijing fears collapse of the Pyongyang regime, because such an event might create a flood of refugees into China and would almost certainly require Chinese intervention to stabilise the political and economic situation in the country. The economy would would surely free fall; China would need to instal a puppet government; Beijing would be engaged in a long-term exercise in state-building in the territory of its neighbour; Chinese troops would end up in the DMZ, facing off against US troops.

If China did not enforce sanctions against North Korea previously, that is presumably because it feared these outcomes. Recently Beijing has elected to do so so, and this is presumably to compel North Korea to negotiate with the United States. Do not imagine for a moment that the Americans are not proxy negotiators for the Chinese. The Chinese have the main interests here. They have no interest in North Korea maintaining nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. They have no interest in North Korea remaining an impoverished vassal state subject to suzerainty. They have no interest in a Korean peninsula war on their doorstep.

China may or may not find rule in Pyongyang by the Kim dynasty agreeable. But right now there are no more agreeable alternatives. Hence the denuclearisation deal that the United States is currently pushing for is an essentially Chinese agenda; the Kim family stays in power; sanctions are eased to promote economic growth; the United States de-escalates military confrontation; North Korea becomes less of a problem for China. I predict a successful long-term denuclearisation deal on North Korea.

Contrast this with the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA), the agreement to denuclearise Iran. When this deal was agreed in 2015, Iran had still not tested a nuclear weapon. Its nuclear weapons programme was substantially behind that of North Korea. The agreement provided for prompt relief from sanctions in exchange for verifiable steps to render inert or unusable uranium enrichment facilities. US President Trump famously described the deal as “dumb”. He did not necessarily articulate why he thinks so as lucidly has he might have done. But it might well have been impolitic for him to do so, given that he was in the process of withdrawing from the agreement and therefore he might well have had in mind the possible initiation of a new set of negotiations to replace the agreement he was anticipating terminating. Revealing his critique of the JCPOA could jeopardise future negotiations.

In any event, we can speculate intelligently as to the reason why President Trump may not have considered the JCPOA to be a good deal. By releasing the force of sanctions all at once, subject to a subsequent “snap back”, rather than staged erosion of sanctions and accumulation of other advantages to Iran (for example, phased admission of Iranian banks to the international banking system) in exchange for gradual steps towards denuclearisation of the country. Denuclearisation is not a one-stop progress; or if it is conceived as one, then it is unlikely to be effective and permanent.

It is not just a matter of placing uranium enrichment facilities beyond use; if that is all that could be done, then those facilities can just be restarted once the agreement has come to an one. Indeed that is what appears to have happened since the USA’s withdrawal in May 2018. Iran’s Supreme Leader announced immediate resumption of enrichment. What about eliminating the scientific expertise? What about dismantling Iran’s ballistic missile programme? These matters were left out of the JCPOA, and a stepwise approach to compliance was therefore missed. The JCPOA was a one-stop deal: stop enrichment in exchange for lifting sanctions.

One-stop deals don’t work in the international context, because there is no effective enforcement or adjudication mechanism. If a party to the JCPOA was of the view that it had been breached, there was no court to which to appeal to decide the matter, still less a curt bailiff to enforce the Court’s judgment. Instead any party could, in effect, unilaterally withdraw. The only way to procure compliance with a treaty of this kind is to render it self-enforcing by means of an indefinite repeat-play scenario. One side must do something, and then the other side must do something. Progress under the agreement to achieve its various goals – in the nuclear proliferation case, typically disarmament in exchange for economic and diplomatic benefits – must take place in stages on each side and over time.

The incentive to keep on complying, and to perform the next step, is because the other side has a next step to perform too. Any international treaty affecting states’ vital national interests – and any treaty involving nuclear de-proliferation will inevitably meet that description – must be structured in this way. There must be a series of reciprocal obligations to be performed over time. If so, the treaty may be self-enforcing. If not, the treaty will almost certainly be unenforceable.

So it was with the JCPOA. Even optimists predicted that it would slow Iranian nuclear proliferation by only five years. In fact its spirit was violated immediately by Iran, who promptly started testing ballistic missiles the presumed intention of which was to carry (or threaten to carry) nuclear warheads. If the foal was to denuclearise Iran, the JCPOA was palpably a failure. It resulted in the temporary suspension of uranium enrichment, but perpetuation of the most difficult and expensive part of a nuclear technology programme, namely ballistic missile research.

Even if it would be difficult for Iran to hide uranium enrichment facilities, reconstructing them from their component pieces is not particularly difficult once the decision has been made to do it. And in the interim, Iran has perfected all the more effective ballistic missiles. President Trump was right about the JCPOA. It was a bad deal. It enabled Iran to recover economically while getting closer to having a nuclear weapon.

The “Libya” deal on unclear disarmament, agreed in 2004, was also a bad deal but for Libya, not for those who wanted to see an end to Libya’s nuclear programme. Again it was a one-atop deal: immediate destruction of nuclear research facilities in exchange for immediate release from sanctions. The deal failed Libya, because once the country’s nuclear research programme had been dismantled the western coordinating powers no longer cared about the welfare of the country or its regime.

Libya was left to rot. Its economy did not develop post-sanctions, as had been anticipated. The country’s polity did not progress in a more democratic direction. After a few years the western powers behind the denuclearisation deal supported the violent revolutionary overthrow of the Libyan leader with whom they had agreed the original agreement. The country collapsed into interminable civil war. This was also a terrible deal, ultimately for everyone.

What makes a good deal, when seeking to denuclearise a country? The most important considerations to keep in mind are that neither the process of denuclearisation, nor the reciprocal enticements of economic and political development, are on-off switches. They are procedures, extended over time. Any agreement to denuclearise must create a virtuous circle of trust between previously hostile parties, in which each side takes gradual steps in furtherance of the other side’s agenda, each of which is reciprocated before the next stage is reached.

Each step must be thought through; as much effort as is realistic must be made to anticipate the future. That is how to denuclearise: in many detailed stages over an extended time period. President Trump knows this because he is a businessman. Every successful business relationship is long-term and every successful exercise in denuclearisation will need to be long-term too.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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