By Joel McKean
The headlines scream of missile launches by North Korea and Iran as both countries draw ever closer to having a nuclear weapon capability. Russian President Vladimir Putin test launches a new nuclear capable Sarmat ballistic missile with international range after recently threatening to deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic if Finland and Sweden join NATO. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un warned this week that he could preemptively use nuclear weapons if threatened. We sorely need a strategy to reduce rather than escalate the possible use of a nuclear device.
Bilateral international negotiations are meaningless, since third parties will take advantage by developing the very systems that are constrained or banned by the two-party pact. However, the diplomatic task of convening a multilateral negotiation meeting is daunting. Each of the 10 or more countries must see some compelling reason for participating that will be weighed against the perceived risks.
In the normal process of preparing to negotiate a treaty, a nation will consider what’s to be gained and at what risk. But in this case, that might not be enough to bring all parties to the table. The problem is bigger than the benefits and risks to each nation: it is the survival of all. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is once again of concern. Somehow, awareness of nuclear devastation (like Hiroshima) and the urgency to prevent it must be the catalyst. That can occur in several ways, only one of which is acceptable — that is by diplomatic persuasion. The other ways that awareness and urgency will be raised is either an accidental or intentional launch of a nuclear device; once thought unlikely since reasonable, sane heads would prevail. Now, with rogue nations closing in on nuclear capabilities and threatening speeches by heads of state such as Putin and Kim, such an event cannot be discounted. Other possible scenarios include rogue nations flexing newfound nuclear muscles or arguments between neighbors (Pakistan and India, North and South Korea) flaring up.
Many people will say that an international summit on nuclear proliferation is impossible but a nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) already exists, The NPT was signed in 1968 and became effective in 1970. The formulation of the NPT involved the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and 59 other nations. A new summit must be convened, and it needs to include North Korea, China, and Iran. The U.S. should convince Russia, China, England, and France to join in planning a summit to which all other nuclear, or near-nuclear capable nations, would be invited.
The goal of the summit could not be a treaty; clearly unattainable at this point. Rather, the purpose would be to listen and discuss the role that nuclear weapons in each country’s national security equation. If that discussion happens, we can then move to the question, “How can those issues of national security be met in the absence, or significant reduction, of a nuclear capability?”
Brigadier Gen. Joel McKean retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1988. He served as executive director of the U.S. Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in 1979, when the SALT II Treaty was signed with the Soviet Union.