When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev first put their nuclear weapons on the negotiating table 20 years ago, it heralded a new era of disarmament and the hope – however faint – of a nuclear-free world.
That hope, already overshadowed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons to four new countries, dimmed further last week after Britain unveiled plans to spend around £20 billion ($39 billion) to replace its submarine-based missile deterrent known as Trident. The system, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, would provide crucial "insurance" against threats in a changing world.
The move has divided opinion, but experts on both sides agree that the decision highlights the urgent need to revive some form of global nuclear weapons framework. The alternative is to risk a new arms race with many more powers than before and a heightened risk that a warhead might actually be used.
"When the cold war was over there was a hope, even an assumption, that the main reason for having nuclear weapons would disappear and they would be negotiated away," recalls Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who witnessed a test more than 50 years ago, and opposes nuclear weapons. "That hasn't happened."
For a few years, it seemed that all five recognized nuclear powers – Russia, the US, France, China, and Britain – would embrace the new spirit of disarmament. The US and Russia negotiated down their stockpiles. Hollywood stopped making nuclear holocaust movies. The brinkmanship of mutually assured destruction (MAD) appeared more incongruous than ever. Nuclear was to defense what the sting is to the bee: pyrrhic.
But now, major nuclear deals like the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) appear to be coming apart at the seams: On Friday, the US Congress passed a bill that reversed a 30-year policy that opposed nuclear cooperation with India because it is not an NPT signatory. Besides India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea also have atomic capabilities – not to mention Iran's nuclear pretension – and the "big five" are updating their systems, setting a poor example to powers who have thus far desisted.
"You can't have it both ways," says Dr. Barnaby. "It won't work [rearming and] telling others to disarm. You either get rid of nuclear weapons, or nuclear power will increase and with it the danger that nuclear weapons will one day be used."
In its defense, Britain points out that it is cutting its number of warheads from 200 to 160, leaving it with less than 1 percent of the world's warheads. Proponents argue that Britain's updated program will enable it be a "force for good." And it will keep recalcitrant enemies at bay, whoever they may be in 10, 20, or 40 years.
"Given the uncertainties around the world it would be a strange time to get out of the business," says Michael Quinlan, a former top official at Britain's Defence Ministry.
Opponents – which include nearly two-thirds of Britons, according to a recent survey – counter that nuclear weapons do not address current threats like climate change or terrorism.
"Quite apart from the morality of being willing to kill hundreds of thousands of people, security is not being enhanced, it's being reduced," says Bruce Kent, vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. "We are sending the message to anyone who feels like it that they should have the same security."
That much has been made clear by big nonnuclear powers in recent weeks. A top official from South Africa, the first power to voluntarily give up its nuclear missile capability, said there were double standards at play akin to smokers telling the rest of the world not to smoke because it was bad for them.
Germany's foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, recently warned that disarmament and proliferation were two sides of the same coin, the inference being that without nuclear powers disarming, others would be reluctant to forswear atomic programs.
The grand bargain of the 1968 NPT treaty, sharpened by a 1996 International Court of Justice ruling, was that the nuclear five were obliged to advance nuclear disarmament. That hasn't happened. A review is due in 2010 and experts are calling for intensified global cooperation.
"The NPT review in 2010 needs to be a world summit," says Dan Plesch, an antinuclear defense analyst. He adds that the 2009 expiration date on the original Moscow-Washington arms reduction treaty START is "going to concentrate US minds."
Lee Willett, head of the maritime studies program at London's Royal United Services Institute, says that with nine nuclear powers and another five or six looking to go nuclear, "the nuclear genie is out of the bottle. The only way to put it back is through a multilateral framework."
Failure to do so, he adds, will mean that "with nine nuclear powers out there the chances of someone using one of these things becomes less unlikely."
Not everyone, however, believes that a nuclear world is a bad thing. Mr. Quinlan, who was the Defence Ministry policy director in the late 1970s when the first Trident decision was taken, says atomic weapons have "kept us free from certain forms of war for 61 years, in which time they haven't killed anyone."
"With every year that goes by without them being used the taboo [of using them] becomes more and more powerful," he adds. "I hope we can get to a world where we can manage without these things, but that will need a lot of political change."