The Bulletin Online

By Pavel Podvig | 4 March 2009

On the subject of nuclear disarmament, one point is rarely disputed: the United States and Russia should lead the way, and other nuclear weapon states should join the process when U.S. and Russian arsenals are roughly comparable to their own. Given that these two countries have the largest nuclear arsenals, with more than 95 percent of all nuclear warheads, it is reasonable to expect them to start eliminating their weapons first. The problem with this approach is that it puts the disarmament process almost entirely into the hands of just two states, who may have their own reasons to cling to their large nuclear arsenals.

Instead nuclear weapon states with smaller arsenals should insert themselves into the disarmament process today and use their position to pressure Russia and the United States. In recent years, Britain and France have actively tried to break the hold the two large nuclear powers have on the agenda. Both countries declared sizable nuclear reductions, changed their deployment patterns, and committed to transparency and disarmament. Both countries support efforts to ban nuclear tests and to end production of fissile materials for weapons. In December, France, speaking on behalf of the European Union, supported these and other measures, including consultations on a treaty that would ban short- and intermediate-range missiles. Britain has also embarked on an interesting program that develops legal and technical means of verifying nuclear disarmament.

As valuable as these efforts are, they still assume that the key disarmament decisions will be made by Russia and the United States. The European proposal mentioned above calls for further progress in U.S.-Russian post-Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) talks, but at this point, Europe can do little to spur that progress. Other serious issues simultaneously confront nuclear disarmament efforts, such as engaging China, which has been very cautious about disarmament so far, and those nuclear states outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

While the present consensus seems to be that the world wait for Russia and the United States to bring their nuclear forces to the level of, say 500 warheads, at which point other countries could join the process, there's a way of making the disarmament process a multilateral enterprise much sooner than that. Nothing would prevent France or Britain from voluntarily assuming the same obligations that the United States and Russia have under START, in particular, its reporting and transparency requirements. They could commence by releasing data about their strategic nuclear forces in the same format that is required by START. Five states currently publish memorandums of understanding with detailed data on missiles, submarines, and strategic bombers deployed on their territory twice a year--the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan (the last three send their MOUs with mostly zeros in them). There is no reason why Britain, France, China, and eventually others can't do the same, even if they are not formally parties to START.

The main benefit of this approach would be that countries could take advantage of START's very detailed legal framework, which provides a good degree of transparency. It is available, well understood, and thoroughly tested since its advent nearly 20 years ago. This data exchange mechanism could also help to create and strengthen the institutional basis of the disarmament process; publication of the data could begin on a unilateral basis, but countries could coordinate their efforts and develop a mechanism for consultations. In the future, they may even move toward mutual verification inspections (for which, again, START conveniently provides a detailed procedure).

A commitment to report its nuclear holdings would not necessarily require a country to immediately assume an obligation to reduce its nuclear forces. In fact, for most states, a START-type report would give a distorted picture of its nuclear arsenal, as the treaty counts only strategic weapons, and its accounting rules tend to overestimate the total number of warheads. For example, under START rules, Britain would have to report 512 warheads, although it has fewer than 160. This can be easily tolerated, as long as all countries understand that the treaty never intended to provide an accurate count of warheads.

If they make a commitment to START-type transparency, France, Britain, and others would be in a much stronger position to make sure that Russia and the United States do not abandon the bilateral disarmament process and continue the transparency and accountability associated with START. Coordinating efforts to bring China into this process would be difficult given China's long reliance on secrecy, but it would not be impossible, since most of the information that China would have to report is already widely available.

Any arrangement that aims to achieve deep global nuclear cuts would have to include multilateral transparency and verification mechanisms. Getting to this point will take some time, but there is no reason to delay the process of developing these mechanisms. The legal framework of START provides a good foundation for it.