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The Threat of a Nuclear Attack Remains a Grim Reality

By Rex W. Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State

Following are extensive excerpts from remarks by the U.S. Secretary of State during the United Nations Security Council Session on Nuclear Non-Proliferation on September 21, 2017. The complete text is available on https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2017/09/274362.htm – The Editor

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) - At a time when stabbings, crudely constructed bombs, and trucks driven into crowds of innocent men, women, and children are often our enemies’ weapons of choice to attack us, it is easy to become complacent and see the threat of nuclear attacks as a relic of the Cold War.

The threat of a nuclear attack remains a grim reality. Those who would trigger such a horrific scenario pose a unique threat to the security of peace-loving nations.

The challenge for each of us is, “How can we decrease the threat posed by nuclear weapons, not just to our own people, but people the world over?”

Today I want to put four points forward:

The first is to highlight the positive trajectories of nations that have voluntarily relinquished nuclear weapons.

The second is to emphasize the moral burden of possessing nuclear weapons, and the enormous responsibility that accompanies stewardship of such devastating weapons, as well as the technologies and nuclear materials that go into them.

The third is to make clear acquiring nuclear weapons capability does not provide security, prestige, or other benefits – but instead represents a path to isolation and intense security scrutiny from the global community, as those responsible nuclear powers will check such uncertain, unpredictable threats.

And lastly, all nations, but most particularly the current nuclear powers, must recommit to sound nuclear security practices and robust and effective non-proliferation efforts in order to keep nuclear weapons and associated materials and technology out of the hands of irresponsible nations, terrorists, and non-state actors.

Historical precedents of nations abandoning nuclear weapons programs

There are historical precedents of nations abandoning their nuclear weapons programs and arsenals out of self-interest. Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine all weighed the risk and responsibility of nuclear weapons and made the decision to eliminate their nuclear programs or give up their nuclear weapons.

As the apartheid regime in South Africa ended, the country’s leaders eliminated its nuclear weapons and joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-weapon state.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine willingly gave up the nuclear weaponry that the Soviet collapse bequeathed to their territories.

And, over the years, several other countries were willing to abandon clandestine nuclear weapons development efforts when reassured by the United States and others that their relationships with us and the global community enabled them to meet their national security needs without such tools.

Kazakhstan – a particularly illustrative example

The Republic of Kazakhstan is a particularly illustrative example of the wisdom of relinquishing nuclear weapons.

In partnership with the United States, and aided by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act spearheaded by U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, Kazakhstan opted to remove from its territory former Soviet weapons and related nuclear technologies, and joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-weapons state.

This courageous decision by the leaders of Kazakhstan greatly reduced the prospect of nuclear weapons, components of nuclear weapons, or nuclear materials and dual-use technologies from falling into the wrong hands. Nuclear weapons introduced complexity into relations with other countries, and they introduced the risk of miscalculation, accident, or escalation.

Kazakhstan’s actions represented a key step in that country becoming part of the community of nations. As a result of letting go of nuclear weapons, the world does not look on Kazakhstan as a potential nuclear aggressor or a rogue state. It did not make enemies of its nuclear neighbors, Russia or China.

Today Kazakhstan has overwhelmingly been at peace with its neighbors, and its trade relations are robust.

This year, it hosted World Expo 2017, an event in Astana, which showcased the sources of future energy and investment opportunities in Kazakhstan to attendees from around the world. This is a modern nation making a substantial contribution to regional and international peace and prosperity. Kazakhstan has only benefitted from its early decision.

In my previous career, I met President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev on many occasions and had the opportunity to ask him about this decision. He is more at peace with his choice than ever. He once remarked to me, “It was the best thing I ever did for our young country.”

Ukraine made a similar courageous choice. Even after Russia’s incursion – incursion into its territory in Crimea and east Ukraine, a violation of Moscow’s commitments under the Budapest Memorandum – Ukraine’s leaders reaffirmed yet again the wisdom of their decision to remove nuclear weapons. Their friends and allies quickly came to their aid in response to this violation of their sovereignty with a strong, unified set of sanctions on Russia and are steadfastly committed to ending this conflict through full implementation of the Minsk accords.

By rejecting the power of nuclear weapons, both of these two proud nations are in a better place than they would have been otherwise. They reduced the danger of nuclear conflict and helped reduce the chances of such capabilities falling into the hands of irresponsible third parties.

As the only nation on Earth to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, the United States bears a heavy responsibility to exercise proper stewardship of nuclear weapons and to lead in working with other nations to reduce global nuclear dangers.

It is a blessing, and perhaps in many ways a miracle, that nuclear weapons have never been used again. All the peoples of the world pray that they will never be. Experience is a hard but wise teacher and has taught everyone the grim moral responsibility that accompanies nuclear weapons.

The United States is reliant upon nuclear deterrence today not only for the purposes of safeguarding our own security interest but also those of our allies who otherwise might feel the need to acquire such weapons themselves. Such deterrence and such relationships have contributed to the absence of war between the great powers since 1945 and indeed to the fact that nuclear weapons themselves have never been used again.

We’re all fortunate that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, when they stood on the brink of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, came to a common understanding of the fearful and awesome power of nuclear weapons. As potential human extinction loomed over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the dominant emotion was fear. Nuclear weapons brought the most powerful men in the world no comfort, but it did make clear the need to minimize the risk of ever repeating this near-miss of a catastrophe by permitting nuclear capabilities to spread further.

[. . .] the world learned of the passing of a little-known but important figure in the history of the Cold War. His name was Stanislav Petrov, and he is sometimes referred to as “the man who saved the world.”

In 1983, Petrov was a Soviet military officer on duty at a nuclear early warning center when his computers detected a barrage of incoming American nuclear missiles. He said, “I had all the data to suggest” it was true. He said, “If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it.” He said, “All I had to do was to reach for the phone to raise the direct line to our top commanders, but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a frying pan.”

Petrov had a hunch that the computer had made an error, and fortunately he was right about a false alarm. Instead of notifying his commanders to prepare an immediate nuclear counterattack, he instead called army headquarters and reported a system malfunction.

This episode illustrates just how high the risk factor is with nuclear weapons, especially when decisions to use them are entrusted or could be entrusted to sometimes unreliable technologies or fallible human judgment. Countries who want nuclear weapons must ask themselves: Am I prepared to deal with this type of scenario in my own country?

The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet early warning malfunction illustrate how challenging it can be even for the most experienced and most sophisticated nuclear possessors to control nuclear dangers.

Rogue regimes

Rogue regimes fail to appreciate the responsibilities inherent to nuclear weapons. They wish to develop or expand their holdings of nuclear weapons in what they claim to be a search for security, but in fact they desire to use such tools to intimidate and coerce their neighbors and destabilize their regions.

Such acquisitions risk creating an escalating spiral of regional or global instability and conflict, not just as a direct result of their own proliferation, but by prompting other nations to undertake their own nuclear weapons programs in response. In such circumstances, nuclear weapons are not instruments of mutual deterrence and strategic stability, but instead are tools of destabilization.

Rogue regimes may have persuaded themselves that they pursue nuclear weapons to establish and enhance their security and prestige, but, in fact, nuclear weapons are more likely to undermine both. There’s a very good reason why almost every country in the world has joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty: All parties can know that they will not in the future face the threat of nuclear catastrophe from any new direction.

If would-be proliferators seek security or to improve their standing in the world or to enhance the prosperity of their citizens and their people’s hope for a brighter future, proliferation will not provide these things. There are much better, proven ways for nations to establish and enhance their standing, such as deepening their trade integration with the rest of the world, adhering to international standards and agreements, and participating in humanitarian activities.

The Korean Peninsula

The Korean Peninsula serves as a stark example of these differing paths. While North Korea has shunned the international community and let its people starve while it relentlessly pursues nuclear weapons, South Korea has opted not to pursue nuclear weapons and is fully engaged with the international community.

As a result, South Korea has grown into one of the world’s great economic powers, with a GDP over 100 times that of its neighbor to the north. By contrast, though North Korea may assume that nuclear weapons will ensure the survival of its regime, in truth, nuclear weapons are clearly only leading to greater isolation, ignominy, and deprivation. Continued threats against us – against us, the U.S., and now, the entire global community, will not create safety for the regime, but will rather stiffen our collective resolve and our commitment to deterring North Korean aggression.

North Korea is a case study in why nations must work to preserve and strengthen global nonproliferation norms. As we look to the future, the international community’s record of enforcing compliance with nonproliferation obligations and commitments is not what we need it to be. It is partly for lack of such accountability that we find ourselves in the situation we are in with North Korea at the moment. Though it joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the mid-1980s, North Korea never came into full compliance with the treaty, and cheated on every subsequent arrangement designed to remedy that noncompliance and rein in the nuclear threat it now presents.

Lessons for Iran

There are also lessons here for Iran, which was on its own pathway to develop nuclear weapons – in violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty and nuclear safeguards obligations and multiple, legally binding UN Security Council resolutions. Iran seems keen to preserve for itself the option to resume such work in the future, even while sponsoring international terrorism, developing missile systems capabilities of delivering nuclear weapons, and destabilizing its neighbors in a dangerous quest of regional hegemony.

The collective responsibilities of meeting such proliferation challenges will require more from all of us. As President Trump said in his speech on Tuesday (September 19), “If we are to embrace the opportunities of the future and overcome the present dangers together, there can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations.”

As strong, sovereign, and independent nations, we must work together, bilaterally, regionally, and globally, to stem the tide of proliferation. Sovereign states acting in unison will produce a global good.

Russia and China

We especially urge Russia to examine how it can better support global nonproliferation efforts. As the world’s two most powerful nuclear states, Russia and the United States share the greatest responsibility for upholding nonproliferation norms and stopping the further spread of nuclear weapons. We have cooperated well before: the United States and the Soviet Union worked together closely in drafting most of the text that became the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which helped keep proliferation under control through the Cold War.

Washington and Moscow did this, moreover, notwithstanding their own Cold War rivalry and the many problems in their bilateral relationship. In the post-Cold War era, Russia worked hard to improve accountability for its nuclear stockpile dispersed across the former Soviet Union, and we engaged closely in cooperative efforts – through the Nunn-Lugar program – to reduce the risk of weapons or material falling into the hands of proliferators or terrorists.

Unfortunately, in recent years, Russia has often acted in ways that weaken global norms and undercut efforts to hold nations accountable. Examples include violating its own obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, flouting the security assurances it made at the end of the Cold War, impeding efforts to build on the legacy of past international efforts on nuclear security, and seeking to weaken the International Atomic Energy Agency’s independence in investigating clandestine nuclear programs.

If Russia wants to restore its role as a credible actor in resolving the situation with North Korea, it can prove its good intentions by upholding its commitments to established international efforts on nuclear security and arms control.

Cooperation from China is also essential if the international community is to bring North Korean nuclear and missile threats under control and prevent a catastrophe spiraling of instability and conflict on the Korean Peninsula. If China truly desires to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, to promote stability, and to avoid conflict in that sensitive region, right on its own border, now is the time to work with the rest of us, the rest of the international community, to put the kind of pressure on North Korea that can change its strategic calculation before it’s too late.

Non-State actors

And lastly, we must be fully aware that there are non-state actors who will never conform to international norms governing nuclear weapons.

Their grand-scale terror attacks, beheadings, crucifixions, burnings, rapes, torture, acts of enslavement expose ISIS, al-Qaida, and other groups as those who seek to find glory through death and destruction.

Their eagerness to commit atrocity makes clear that, if given the chance, they would commit death and destruction on an even larger scale.

And there is no scale larger than a nuclear attack on one of the world’s cities. Many jihadist groups aspire to detonate a nuclear device in the heart of a booming metropolis. Their mission is to kill our people and send the world into a downward spiral. We must never allow this.

We must continue to work to secure nuclear technologies, blueprints, and materials at their sources and disrupt proliferation networks.

We must deepen information sharing between intelligence agencies in order to identify actors and identify when nuclear materials have been or may be diverted from legitimate uses.

And we must revive the practice of creating alternative career and job opportunities for nuclear experts, so they do not sell their skills on the black market.

But ultimately, the best means to halt jihadists in their quest for nuclear weapons is to destroy them long before they can reach their goal.

Whether on the battlefield, in the streets, or online, terrorism must be given no quarter.

We must remain ever vigilant against the spread of ISIS and other Islamist groups in new locations, whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, or elsewhere.

One of the great successes of the campaign of the Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been uprooting ISIS from formerly safe havens in which they could freely mastermind attacks against targets the world over. These efforts must continue.

As a body committed to security, we must treat nuclear proliferation with the seriousness it deserves.

Enforcing Security Council resolutions

For those of us on the Security Council, counteracting nuclear threats begins with full enforcement of the UN Security Council resolutions all member-states are bound to implement. To make sure all nations are able to play their part, we must continue to work for full and effective implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

But signing treaties and passing resolutions is not enough. Stopping nuclear proliferation also entails exercising other levers of power, whether diplomatic, economic, digital, moral, or, if necessary, military.

Ultimately, we each have a sovereign responsibility to ensure that we keep the world safe from nuclear warfare, the aftermath of which will transgress all borders.

The United States will continue to halt – to work to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We ask all peace-loving nations to join us in this mission. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 September 2017]

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers welcome remarks to State Department employees in the main lobby of the Department's Harry S. Truman building on his first day as Secretary of State in Washington, D.C., on February 2, 2017. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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