The Iraqi missile affair shows that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is still an issue, argues Bruce Kent
"THERE isn't much for you to do now," said a businessman to me at a recent conference. He was personal evidence of the unreasonable public euphoria which now exists about disarmament, nuclear as well as conventional. The reality is rather different.
It is true that the ending of the cold war has changed the political framework. But not a single nuclear warhead has yet been destroyed as a result of any treaty. START 1 is already in difficulty and even if it succeeds it will leave in place the most modern and destabilising nuclear systems. Star Wars research continues and there are firm plans for deploying yet more American air-launched nuclear weapons in this country.
The first Trident II D5 has been commissioned with something like nine times the destructive power of the whole of World War Two on board. The affair of the discovery of nuclear triggers bound for Iraq puts the whole question of nuclear proliferation firmly back on the agenda which it should never have left. Euphoria is clearly not in order.
Hence two major international meetings due to take place in the next nine months ought to be of considerable public concern. In fact, far from concern, there is little public knowledge about either of them. In August this year in Geneva will take place the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 which could come to an end in the next five years.
In January 1991 there is likely to take place in New York a conference called in the hope of turning the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 into a comprehensive one, which would thus end all testing.
A total ban on testing would probably be the single most effective step on the way to removing the nuclear threat. It has considerable public support. But Britain and the United States, in a minority of two to 108 at the United Nations, have opposed such an extension of the Partial Test Ban Treaty.
In fact Britain will not have a very convincing case to make at the NPT Review Conference this August. It is in a "do as I say not as I do" situation.
The reality is that the government thinks, in the words of Mrs Thatcher, that Britain will have nuclear weapons "for the foreseeable future". Hence the opposition to a comprehensive test ban and the inevitable contradictions when facing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That treaty obliged the signatories "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament . . ."
The non nuclear signatories of the treaty, some 140 of them, signed in the belief that the nuclear powers would honour their side of the bargain. This has not happened and the non nuclear powers will have much to say on the subject this summer.
In fact the surprise is that nuclear proliferation has moved so slowly. It is highly unlikely that there are more than nine countries with nuclear weapon status and the number may be even less. However, proliferation in missile technology continues apace and that also is a key step on the road to nuclear proliferation. So also is the renewed interest in chemical weapons, thought possibly to provide deterrence on the cheap. This form of threat has been condemned by the Vatican without qualification. Its attitude to nuclear deterrence has been rather different.
The weight of international support for a total test ban is evidence of considerable worldwide awareness of present and future dangers. The pity is that the other nuclear powers made no constructive response to Mr Gorbachev's unilateral total test ban which lasted from August 1985 to January 1987.
Nevertheless, that sign of restraint certainly helped to change the nuclear climate. It is no longer suggested for instance that there are genuine difficulties about effective verification.
The real problems are not technical but conceptual. Many governments still believe that nuclear weapons increase rather than diminish their security. Public opinion still largely believes that nuclear deterrence is an accident-proof system.
It is true that there is much more talk today about interdependence and common security. Rhetoric about one world and our trusteeship of it is not in short supply. But perceptions about defence and security remain very much what they were in the prenuclear age. Until those perceptions change the two treaties soon to be examined again will not offer much hope.
Bruce Kent, the chair of CND, will be walking from Vezelay in France on August 6, Hiroshima Day, to arrive in Geneva on August 19 for an all-night vigil before the start of the NonProliferation Conference.