Schrödinger’s Nuke

Duke Cole analyses what do with Israel and other ‘rogue’ nuclear states.

In a sealed box, there is a cat, a single radioactive atom, a Geiger counter attached to a hammer, and a flask of deadly poison.  If the atom decays, the hammer falls, releasing the poison.  But the radioactive decay of a single atom is seen to be a purely random event.

Without opening the box, it is not possible to ascertain whether the atom has decayed or not.  In one interpretation of this thought experiment, until the box is opened, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.

Obviously this is not the case, but Schrodinger’s cat highlights the issue the world faces when dealing with potentially nuclear-armed states – until we open the box, we are essentially clueless.  Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are slightly less ambiguous: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly claimed that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for the peaceful purposes of medical research and power production, and while nuclear tests have purportedly taken place in DPR Korea, no outsiders know how many nuclear weapons, if any, the state possesses.Israel has a policy of ‘nuclear opacity’.  As a state, it neither confirms nor denies its possession of nuclear weapons, and claims this is a form of deterrent.  Erwin Schrödinger, the author of the aforementioned thought experiment, would argue that the state of Israel simultaneously possesses and does not possess nuclear weapons.

The cornerstone of nuclear disarmament, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) dictates that only five so-called Nuclear Weapon States (NSW) may possess nuclear weapons.  Unsurprisingly, these are the same states with veto powers in the United Nations Security Council – the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China and France.  But two other nations definitely have a nuclear weapons stockpile – India and Pakistan.

It is assumed that the NWS are somehow more trustworthy, and thus are ‘allowed’ to stockpile nuclear weapons, while the rest of the world cannot.  As is often the case, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than the rest.

What makes the USA ‘better’ than say, India?  They are both democracies, India the largest in the world.  Yes, India has disputed borders and a less-than-amicable relationship with their similarly nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan.   Whilst I cannot argue that this is a state that should have nuclear weapons, our NWS are no angels either.

China shares a disputed border with India, and…. In the end the only thing that makes the NWS superior is the fact that they ‘won’ World War II.  I ask you: how is that a reason to define who has the right to nuclear arms? We can be more pragmatic with our approach to nuclear disarmament.  We need to accept that there are states outside the NPT with nukes.  They should be encouraged to become a part of this crucially important treaty.

By amending the treaty to include new Nuclear Weapon States, there are numerous benefits.  First, they would need to agree to inspections and the implementation of safeguards under the direction of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  By legitimising their nuclear weapons, we are no longer vilifying these two states, plausibly leading to stronger diplomatic relations between them and the rest of the world.

Most importantly, this opens the door for multilateral nuclear disarmament.  The successes of the START Treaties between the USA and Russia are a prime example.  The combined stock of nuclear weapons will be reduced by almost three quarters from the Cold War high of 18 000 nuclear warheads.  But this example cannot be applied to the current situation.

All nuclear disarmament talks exist, and are arguably crippled, by this assumption.  Critics may argue that by doing this we are encouraging a new nuclear arms race, and somehow condoning the development of nuclear weapons technology.

Solving the issue of Iran, Israel and DPR Korea requires a bit more finesse.  They lack India and Pakistan’s openness, the population of the major developed nations would be less inclined to accept them as nuclear states and there would be a real risk of an arms race, as their main ‘enemies’ have not embarked on the nuclear path.

We must acknowledge that the proverbial stick has been, and will continue to be, ineffective until such a time as the hypocrisy of the five Nuclear Weapons States ceases to exist.  To expect the USA and Co. to reduce their stockpiles to zero while rogue nuclear states still exist is naïve.  So a solution must be found, and it should be a ‘carrot’ solution.

Iran should be trusted enough to continue with its supposedly peaceful nuclear program, with assistance from other nations if desired.  There needs to be an acknowledgement that Iran has the right to pursue nuclear technology for exclusively peaceful purposes.

DPR Korea and Israel should be encouraged to become Nuclear Weapon States under the NPT as well – but with stricter safeguards, and a more intensive inspection regime.  Care must be taken to prevent other nations in the Middle East and near the Korean Peninsula from trying to acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction in response.

The suggestions I have proposed may appear counterintuitive: condoning the nuclear programs of these supposedly ‘evil’ states (by a Western developed nation definition, anyway) would most likely receive an overwhelmingly negative public reaction.  As a global society, we have no other plausible option.  The justification for the five Nuclear Weapon States’ arsenal is antiquated, and the ensuing hypocrisy makes it difficult.  But all states need to reduce their stock of nuclear weapons, and if this leads to mutual disarmament, and better relations between nations, then it should be attempted.

The current methodology – of trying to force open the box or resuscitate the cat before we know whether it is alive or not – is not working.  An approach that rectifies one of the major obstacles in nuclear disarmament is necessary.  And maybe the supposedly ‘rogue’ nuclear states may open the box for us.


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