The flaws of Obama’s arms control initiative

The Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, will likely antagonise North Korea and Iran.

Obama in seoul nuclear
Fifty-three heads of state are attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea [Reuters]

Melbourne, Australia – The opening on March 25 of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, will justifiably be taken as an antagonistic gesture by both North Korea and Iran.

The Summit seeks to reach “a series of preemptive measures” that ensures the security of nuclear facilities and materials from “international and/or external threats”. Priority has been given to “nuclear terrorism”, the “protection of nuclear materials” and the “prevention of nuclear trafficking”.

Notably, the 53 heads of state and international organisations includes no representative of either North Korea or Iran – the two states widely expected to feature most prominently throughout proceedings.

 South Korea hosts nuclear security summit

Indeed, the socalled “historical milestones in the evolution of the nuclear security issue” identified by the Summit organisers are limited to only three items: cross-border transfers of nuclear materials, the security of nuclear materials and facilities following the end of the Cold War and the heightened threat posed by nuclear terrorism since the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Nowhere in publicly available conference documents is mention made of the failure of the nuclear non-proliferation regime to curb vertical proliferation by nuclear weapons states (as in modernisation and enhancements to existing nuclear arsenals). Nor is due attention paid to the resistance by many nuclear weapons states to more recently emerging nuclear weapons norms such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Instead, we’re led to believe that the most pressing nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament issue of our time is due to existential threats driven by ideology and religion, as well as the increasing prevalence of opportunists and acts of “terrorism”. 

Thus, while the Summit is marketed as a step “Beyond Security Towards Peace”, it must primarily be viewed as an exercise in recasting nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament through a national security lens, between states that enjoy largely co-operative economic, diplomatic and geopolitical relations – or at least considerable mutual interests or influence, as in the case of Russia and China, for instance.

The Summit’s negative side

In my view, therefore, the Summit risks achieving its mildly noble objectives at the cost of a further deterioration of diplomatic relations with both North Korea and Iran. I offer two core reasons for my negative outlook.

First, the hosting of the Summit in Seoul, while rightfully prioritising the Korean peninsula as a nuclear flashpoint, will do little to ease relations between Pyongyang’s young regime and the United States.

Already these past several days we’ve heard reports that Pyongyang intends to fire a test missile over southeast Asia into the ocean between Indonesia and Australia. Previously, Kim Jong-il had favoured testing missiles over Japan, so this reported gesture must be viewed as having considerable symbolic and geopolitical significance given its timing days before the Summit-proper officially opened on Monday.

Second, the exclusion of North Korea and Iran from the talks runs counter to other initiatives underway which are being conducted in accordance with the vision of a “dialogue among civilisations” as espoused by former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami:

“Dialogue among civilisations, viewed from an ethical perspective, is in fact an invitation to discard what might be termed the power oriented will, in favour of a love oriented one. In this case, the result of dialogue will be empathy and compassion. And the interlocutors will primarily be thinkers, leaders, artists and all benevolent intellectuals who are the true representatives of their respective cultures and civilisations.”

Recent efforts at preventative diplomacy by the P5 1 in relation to North Korea – a grouping that includes the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom (who are collectively also the five “nuclear weapons states”) as well as Germany – have justified an unprecedented level of optimism that the death of Kim Jong-il and the subsequent succession of his little-known son, Kim Jong-un, may yet improve tensions between North Korea and “the West”.

Similarly, the UN-sponsored special conference to be held in December this year, in which intra- and extra-regional states will take steps towards negotiating a formal Middle East WMD Free Zone, is itself predicated on involvement of all regional states – including most importantly the regional heavyweights Egypt, Iran and Israel, as well as the great powers of the United States, Russia and China.

Dialogue is therefore the key tenet to the more truly international efforts to resolve nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, rather than the more myopic national security approach of the Nuclear Security Summit.

One small hope: China!

If there is “one to watch” at the Summit, then, it surely must be China.

China has historically always played the role of mediator and protector of North Korea, due to its own national interests as well as the continued preservation of the Communist project.

Equally importantly, China has also been a fierce vocal proponent of dialogue between Iran and “the West” in recent times, most forcefully in the UN Security Council and at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference.

While the process of dialogical exchange has vehement critics in both the dominant realist and liberal schools of thought, it remains the only feasible option outside of the actual and threat of the use of force.

How so?

Quite simply, even those who have historically touted the peace dividend of nuclear deterrence now favour either a preemptive or preventative strike on Iran.

In many respects, then, the Nuclear Security Summit represents the partial fulfillment of Obama’s global nuclear disarmament pledge of 2009 to forge the way ahead towards global nuclear disarmament through US leadership, as well as a response to what must be seen in retrospect to be a lost opportunity during the George W Bush presidency to engage a relatively receptive Iran led at the time – albeit with considerable constraints on his power and questions over his broader human rights credibility – by Khatami himself.

Obama must therefore rethink his nuclear disarmament aspirations, for the Summit will do little but widen the rift, and accentuate the differences between the civilisations.

NAJ Taylor is a doctoral researcher at the University of Queensland, writing on the practice of environmental and humanitarian harm in modern warfare.

Follow him on Twitter: @najtaylor

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