A “Global Zero” Program: Can it Counter the Emerging Threat of Nuclear Terrorism?

Author: Syeda Samrah Alam, April 2020.

“Seeking a complete elimination of nuclear weapons to address the threat of nuclear terrorism might not be possible, let alone the best option. This is because there are enormous challenges and difficulties associated with proposing and implementing the program. These challenges could make it almost impossible for Global Zero to combat nuclear terrorism.”

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Nuclear terrorism is a matter of great international concern for many states, policy makers, strategists, and international organizations. The gravity of the issue and the need to address it took on renewed importance after the devastating 9/11 attacks. Former United States’ President, Barack Obama, addressed the issue of nuclear terrorism at the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in 2010, defining it as “the extreme danger of fissile materials falling into the hands of groups like al-Qaeda which would then make or use a nuclear bomb” (VANAIK 10). According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear security is defined as the “prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities” (BOWEN et al. 350). The concept of nuclear security also seeks to address the emerging threat of nuclear terrorism, which is one of the most worrying challenges associated with the nuclear age. The possible negative repercussions of the phenomenon and its implications for human and national security have led many to believe that nuclear terrorism is an integral aspect of almost all areas of international security concerns.

The gradually intensifying threat of nuclear terrorism gave rise to a “Global Zero program” (Joffe and Davis 8), which advocates for all states working towards a nuclear weapon free world. It relates to “the phased verified elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide on the grounds that this is the only way to eliminate the nuclear threat – including proliferation and nuclear terrorism” (Joffe and Davis 7). Just like the widely accepted idea that nuclear terrorism is an emerging threat, “a global movement” (Joffe and Davis 7) towards a world free of nuclear weapons is not new. There have been several instances in history, such as the Easter marches of the 1950s and 1960s or the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s (Joffe and Davis 7), which focused on advocating a similar approach towards eliminating nuclear weapons.

This paper examines whether the implementation of a Global Zero program could help states deal with the emerging threat of nuclear terrorism. Given the possible challenges, it also debates if it is possible for states to accomplish Global Zero and its desired results, and if doing so would aggravate the issue of nuclear terrorism. Then, the paper moves onto discussing the role of nuclear weapons in maintaining peace and stability in the world. Lastly, it outlines some of the other approaches which the international community has been using or could adopt in order to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.   

The Global Zero Program

Before discussing the assumptions that underpin Global Zero, it might be useful to understand that the association between proliferation and nuclear terrorism, and the concept of nuclear terrorism as a threat to international security are not confined to the issue of terrorist organizations acquiring nuclear weapons. There is also widespread concern over the development of the “easier-to-acquire radioactive dirty bomb”, which – in addition to killing hundreds and thousands of people – is capable of adversely affecting the environment. (Sagan and Waltz 89). Additionally, development and proliferation of nuclear weapons also undermine the disarmament regime.

Supporters of Global Zero believe that there is a strong connection between the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the emerging threat of nuclear terrorism. Global Zero assumes a strong positive correlation between the number of nuclear weapons in the world and nuclear terrorism. Its supporters argue that any further proliferation of nuclear weapons would make it more likely for terrorist organizations, non-state actors and other aspiring non-nuclear states to get their hands on nuclear weapons, technology, and infrastructure.

Despite the limited possibility of aspiring states or non-state actors actually using nuclear weapons, their possession of these weapons could have devastating consequences for human and national security. These actors are unpredictable entities and it would be difficult to trust them with any class of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), let alone a weapon as devastating as a nuclear weapon.

Practical Challenges & Difficulties

Seeking a complete elimination of nuclear weapons to address the threat of nuclear terrorism might not be possible, let alone the best option. This is because there are enormous challenges and difficulties associated with proposing and implementing the program. These challenges could make it almost impossible for Global Zero to combat nuclear terrorism. In fact, in many instances, the program could have damaging effects on nuclear security and terrorism.

Bringing Parties to the Negotiating Table

First, there are many practical challenges and difficulties associated with successfully proposing and negotiating, let alone implementing a Global Zero program. The first would be the extreme difficulty in bringing together all the concerned states and parties to the negotiating table. Indeed, we are no longer living in a bipolar Cold War era where concessions, agreements and rivalries between the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – are sufficient to predict how events will unfold in the geopolitical landscape. Today, all states and parties – be it nuclear-armed states, non-nuclear states, or non-state actors – are likely to have differing interests and objectives. Thus, they will represent different sets of agendas and motives, which are deeply divided along state or party lines. Under these circumstances, one could argue that negotiating with non-state actors, the main culprits creating the threat of nuclear terrorism would be futile. However, in many instances, conducting dialogues and negotiations with largely uncooperative states could be equally meaningless. For example, this would include states such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, which were categorized as the “Axis of Evil” (Heradstveit and Bonham 421) by former United States President, George W. Bush in 2002. Hence, as history shows, aligning the objectives of every state or party with the common goal of gradual eradication of all nuclear weapons will not be an easy task.

The degree of progress that has been made on some of the existing treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), as well as on treaties that are yet to come into force such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), could also serve as examples of how, in some instances, it could be extremely difficult for parties to reach an agreement.

Pakistan and India, two nuclear-armed neighbors in South Asia, have not joined the NPT. Similarly, during the “2015 NPT Review Conference”, “despite intensive consultations, the Conference was not able to reach an agreement on the substantive part of the draft Final Document” (United Nations). This shows that disagreements between state parties are a common aspect of many treaties. The TPNW and Global Zero program have similar and overlapping objectives. Similar to the Global Zero program, the TPNW seeks a complete eradication of nuclear weapons. However, nuclear-armed states have been strongly opposed to the TPNW since it was opened for signatures on September 20, 2017. To this day, those states have neither signed nor ratified the TPNW. Nuclear-armed states’ attitude towards the TPNW could be predictive of how some states might also react to the idea and implementation of Global Zero, making it difficult for the program to move beyond some of the preliminary stages of being internalized.

Possible Difficulties in the Implementation of the Global Zero Program

Setting up an effective disarmament regime and maintaining strict verification measures is another set of major challenges for Global Zero. In regards to investing in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, almost all of the existing treaties on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) allow a certain degree of flexibility. Therefore, there would always be a way to bypass on-site inspections or other verification measures. Hence, problems such as multi-purpose and dual-use dilemma – in which peaceful uses of nuclear energy are exploited as ways to pursue nuclear weapons – might allow states to find a way around the disarmament regime and verification measures without being detected.

While it is true that constant monitoring and institutionalization of confidence-building measures (CBMs) could be effective in making sure that all states abide by the agenda and motives of the Global Zero regime, there are countries that have successfully managed to dodge treaties in the past with well-thought-out tactics and strategies. For example, Iraq ratified the NPT on October 29, 1969, and not only did it manage to pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons program from 1982 to 1991, but it also got past several IAEA routine inspections. When Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program was finally discovered in 1991, it was only “roughly two years from producing the first Arab atom bomb using indigenous facilities” (Venter 45). Aspiring states and non-state actors will continue to employ every possible legal/illegal method to acquire nuclear weapons.

In a nutshell, to set up and oversee an effective Global Zero regime “obligatory monitoring, including unannounced on-site inspections” might not be sufficient (Joffe and Davis 10). This suggests that there is much ambiguity concerning how relevant states would implement an effective disarmament regime that manages the dual-use dilemma associated with nuclear weapons and simultaneously keeps a check on states’ tendency to cheat.

A “Peacekeeping Weapon”

Even if states somehow managed to overcome the above-mentioned challenges and obstacles, would a world without nuclear weapons be indicative of a peaceful world? A simple answer would be that a world completely devoid of nuclear weapons would not be a safer world because disarmament is not equivalent to international security, peace and cooperation. In fact, the world might end up where we started, or in a worse situation. In making such arguments, it might be useful to view nuclear weapons as largely “peacekeeping” (Sagan Waltz 92) weapons, rather than weapons which are generally associated with danger and vulnerability.     

Nuclear weapons play an integral role in states’ domestic and foreign policies and actions. They are deeply embedded within the political systems of states today. This means that the world has now adapted to nuclear weapons and it might be better to accept them as one of the “hard realities of world politics” (Joffe and Davis 7). Attempts to change the existing state of affairs might lead to further instability, chaos, and most importantly, the renewal of a largely unchecked development and proliferation scheme of nuclear weapons, both horizontal and vertical.

Ultimately, even if states effortlessly managed to get rid of all nuclear weapons, “they could not destroy the knowledge, technology, and materials that lie behind them” (Joffe and Davis 12). Today, with nine nuclear-armed states, innumerable aspiring states and non-state actors, and a plethora of information available on nuclear weapons, it will not be difficult for states to recompile and put nuclear technology and infrastructure back into use. The result could be an unprecedented, largely uncontrolled, and unrestrained nuclear arms race. Far from combatting nuclear terrorism, such events would further nourish the emerging threat.      

Nuclear weapons have played an incredibly important role in history. Their existence during the Cold War period made sure that it was mainly a “war of words”. Since the end of the Cold War, the “peace-inducing effect of nuclear weapons” (Sagan and Waltz 94) and concepts such as nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction (MAD) have instilled caution and stability in the post-Cold War era. Moreover, nuclear weapons have a fascinating characteristic. States that possess these weapons have mainly two options, perhaps situated on opposite ends of the nuclear spectrum. They could either maintain first-strike and second-strike capabilities to preserve their prestige, security and survival or they could use the same weapons to destroy each other. Nuclear-armed states automatically become more prudent when it comes to managing their policies and actions towards other states, as was the case in “the external behavior of China during the frightful decade of the Cultural Revolution” (Sagan and Waltz 94). In a nutshell, “those who advocate a zero option argue in effect that we should eliminate the cause of the extensive peace the nuclear world has enjoyed” (Sagan and Waltz 93).

Progress in the Nuclear Terrorism & Security Field

Significant multilateral work has been done since the Cold War period to curb nuclear terrorism and promote international security. The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 was “adopted by the Security Council at its 4956th meeting, on April 28 2004” (United Nations Security Council). The Resolution addresses the proliferation of all kinds of WMDs as a matter of grave concern for the international community. Additionally, “Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material” (IAEA) discusses the means and measures that could be adopted to protect nuclear material and facilities from the threat of nuclear terrorism. 

Most importantly, the four Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) that were held in Washington (2010), Seoul (2012), Hague (2014), and then again in Washington (2016) provided platforms for the international community and leaders to engage and develop methods and strategies to secure “nuclear materials” (Nuclear Security Summit) to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism. As the summits progressed, the NSS’s agenda became more extensive. For instance, in addition to exchanging dialogues on nuclear security and deriving strategies to counter nuclear terrorism, the safety and security of radiological materials were incorporated as additional areas of focus, perhaps because of the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan (Arms Control Association). The summits, in addition to strengthening the norm against nuclear terrorism and highlighting the urgency of the matter, were extremely useful platforms for interested states and parties to exhibit their “individual state-specific commitments” (Arms Control Association)and “voluntary progress reports” (Arms Control Association). Furthermore, the five action plans that were established after the last 2016 summit were an integral aspect of the NSS. They included “the United Nations Action Plan, IAEA Action Plan, International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) Action Plan, Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) Action Plan, and Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction Action Plan” (Arms Control Association). These action plans were helpful in terms of supervising and verifying the implementation of the joint and national commitments that were made during the four summits. In essence, the Nuclear Security Summits “achieved tangible improvements in the security of nuclear materials and stronger international institutions that support nuclear security” (Nuclear Security Summit). 

Recommendations & Conclusions

Supporters of Global Zero propose that the elimination of nuclear weapons by nuclear-armed states would set a precedent for other aspiring states and non-state actors. However, this is a misconception because “the truth is that the decision-making of aspiring nuclear powers is only remotely related, if it is related at all to the strategic choices of the existing nuclear powers” (Joffe and Davis 13). Aspiring states and non-state actors will not just disarm because nuclear-armed states are doing so. Examples like South Africa, which voluntarily gave up all their nuclear weapons, are likely to remain very rare. Hence, in order to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, countries need to acquire a more proactive approach towards the threat.

Arms control, rather than complete eradication of nuclear weapons, could be one of the most effective measures that states adopt to combat nuclear terrorism because “classical arms control was designed to reduce not the size of arsenals but the risks of crisis instability” (Jofee and Davis 10). States should also focus on preventing the transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations and other aspiring non-nuclear states. The same approach has been discussed in Josef Joffe’s and James W. Davis’s article, “Less than Zero; Bursting the New Disarmament Bubble”. In the article, the authors discuss how the primary goal should be to “craft a different global zero: a regime that would allow zero fissionable material and weapons technology to pass into the wrong hands, especially into those of Terror International” (Jofee and Davis 13). Hence, a responsible group of nuclear-armed states should possess nuclear weapons.

The international community should address gaps that are evident in the implementation of some of the existing treaties, such as the NPT. This does not mean that the NPT does not fulfill its purpose; indeed, the Treaty has been very effective in terms of setting general norms and standards. The success of the NPT could also be assessed by the fact that we have no more than nine nuclear-armed states. While there are innumerable non-state actors, none have successfully managed to wholly acquire or use nuclear weapons. Restrictions and limitations that have been put in place by the NPT regime have helped to make sure that no aspiring states and non-state actors get their hands on nuclear weapons without facing innumerable international restrictions and border controls. At the same time, one cannot deny the fact that there are still some flaws that have created obstructions in the implementation of the Treaty. Additionally, some states have weak governments and institutions, which make it difficult for them to abide by their commitments. This issue was addressed in UNSCR 1540. With regard to its provisions, the Resolution “recognizes that some States may require assistance in implementing the provisions of this resolution within their territories and invites States in a position to do so, to offer assistance as appropriate” (United Nations Security Council). Hence, member states with strong governments should assist fragile/weak states in combating nuclear terrorism through a rigorous implementation of treaties and state commitments.

It is true that non-state actors are relatively weaker than states. Nonetheless, with the passage of time, they have also become more organized, disciplined, armed, trained, and interconnected, as exemplified by the Islamic State (IS). In order to ensure that states are keeping pace with terrorist organizations, it is important to constantly identify and analyze existing and emerging threats and opportunities associated with nuclear terrorism. Simultaneously, it is also important to realize that states cannot do the incredibly important task of countering nuclear terrorism alone. The threat is very complicated in nature. In order to tackle it effectively, the cooperation, support, expertise, knowledge, and experience of different states, institutions, organizations, agencies, and parties is essential.

Works Cited

A. J. Venter, “How Saddam Almost Built His Bomb,” Middle East Policy 51, no. 3 (February 1999).

Arms Control Association. “Nuclear Security Summit at a Glance.” https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/NuclearSecuritySummit

BOWEN, WYN Q., MATTHEW COTTEE, and CHRISTOPHER HOBBS. “Multilateral Cooperation and the Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism: Pragmatism over Idealism.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 88, no. 2 (2012): 349-68.

Heradstveit, Daniel, and G. Matthew Bonham. “What the Axis of Evil Metaphor Did to Iran.” Middle East Journal 61, no. 3 (2007): 421-40.

Harald Müller, “The Future of Nuclear Weapons in an Interdependent World,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 2008).

IAEA. “Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.”  https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/infcirc274r1m1.pdf

Joffe, Josef, and James W. Davis. “Less Than Zero: Bursting the New Disarmament Bubble.” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 1 (2011): 7-13.

Michael E. O’Hanlon. “Is a World Without Nuclear Weapons Really Possible?.” Brookings, Tuesday, May 4, 2010.

Nuclear Security Summit. “NSS 2016.” http://www.nss2016.org/

Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz. “Is Nuclear Zero the Best Option?” in Sagan and Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, 2013, chapter 7, pp.88-96.

United Nations Security Council. “Resolution 1540 (2004).” https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1540%20(2004)

United Nations. “2015 NPT Review Conference.” https://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2015/

VANAIK, ACHIN. “The Issue of Nuclear Terrorism.” Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 17 (2010): 10-13. 


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