The Middle Powers Initiative

A new campaign against nuclear weapons, the "Middle Powers Initiative," will urge the leaders of several key middle-power states to form a coalition and press the Nuclear Weapon States to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons and to de-alert and pledge no-first-use
Douglas Roche will lead the new initiative.

By Douglas Roche | 1998-07-01 12:00:00

After fifty years with the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over humanity and all life on Earth, several historic developments have presented an opportunity to enter the new millennium with a plan for the abolition of nuclear weapons. These include:

The end of the Cold War.

Entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Anti-Personnel Landmines Treaty.

A succession of authoritative reports and statements recommending com- plete nuclear disarmament, led by the Canberra Commission on the Elim- ination of Nuclear Weapons.

Unprecedented statements by 61 for- mer Generals and Admirals and 117 civilian leaders.

A new report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which advised the U.S. Administration that the poten- tial benefits of a global ban on nuclear weapons "warrant serious efforts to promote the conditions that would make this work."

The unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its July 8,1996 Advisory Opinion on the legal status of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, that an obligation exists to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.

Resolutions adopted by the U.N. General Assembly and European Parliament calling for negotiations to begin, leading to the conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Recent public opinion polls in the United States and United Kingdom showing 87% support for negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention, and showing 92% in Canada wanting their government to lead such negoti- ations.

Development of technical and politi- cal expertise in monitoring, verifying enforcing of nuclear disarmament.

However, the governments of the Nuclear Weapon States - particularly the U.S., U.K. and France - are not grasping this opportunity.

The Middle Powers Initiative (MPI) is a bold attempt to encourage the NWS leaders to break free from their Cold War mindset and move rapidly to a nuclear weapon-free world - which is now widely considered feasible and overwhelmingly desired. This would be achieved by a new coalition of leaders of countries respected by the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) - especially the U.S. - generating the necessary political momentum and media attention.


The world is at a critical stage. Nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War, more than 30,000 nuclear weapons remain. No new nuclear negotiations are taking place; the Conference on Disarmament is paralyzed. The Russian Duma, fearing NATO expansion, has not ratified START II; START III is stalled because of this. Some Russian military leaders, concerned about Russia's crumbling conventional force structure, are once again talking of nuclear weapons as a vital line of defence for Russia. Even if START II were ratified, there would still be at least 17,000 nuclear weapons remaining in 2007.

With Russia's early warning and nuclear command systems deteriorating from shortage of funds, the possibility that such weapons could be used either by accident, miscalculation or design has, if anything, increased since the end of the Cold War. In January 1995, the world came close to accidental nuclear weapon use when the Russian military detected an unidentified ballistic missile over Norway possibly heading for Russia. For the first time, the Russian "nuclear briefcase" carried by the President was activated as Yeltsin prepared to respond. Disaster was averted by only a few minutes when the missile was reassessed as no threat, as it continued north over the Arctic to observe the Northern Lights. Its identity and research mission had not reached the Russian early warning system. If such an incident were to occur at some future time when relations between the U.S. and Russia are less cordial, disaster might not be averted. In addition, a new U.S. Presidential Decision Directive permits nuclear strikes against non-nuclear States that had used chemical or biological weapons, which again increases the risk of nuclear weapon use.

Reports of smuggling of nuclear materials from an insecure Russian system are growing. General Alexander Lebed, former Secretary of Russia's National Security Council, says that 84 "mini-nukes," in the form of "suitcase" bombs, are missing. Ethnic unrest, terrorist connections and old warheads at risk make a volatile cocktail. Thomas Graham, former head of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, warns that if substantial progress is not made in nuclear disarmament in the next ten years, a terrorist nuclear attack could occur in the U.S.: "The threat is real." On 13 October 1997, the New York Times deplored the "perilous pause on nuclear cuts." Nuclear abolitionists are in a race against time.

Despite the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and signing of the CTBT, the development of new nuclear weapons and delivery systems continues. The Natural Resources Defence Council warns: "The U.S. government clearly intends to maintain under the CTBT, and indeed significantly to enhance, its scientific and technical capabilities for undertaking development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons." Under the designation "Stockpile Stewardship Management Program" (SSMP), the U.S. has begun "sub-critical" nuclear weapon tests to improve their reliability and efficiency. New projects include:

The nuclear weapons laboratory programs are being funded by a dramatic expansion in annual U.S. defence budgets, which, after their initial post-Cold War decline, are now expected to rise by 33%, costing $60 billion over a 13-year period.

Meanwhile, Russia and France are preparing "sub-critical" tests and Britain is believed to be participating in the U.S. SSMP in order to extend the life of its Trident warheads and missiles.

All this activity is clearly against the spirit, if not the letter, of the CTBT, and is undermining the NPT. The world is poised to enter the 21st century in a "Cold Peace" in which the CTBT will remain unratified by some key States and the NPT may unravel. A growing number of non-nuclear NPT signatory States are resentful that the NWS are flouting their obligation under Article VI of the NPT, which is reinforced by the unanimous conclusion of the ICJ in its Advisory Opinion quoted above.

Although they deny this right to others, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council retain nuclear weapons, insisting that nuclear capability is essential for the security of their countries and their allies. NATO states that nuclear forces continue to play an essential role in its strategy. Consistent with this, NATO plans to exclude use of nuclear weapons as a war crime or crime against humanity from the draft Statute of the planned International Criminal Court, while including use of chemical and biological weapons. However, the ICJ, in confirming the general illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, cited their uniquely destructive characteristics. Indeed, it added that nuclear weapons alone "have the potential to destroy all civilization and the entire ecosystem of the planet." In the words of former ICJ President Bedjaoui,nuclear weapons are "the ultimate evil."

For the last two years, an overwhelming majority of States in the U.N. have called for negotiations leading to a Nuclear Weapons Convention to begin immediately. These General Assembly resolutions and statements by the Canberra Commission and former generals, admirals, and civilian leaders go unheeded. Those NWS resisting such negotiations, clinging to their outmoded rationales for nuclear deterrence, fly in the face of massive public support for negotiations as well as the opinion of the highest legal authority in the world. The gravest consequences for humankind lie ahead if the world is to be ruled by militarism represented by nuclear weapons rather than the humanitarian law espoused by the ICJ. Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the peace we seek for the 21st century.


The leaders of the NWS have an opportunity to leave a historic legacy for humanity by removing the greatest threat to the survival of our species: nuclear annihilation. This would pave the way for other achievements in protecting humanity from environmental or social disasters and from future wars and other armed conflict.

by abolishing the most destructive of weapons, the NWS would be providing an admirable example of the use of negotiation and cooperation instead of the threat or use of force. The vast resources devoted to the nuclear weapons programs could be redirected into areas of human need. If the leaders of the NWS succeed in this, they will join the ranks of the greatest statespeople in history.


The most important step for the NWS is to commence negotiations with the clear aim that these will conclude with complete nuclear disarmament in the near future.

However, there are achievable steps that the NWS can take unilaterally, bilaterally, or multilaterally to make the world safer. The most important and immediate of these is to get all the strategic systems of the NWS off the hair-trigger alert status they are still on. For example, the U.S. and Russia remain ready to launch more than 5,000 nuclear weapons at each other within half an hour.

In addition, all the NWS should make a commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons (only China does so at present). NATO has hitherto refused on the grounds that nuclear weapons may be needed to counter an overwhelming conventional attack. Now Russia, fearing its new conventional inferiority (which will be exacerbated by NATO expansion), has abandoned Gorbachev's no-first-use commitment. Yet the ICJ implicitly confirmed that any threat, let alone first use, of strategic nuclear weapons would be illegal.

Other steps which the NWS should take include:

Taking nuclear weapons off deployment.

Removing warheads from missiles and placing them in verifiable storage.

Reaching a binding agreement on negative security assurances.

Achieving deep cuts in stockpiles.

Establishing a registry of nuclear weapons and fissile material.

Placing all fissile material under in- ternational control.

Ending all nuclear weapon research, development, testing, and production.

Article VI of the NPT obliges all States to negotiate nuclear disarmament as well as general and complete disarmament. As the ICJ confirmed, these two elements are not dependent on each other.


Sadly, it often takes a disaster to motivate people to act to remove a threat. No doubt, if a nuclear weapon were used by accident, miscalculation, or design by either a State or terrorist group, the result would be so devastating that all stops would be pulled out to eliminate nuclear weapons. The political momentum must be generated in less disastrous ways. The Middle Powers Initiative could be instrumental in this.

A new coalition of leaders who are respected by the NWS, media and people of the world could propose a practical, realistic plan for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

No one State can move the NWS. With the end of the Cold War, the Middle Powers' moment has come. A focused diplomatic initiative, therefore, is planned to forge a new coalition of key middle-power States with the political will, underpinned by public support, not to be deflected or dismissed by the NWS. The aim is to encourage the NWS to make an unequivocal commitment to complete disarmament.

The coalition will break out of the West/East/non-aligned blocs of the Cold War. It will include States which are influential because of their good track records on disarmament, have access to the NWS, have credibility in other security spheres, and whose leaders can work together.

A precedent for such a collective effort was the "Six-Nation Initiative," started in the early 1980s by Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA). PGA rallied the leaders of India, Mexico, Sweden, Greece, Tanzania and Argentina to press the U.S. and USSR to stop nuclear testing and resume negotiations. This was an important element in demonstrating world support for nuclear disarmament to the two superpowers, and led to the resumption of bilateral negotiations.


On 6 December 1997, the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons authorized their Chairman, former Disarmament Ambassador Douglas Roche, to pursue the MPI. At a meeting in New York in March 1998, an International Steering Committee (ISC) was formed.

The ISC invited the following international NGOs to co-sponsor the MPI: International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW -accepted), the International Peace Bureau (IPB - accepted), the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA - accepted), the International Network of Engineers and Scientists (INES - decision awaited), State of the World Forum (SOWF - accepted), the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF - accepted) and PGA (decision awaited).

The ISC, which may be slightly enlarged, currently includes Douglas Roche (Chair), Colin Archer (Secretary General IPB), Michael Christ (Executive Director IPPNW), Alan Cranston (former U.S. Senator, Chairman SOWF), Kate Dewes (Vice President IPB), Jonathan Granoff (U.N. Representative, Lawyers' Alliance for World Security), Commander Rob Green , Royal Navy Retired (Chair, World Court Project U.K.), David Krieger (President NAPF), Dr Ron McCoy (Canberra Commissioner, Co-President IPPNW), Jennifer Simons (President, The Simons Foundation, Vancouver), Alice Slater (President, Global Resource Action Center for the Environment),and Alyn Ware (Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy).

The following 16 States were selected: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Egypt, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and Ukraine.

The ISC agreed to send a delegation to the capital of each State to brief government representatives at the highest level possible. Once an initial core group of leaders is established, the plan is for one of them to host a high-level conference of leaders of participating States to launch the platform. This would be followed by demarches to the capitals of the NWS to engage in dialogue with their leaders.

The success of the MPI requires:

High-quality briefing material for governments.

Support from a worldwide network of NGOs.

An effective Operations Centre to manage logistics, communications, relations with NGOs and related administration.

Adequate funding.

The ISC has accepted IPPNW's offer to "house" the MPI Operations Centre at IPPNW Headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A two-year Budget has been prepared and approaches are being made to potential funders.


The essence of the MPI is to seek the start of multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. This process allows for intermediate steps such as further U.S./Russian warhead reductions, de-alerting, negative security assurances, no-first-use etc., but places these firmly in a negotiating path to complete nuclear disarmament. Such a framework enables the MPI leaders to discuss a Nucle r Weapons Convention (NWC) as an end goal. This minimizes the risk of outright rejection by the NATO NWS and Russia (China has voted for negotiations to start), the governments of which are unlikely to agree to negotiate a NWC soon, but could be engaged on various issues it covers. These include the possibilities and problems of verification of, and compliance with, the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Such a framework also provides a basis for the hard-line non-aligned States to join negotiations on disarmament steps and possibly sign, and even ratify, the CTBT. This approach stands a good chance of gathering considerable media attention.

Humanity provides our common bond. People cared about landmines: they understood the issue in human terms; the media, awakened by the celebrity intervention of Princess Diana, intensified that concern. The 26,000 deaths and maimings each year from landmines were presented in their full horror, with limbless children appealing directly to political leaders.

The deaths of millions in minutes from the detonation of a single nuclear weapon are much more difficult to register with NWS decision-makers - especially when the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are so remote from them, and can be deflected by Japanese wartime atrocities. That is why the MPI must try to register the casualties from thousands of nuclear tests (especially those from the U.S., Pacific, Australia and Kazakhstan); the nature of nuclear war, including the unique, cumulative effects of radiation on generations to come; the irrational risks of maintaining nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert; and the irresponsibility, immorality and illegality of nuclear deterrence doctrine.


The Middle Powers Initiative will require careful, discreet diplomacy and immense perseverance. The political power of the NATO NWS - and especially that of the U.S. military-industrial complex - is daunting. Russian militarism and paranoia are being revived by NATO expansion. Gigantic vested interests are opposed to nuclear weapons abolition. After 50 years of pro-nuclear propaganda, lawlessness and lies, massive loss of face is another obstacle.

Yet the goal is no longer utopian. There are past campaigns, such as the abolition of slavery, the struggles against apartheid in South Africa and colonialism and for women's suffrage, where the forces opposing seemed overwhelming. The time for a Middle Powers Initiative is now. On the eve of the 21st century and a new millennium, those leaders are invited to seize this opportunity on behalf of all humanity.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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