Nuclear non-proliferation’s new challenge
These are disheartening times for arms control. Nuclear weapons are gaining renewed salience in world politics – the great powers are modernizing and in some cases expanding their arsenals — and proliferation remains as intractable a problem as ever. North Korea continues building nuclear weapons and missiles, while Iran has broken free of prior restraints. Indeed, the mullah regime refuses to comply with IAEA requests and denies that it has the obligation to do anything. Moreover, its new president demands the freedom to build missiles while already rebuilding its nuclear program.
However, not everyone behaves irresponsibly. In the 1990s, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons, shipping them to Russia. Kazakhstan’s example offers a ray of light in this gloom. In 1991 then-First Party Secretary and subsequent President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed the infamous Soviet nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk (Semey) and steered the country firmly onto the non-nuclear and anti-proliferation track. Under his leadership, Kazakhstan renounced its Soviet nuclear inheritance of 1,410 warheads and tactical nuclear weapons. Yet its security has never been in doubt. This action, controversial and difficult in the crumbling, security-obsessed Soviet Empire, in fact has allowed Kazakhstan to become a recognized leader in the campaign against weapons of mass destruction and launched its international “brand”.
To be sure, Kazakhstan’s renunciation of these weapons was — and still is — bound up with the pursuit of its security and national interests. After all, world politics is not a competition in altruism. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s example shows that by repudiating nuclear weapons a country can actually enhance its security and international standing.
Kazakhstan’s denuclearization path demonstrated to the international community its responsibilities as a new state actor and has allowed it to take the lead in subsequent non-proliferation and disarmament policies. These include the treaty on a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in Central Asia, which exemplifies the quest for multilateral security solutions in Central Asia.
It also importantly contains a protocol where nuclear weapons states pledge not to use or threaten nuclear weapons against any state members to this treaty, thus insulating Central Asia form nuclear threats even though it is bounded by nuclear-armed Russia, China, India and Pakistan.
The consistent denuclearization drive launched by Nazarbayev has also enhanced other Kazakhstani initiatives aiming to reduce international tensions and advance Kazakhstan’s security. For example, his campaign to create the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), announced by Nazarbayev in 1992 in the U.N. and launched in 1999, has led to a forum embracing 27 state members including both Israel and Iran.
Kazakhstan has also hosted Syrian peace talks through the Astana Process involving Syria’s government and opposition, Russian and Turkish delegations from 2015-19.
As a result of these initiatives, Kazakhstan joined the Lisbon Protocol as a non-nuclear state, earning the respect and the confidence of the great powers. The nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament has become the country’s principal brand which stands in great contrast to those of nuclear outlaws North Korea and Iran, neither of which enjoys more security today than does Kazakhstan. Indeed, if anything, they are palpably more insecure by several orders of magnitude. Economically they are both in dire straits compounded by mismanagement and corruption. But whereas Kazakhstan is a magnet for foreign investment, Iran and North Korea are estranged from the global economy — due to their stubborn efforts to cling to their nuclear weapons programs, oppression and terrorism support.
If anything, the quest for nuclear weapons has arguably diminished the security of Iran and North Korea, revealing a paradox that the possession of nuclear weapons was intended to overcome. If the former states of the U.S.S.R. can achieve lasting security and strong relations with Europe and the United States while disarming, it is possible for any country to follow in their footsteps, including Iran and North Korea.
Therefore, it might behoove the leaders of Iran and North Korea to look more closely at the Kazakhstan model to show what can be achieved by a policy that renounces nuclear weapons and confrontation and opens the country to foreign investment. A major driver of investment flows into Kazakhstan is the confidence investors have in the country’s foreign and domestic policies, an attitude forged first foremost in the crucible of nuclear disarmament.
To mark the cessation of testing, the U.N. declared Aug. 29 the Day Against Nuclear Testing in 2009. The world should remember that date and take its lessons to heart. In 2019 Nazarbayev has launched the Global Alliance of Leaders to promote a nuclear-free world — a tall order in today’s proliferating environment and international tensions.
Kazakhstan does not limit its non-proliferation activities to nukes. In 2020, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, proposed to the UN the creation of the International Agency for Biological Safety, to initiate and ensure safety and control measures relating to biological security and counter biological and biotechnological threats.
The lessons Kazakhstan can teach to current arsenal holders or aspirant states is a critical one: a prudent denuclearization campaign can bring both military and economic security through improved relations with neighbors and partners. While seemingly counter intuitive – especially for and a country surrounded by nuclear weapons states – it is a lesson well worth celebrating in this 30th anniversary year of the original act of renunciation of nukes and the closing of Semipalatinsk.
Stephen J. Blank is an internationally recognized authority on Russian foreign policy matters with over 1,200 published articles and 15 books, including “Russian Nuclear Weapons: Past, Present, and Future.”