Nuclear non-proliferation: on the brink?
I'm in New York for the closing hours of the somewhat inelegantly named Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference. (In UN jargon, it's simply RevCon, and you can see why.)
They have these things every five years - the general idea is to take stock of how adherence to the non-proliferation treaty is going and do whatever tweaking is necessary.
Now, if you're old enough to remember the 1960s and 70s, you will remember when the debate over nuclear disarmament was a very big deal. Ban the Bomb was as potent a marchers' slogan then as Troops Out Of Iraq was in the first decade of the 21st century.
We lived with the threat of nuclear Armageddon. We knew that the US and Soviet Union could blow us all to bits many times over - and at the height of the Cold War, we were taught how to shelter under tables and cover our windows with brown paper if nuclear war looked imminent.
So what happened? Why has this conference passed virtually unnoticed? India and Pakistan have both acquired a nuclear weapons capability since the non-proliferation treaty was signed; so has North Korea, and Israel has had one for decades, even if to this day it refuses to say so.
In theory, what they've been talking about here over the past month or so is how to strengthen the mechanisms which are meant to prevent more nations going nuclear - and, in parallel, hasten the process by which those nations that already are nuclear move towards being un-nuclear.
The conference is due to end today. If the delegates representing 189 governments fail to agree on a final statement, many will interpret that failure as a sign that the non-proliferation treaty is on its last legs. Five years ago, at the last review conference, they did fail - so a failure again today would mean that for a full decade, no discernible progress has been made.
You may think that UN conferences come and go, end in failure, yet somehow the world seems to survive. (Does anyone remember the Copenhagen climate change conference?)
But many senior diplomats think this is a crucial moment. In the Middle East, there are countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, all of which might begin to wonder if the time has come to dip a toe into the nuclear weapons water. Tensions on the Korean peninsula could lead to some serious re-thinking in east Asia as well.
If you heard the programme last night, you'll have heard my interview with Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state to both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1960s and 70s. (It's available via Listen Again -- go to about 37 minutes into the programme -- for the next seven days.) He's one of several eminent elder statesmen who have signed a declaration calling for progress towards a world free of all nuclear weapons.
But he takes a chillingly "real politik" view of the likelihood of that happening. And he more than half accepts the principle that a nuclear balance of terror can, paradoxically, help keep the peace. Ask yourself this: are India and Pakistan more or less likely to go to war - as they have done so often in the past - now that both are nuclear powers?
"There is a substantial element of truth in the balance of terror argument," said Dr Kissinger. "But only when the balance was bi-polar." In other words, when it was just the US and the Soviet Union eye-balling each other, the risk of nuclear Armageddon was manageable. Now, he says, it is much more difficult to keep that risk properly balanced.
I asked him if the reality is that, over the coming years, the world is likely to see more nuclear-armed powers, not fewer. Yes, he said, that is the reality -- unless someone actually uses a nuclear bomb. If that were to happen, it would give an immediate boost to the non-proliferation cause.
We left the rest of that terrible thought unspoken. But as you enter the United Nations headquarters building these days, you see huge photographs of what Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like after the US atom bomb attacks in 1945. Some thoughts don't need to be spoken.
By the time I'm back on air tonight, we may even know whether RevCon 2010 has come up with something worthwhile. At the very least, they're hoping to be able to agree to hold another conference in two years' time to discuss specifically a nuclear-free Middle East. Israel says it can't even begin to talk about that until after a comprehensive regional peace settlement has been agreed.
My guess is it'll take many more conferences.