The Road To ‘Global Zero’: An Interview With Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan

Originally published here.

Last week, a rather extraordinary summit took place in Paris. Over 200 leaders and experts in the field of nuclear arms control and national security gathered to discuss the threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and a plan to:

…end the nuclear threat once and for all by setting the world on the course to the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev sent statements to the summit; Ellen Tauscher, the US Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, even spoke at the conference, as did UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

This initiative is called “Global Zero”. The list of signatories includes veterans of Reagan-era Cold War arms control negotiations, heads of think tanks, peace activists, former national security advisors, and top military commanders.

So, as you can see, this is a rather serious initiative that is gaining momentum.

No one understands this better than Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, who was a founding member of the Global Zero group in 2008. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview her last week. My questions are in boldface, and her replies follow. I’ve inserted links/references wherever appropriate.

Introduction and Background

How did you get interested in the Global Zero effort, and nuclear disarmament, nuclear elimination in general?

The absurd “duck and cover” under rickety wooden desks in elementary school was the beginning of my awareness of this state of mutually assured destruction, if you will, during the Cold War — that mindset. That existential terror was with me for years. Plus, the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the shame of that, of civilian casualties on such a scale, and such destruction, as well as the environmental catastrophe and dangers posed by these weapons.

I have lived in the Middle East for the past thirty-five years, in a region that has been a crossroads of conflict and tensions, not only during the Cold War, but also through today, with the highest per capita military spending in the world, and the least security and striking lack of human security in terms of (average) 40% poverty, and 40% illiteracy, and the highest unemployment rate in the world.

The issue of weapons, and the extraordinary expenditures, and the lack of security that that generates (in fact, the opposite, the greater insecurity that there is) we feel that on a daily basis, in our region.

So, that has been a motivating factor as well. I’ve added to [my previous interest, anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs], with this initiative of Global Zero, and what appears to be this growing international consensus, among former architects of nuclear programs, in the nuclear states. Both officials and the public in nuclear and non-nuclear states, this growing consensus that we have to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons, or we cannot live in security, and that nuclear weapons are in fact an antiquated notion of security, and a deterrent, or any kind of defense “shield”, if you will, for a state.

So many experts who have worked in this field, almost from the start, really believe this is possible, a very difficult road to follow, but that it is possible. And then my becoming a founding member of Global Zero then was followed after our launch in 2008 in Paris, by these Obama-Medvedev statements that have given hope to, I think, a great many people, this historic commitment to work together for the total elimination [of nuclear weapons].

They’ve been hinting about eventually eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and Russia, things like that.

Exactly. There have been some very interesting discussions, because we have many current and former officials, as I said, of nuclear and non-nuclear states, as part of these discussions, because for the past year the Global Zero has had a commission working on a step-by-step plan for the phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons, if you will, over approximately a twenty year. It could be possible, over a twenty year period. That is not to say that we believe that twenty years will do it, but that it is an action plan that lays out how that could be achieved in twenty years. So it’s provided a very interesting framework for debate and discussion, and tomorrow we’ll come out with a final communique.

Starting on the road to Zero

In your opinion, what do you think the best starting point for “getting to zero” would be? Would it be removing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, or the US ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty as well as the new START treaty? What do you think the best starting point would be?

I certainly believe that the United States and Russia continuing and completing, as they are indicating they will very shortly, the START treaty, is something that would be very important to have behind us, and then to move on to the deep reductions that they again have committed to.

At the same time we believe a multilateral process needs to begin, that will bring all nuclear states onboard, and to begin serious discussions on the various aspects that need to be discussed, which is obviously the phasing of the process, but also verification, enforcement mechanisms, and a range of issues that all the nuclear states need to be discussing. Otherwise, we won’t achieve any kind of effective stemming of the tide of proliferation. This initiative was launched in response to the degree of proliferation that has occurred, and the growing threats of nuclear terrorism.

Including enrichment facilities as well as fissile materials — there’s a proposal for the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty but I’m not sure how far that’s going to get. That’s down the road.

I think there is certainly a consensus that it is extremely important to safeguard and secure the nuclear fuel cycle. Now, how, exactly, there are are different opinions out there, but even President Obama made an issue of that, as one of the priorities for the Nuclear Security Summit in April.

He also set the goal of securing the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials in four years. I hope that can be achieved. I think that’s an excellent priority, because that’s certainly, to a great extent, what is motivating so many to believe that even if you achieve the security of vulnerable materials, unless we move to a total elimination, there is always going to be the possibility of loose materials.

I was representing Global Zero at the UN Security Council meeting in September, and Mohammed ElBaradei, in his presentation, said there had been two hundred cases of missing nuclear materials in the previous year alone. At that time, we were operating on the assumption that there had been about twenty-five cases, but that is a situation that unless we work for elimination, and for a global treaty in which all nuclear and non-nuclear states have developed the confidence and trust in the process, those instances are one day going to lead to something as catastrophic as the Haiti earthquake, or ten or fifteen times that, in a major city.

Challenges and hope on the road to Zero

What do you think is the biggest challenge, or roadblock in the way of nuclear elimination efforts? What’s the biggest problem right now?

There’s emphasis that many of us, if not all, place, no matter what region of the world we come from, on the importance of resolving sources of regional insecurity. Global Zero, from the start, included that as one of the key challenges that needed to be addressed, and not ignored in this kind of process. One really has to look at what ways the resolution of tension and conflicts in different regions can be advanced, because that is going to have an enormous impact on the willingness of states to give up nuclear arsenals that were developed in response, or in competition with, neighbors, and, unfortunately, in all too many states, have become a source of national pride. We have to de-glorify these weapons that really provide no security, and are a source of increasing insecurity, as nuclear materials proliferate more and more widely.

What gives you the most hope for nuclear elimination? What inspires you the most? Certainly, we have regional conflicts, and situations where people want nuclear weapons, but what gives you the most hope for disarmament?

First of all, polling has shown that there is at least 76% on average of public opinion around the world supports the elimination of nuclear weapons. As I mentioned, there is a Russian-American historic commitment to work together, to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons; there was the call of the Chinese president during that UN Security Council meeting, of numerous other government officials, who are now talking about elimination of nuclear weapons. All of this is very encouraging.

We screened a film in the course of our meeting called Countdown to Zero, which I would imagine will be an invaluable educational and advocacy resource in that it’s very straightforward. Our process is non-partisan. It [the film] is non-partisan and a very sober and serious, effective piece of work. So that, on a scale of resources that we have to work with, added to the young people and to the increasing support that we at Global Zero are receiving, and the increasing focus on this issue in numerous fora around the world right now, not just Global Zero, but other initiatives as well, all of that is very encouraging.

I’m working trying to pull together a group of women leaders from around the world, to help harness the power and the potential of civil society, and women, who have served as heads of state and government, or cabinet ministers, defense ministers, security ministers, who are leaders in the field of human rights, peace, environmental arena, and young people as well. There’s been a very positive response to that.

So, this issue is resonating. The more information people have, which is why the film is very important, the more quickly [there is a] response, a sense of activism, wanting to become involved, and contribute to this process toward Zero.

It will be a long, hard, road. No one thinks this will be easy. But there is a Victor Hugo quote, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

Conclusion: hopes for outcome of the Summit

In general, what are your hopes for the outcome of the Global Zero summit? Do you think it will have any effect on the thinking of world leaders? Clearly, they’ve shown an interest. The two leaders who have the most nuclear weapons have made statements, but what are your hopes for the final outcome, a take-home message for world leaders from the Global Zero summit?

We’ve had, as you said, statements from the President of the United States, from the President of Russia, from the UN Secretary General, I think we’ll have at least another head of state message tomorrow. We’ve had French officials speaking here as well.

I think that this is a process that is underway. The Global Zero organization is uniquely multifaceted. We are public outreach and education, and the policy analysis I referred to, that has developed a twenty year end-to-end plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons, our action plan, and our high-level political outreach. So the members of Global Zero are operating on all those levels simultaneously. And we’re getting very good feedback, because the members of the commission, and other senior members, of Global Zero, have been in this field for a long time. They have enormous credibility.

So we’re trying to support those leaders who are committed, and need support, both on the expert level, but also on the grassroots level in terms of public opinion. We are, of course trying to mobilize public opinion and activism in those states where the political leaders have either not come out with a position, or need public support to help in the process of, as I said, de-glorifying these weapons which were held up as status symbols for so many states…

…Through the education process, [we hope] to help people to become aware of the fact that these weapons no longer provide real security to anyone, only a threat.

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