If you are like most Americans, what you know about Kazakhstan is likely limited to Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen’s politically—and factually—incorrect caricature in his 2006 film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Funny, right? But if you think you can dismiss this land-locked, Central Asian nation as irrelevant to U.S. national security, think again.
A quarter-century ago, Kazakhstan possessed the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, having inherited a large chunk of the defunct USSR’s nuclear missiles and bombers. On April 25, 1995, almost exactly twenty years ago, they surrendered all of it, thanks in no small part to U.S. assistance and security guarantees. Kazakhstan has remained a nuclear weapons-free country ever since.
In fact, all five of Central Asia’s post-Soviet states have ratified the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone treaty (CANWFZ), which prohibits development and possession of nuclear weapons. On April 27, President Obama sent the protocol of the treaty to the Senate to approve. Why should you care?
Even though the U.S. is not a party to the treaty, it can join the CANWFZ protocol and promise not to use nuclear weapons against member states. These types of “negative security assurances” have historically been an easy way for the U.S. to promote its nonproliferation objectives at little cost. These assurances decrease the value of nuclear weapons and reduce incentives for states to get them.
Compared to the bitter partisan debates over the Iran Deal, a pledge not to target our nuclear arsenal on Central Asia seems like a no-brainer for the Senate. It’s also a reminder that while we endlessly debate details of the Iran deal nonproliferation is a global issue that goes beyond Iran. A good part of the globe is already a nuclear free zone; ratifying the CANWFZ protocol would be a fairly easy way to help keep things that way.
Central Asian countries are hardly alone in committing to never develop nuclear weapons—four other regions have already created their own nuclear free weapons zones: the entire continents of South America and Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. These zones comprise approximately 100 countries covering three continents, 800 million people, and nearly the entire Southern Hemisphere.
Critics may argue that such treaties mean little, especially when many of the nations concerned lack the technical infrastructure to even attempt to develop nuclear weapons. While many of these countries do lack technical resources, they don’t lack the necessary natural resources.
Kazakhstan, for instance, is the world’s leading uranium producer, responsible for a whopping 38 per cent of global output. Now, as part of a nuclear weapons free zone, it is subject to the IAEA Additional Protocol, which mandates inspections and safeguards regarding its nuclear facilities and material.
We might not be terribly worried about a Kazakh or Namibian nuclear weapon, but we are worried about their nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorist groups, or being sold to potential proliferators. Thanks to these treaties, those scenarios are much less likely.
Where does the U.S. come into all of this? As Secretary of the State Kerry put it in his address to the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference this week, “the same countries that ushered in the era of nuclear arms have a special responsibility to guide the world beyond it.” A security guarantee is a simple, no-cost way of showing that the U.S. is serious about combating nuclear proliferation, and encouraging other countries to cooperate within the international nonproliferation system. As State Department officials acknowledge, “nuclear weapons free zones provide valuable support to the NPT and the international nuclear nonproliferation regime…we are prepared to do our part using this valuable instrument of NWFZs.”
Unfortunately, the Senate has been slower to do its part. The Obama administration submitted protocols for the African and South Pacific NWFZs for ratification almost exactly four years ago, and both have yet to be approved. Former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., chastised Obama and encouraged his colleagues not to approve either protocol until “the president shows he is serious about stopping the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.”
Today, while the Senate is engaged in elaborate political theater regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, you’re likely to hear such comments again. Iran is certainly important—but it’s also important to remember that Iran is the exception, not the rule. There are 193 countries in the world, and 184 of them do not have nuclear weapons. That number was not automatically guaranteed, and getting to it required American leadership, and delicate diplomacy.
Once the ink on the Iran deal has dried, and international inspectors swarm all over Iran’s nuclear sites, non-proliferation will not simply disappear. U.S. leadership—and swift action in the Senate—is essential going forward.
Or as America’s favorite fake Kazakh would say, this would be big success making benefit for glorious nation. And that’s no joke.