From Volume 5, Issue 1 - Winter 2010: Spotlight on Development
Jacob H. van Rijn graduated from Leiden University in the Netherlands as a Master of Laws in Public International Law in 2008. Currently, Jacob is a Fulbright student and second-year M.A. student in International Relations at Yale University.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, we’ll retain a strong deterrent. But we’ll make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy.
- President Barack Obama[i]
The quest to abolish all nuclear weapons is more alive than it has been for decades. Of course, ever since the introduction of the atomic bomb in 1945 there have been movements aiming for nuclear disarmament. But today, the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons seems to have penetrated the governing establishments. Last September, for example, President Obama presided over a special nuclear disarmament session of the U.N. Security Council.
This article will analyze and evaluate the quest for nuclear disarmament. First, it will briefly examine disarmament efforts from the Cold War through the present day. Then, after addressing the main motives for nuclear disarmament, the article will explore the “Road to Zero.” At this point it will discuss the required steps toward the vision and the many obstacles, both from a political and a security perspective, which might block this path. These difficulties are seldom addressed by the proponents of disarmament. Although unable to draw definitive conclusions, this article aims to clarify the debate and to focus attention on important questions that cannot remain unanswered.
Disarmament: Old Achievements and New Efforts
The Cold War
During the Cold War, the world witnessed an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union that included the build-up of massive nuclear arsenals. The enormously destructive force of nuclear weapons helped establish a security environment based on deterrence by Mutually Assured Destruction. Deterrence is aptly described by Jonathan Schell as a “half-sane and half-crazy” doctrine.[ii] The sane part consists in matching an opponent’s nuclear threats in order to forestall an attack, while also threatening to wage a nuclear war that would destroy both sides. Thus, “to threaten seems wise, but to act is deranged”.[iii] Both for reasons of prestige and security, other states -- such as France, the United Kingdom and China -- also sought stockpiles of nuclear weapons and soon developed nuclear arsenals. However, as the fear of proliferation spread, the nuclear “club” decided that only they could be the legal possessors of these atomic weapons. Hence, an agreement soon followed, ensuring only the aforementioned original five possessors would have such legal authority. This Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), effective on March 5, 1970 and extended indefinitely on May 11, 1995, contained provisions to prohibit the non-nuclear-weapon states from pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons (Article II) and to safeguard the use of nuclear energy (Article III). These provisions put serious constraints on states that had not already acquired nuclear weapons. These states only agreed to such limitations because they had negotiated a favorable clause, which can be found in Article IV: the non-nuclear-weapon states have an “inalienable right […] to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Another compromise made by the legal possessors was their promise to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament […] under strict and effective international control.” This famous clause, formulated in Article VI, succeeded in convincing many non-nuclear-weapon states to join the pact.
Cold War tensions, however, prevented serious commitments to total disarmament. In a world with so many threats to vital security interests, it seemed foolish for a state to unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, maintaining nuclear weapons also encompassed its own degree of madness by making the crises that did erupt all the more dangerous. In the 1980s, President Reagan became fully aware of this danger. In his 1984 State of the Union address, Reagan stressed the diminutive value of nuclear arsenals in the U.S. - Soviet rivalry: “[t]he only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”[iv] Statements like these rang the alarm bells in European capitals, since European states relied on nuclear deterrence for their defense against the Soviet threat. But Reagan held his position, and in a joint statement with Soviet leader Gorbachev after the Geneva Summit of 1985, both declared that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought. A year later, in Reykjavik, these statesmen finally endorsed the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Old tensions remained, however, and both sides could not reach a substantive agreement. The Europeans would stay safe under the nuclear umbrella which was provided by the Americans.
Renewed Efforts to Disarm
The end of the Cold War in 1991 also marked the end of the first nuclear age, in which the superpower nuclear rivalry dominated international politics. The new age would contain more diffuse threats and have a profoundly different nuclear risk environment. Yet proliferation had already continued during the Cold War, despite efforts to stop it. Three states that had not signed the NPT, Israel, India and Pakistan, decided to “go nuclear” too (although Israel never officially acknowledged this). Today, North Korea has also acquired nuclear weapons, while many believe that Iran is pursuing them.
Although it succeeded in limiting proliferation to only a few countries, the NPT still suffers many setbacks. The problems undermining the legitimacy of this nuclear pact are threefold. First, some states have pursued and acquired nuclear weapons without ever joining the NPT. Second, some states that did indeed join the NPT have acquired the atomic bomb too (North Korea) or might be in the process of developing one (Iran). The third problem is that the original five nuclear-weapon-states are making little real progress toward the goal of disarmament, thereby violating their obligations under international law.[v]
Discontent with the nuclear “club’s” lack of progress, various non-nuclear-weapon states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and citizens joined efforts promoting a renewed focus on nuclear disarmament. For instance, the governments of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden launched a “New Agenda,” which paved the way for the successful 2000 NPT Review Conference.[vi] Due to these renewed efforts, this Review concluded by agreeing on more specific requirements for disarmament than the perhaps deliberately vague requirements contained in the NPT. Such detailed requirements for the nuclear-weapon states were meant to supplement the specific requirements with which non-nuclear-weapon states already had to abide. The highlight was that all parties re-affirmed their unequivocal commitment to the general and complete elimination of all nuclear arsenals. The parties also agreed that arms reduction measures and steps toward disarmaments were irreversible. These agreements seemed to underline the serious commitment on behalf of the legal possessors. However, the United States (and to some extent France) became increasingly aware of the boldness of their agreement and, as a result, displayed significant hesitation at the next Review Conference in 2005.[vii] This led to a failure of consensus on substantive matters; consequently, the parties could not adopt recommendations that should have given further meaning to the obligation to disarm.
There have also been other initiatives to complement the NPT negotiations. Worth mentioning are the International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament (Oslo, February 27, 2008), and the group called “Global Zero.” With many dignitaries, academics, and opinion makers, this group claims there is unprecedented worldwide support for the elimination of nuclear weapons, not only among non-nuclear armed states (e.g. Australia, Japan, Norway and The Netherlands), but also among nuclear-armed states, such as India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and China. Another initiative, on behalf of the former Cold War rivals, is the pursuit of substantial reductions of their huge nuclear arsenals, as envisioned by the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (also known as Moscow Treaty) of May 24, 2002. By the end of 2012, the number of deployed warheads on each side should go down to 1,700-2,200 for each side. Russia and the United States are currently negotiating an arms deal which should consist of concrete new limitations. There are also initiatives by former statesmen, such as when former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, former secretary of defense William J. Perry and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn together launched a public effort in the Wall Street Journal. Focusing attention on the disarmament effort, these politicians stated that “[t]he accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point.”[viii] Since the United States and Russia possess nearly 95% of the world’s nuclear warheads, these nations should bear a special responsibility and obligation to lead the disarmament process. The signatories also underlined the difficulties of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, stating that it is “tempting and easy” to dismiss such a vision as unrealistic. The obstacles are indeed daunting, as we will discover later. But first, we must consider the arguments in favor of total abolition, in order to consider the benefits that would arise from a global disarmament effort.
Motives for Disarmament
Dangerous Further Proliferation
Although less existentially threatened than during the Cold War, the world is still a dangerous place. Power is shifting and the distinctive features of this second nuclear age exacerbate security risks,[ix] which makes the spread of nuclear weapons a destabilizing factor. States have become more secretive about their nuclear weapons programs, which might lead policymakers, and the public in general, to perceive non-proliferation efforts as more successful than they really are. In addition, nationalism in countries like Iran, India and Pakistan may lead to the dangerous situation in which leaders are pressured by their population to use nuclear weapons during a crisis. Moreover, even though development of nuclear weapons is extremely expensive, a nuclear arsenal still forms a relatively cheap defensive mechanism if a state can offset these costs through a smaller military. Finally, many non-nuclear states enjoy a so-called “break-out” option, which means that these states have both the capacity and the knowledge to quickly acquire nuclear weapons should they deem it necessary. The suddenness of such a move can surprise neighboring states and risks ultimately upsetting regional stability. Proliferation to states that possess this “break-out” option is thus almost impossible to prevent if they really are intent on building an atomic arsenal.
One might say that the NPT is now no longer the most suitable mechanism to stop further proliferation. Indeed, the discrimination between the five legal “haves” and the other “have-nots” is largely arbitrary and actually undermines the NPT.[x] Without total disarmament, this dichotomy within the legal regime remains in place. Academics often refer to this legal separation as the “N+1 problem”. Each side has a different perception of nuclear weapons: while the legal possessors believe that further proliferation is destabilizing, the states that want to join the “club” think that possession of the bomb will enhance their deterrent capacity, which, in turn, would have a stabilizing effect. The legal possessors claim that nuclear weapons are vital to their security, but simultaneously dictate that no other state may acquire these vital security assets. Non-proliferation efforts are undermined as long as this dichotomy survives and nuclear-weapon-states do not actively pursue disarmament.[xi]
Furthermore, all states that have nuclear weapons but are currently not party to the NPT (Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea) are located in regions that are prone to crises and instability. If other states in these volatile regions would become nuclear powers, an already fragile order could be further undermined. This could possibly lead to nuclear chain reactions in the Middle East and South Asia.[xii] For instance, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt might want to follow suit to protect themselves against a possible Iranian strike. These reactions would then be part of a vicious cycle of instability. Another risk is the inexperience that new nuclear-weapons states have with regard to their nuclear command and control systems. In a world where nuclear deterrence works perfectly, this should not be a problem. If states act as unitary actors and behave in a rational manner, there should be no difficulty in controlling the use and non-use of nuclear weapons. Yet command and control structures might not be streamlined and lower-level officials could possibly deploy nuclear weapons without proper authorization. In experienced nuclear-weapon states, on the contrary, these processes have often been evaluated and improved. Another type of danger occurs when states, both the old possessors and new ones, act in seemingly irrational ways. The risks states take might lead to a more dangerous environment in which they are themselves less secure, partly because their actions are not as easy to anticipate.
Iran’s supposed desire to acquire a nuclear weapon will be a prime test case for the NPT. Since Iran is breaking safeguard agreements and defies verification, successful proliferation will seriously shake the system.[xiii] The question is whether existing mechanisms, of which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the guardian, will suffice to stop the spread of nuclear weapons in general, and to Iran in specific. Iran is a case in point for the weaknesses of the NPT, since that treaty permits a country to produce highly enriched uranium and plutonium for civilian purposes, although these two elements form the only critical material necessary to produce a nuclear bomb. One can offset the dangers of this dual-use problem only by creating stronger verification mechanisms or by removing the nuclear fuel cycle from risk countries.[xiv]
One may also argue that the United States itself is to blame for further proliferation. Its actions, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, might lead other states to desire the bomb in order to deter a U.S. strike. This desire, if executed, would actually decrease rather than improve American security and freedom of action. After all, future U.S. intervention becomes more problematic in a region where certain states have acquired a nuclear deterrent.[xv] Furthermore, America appears to some states to hold double standards, such as recently closing a civilian nuclear agreement with India, or ignoring Israel’s nuclear arsenal, while trying to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or let it enrich uranium for peaceful means. These double standards exacerbate the already existing tensions between the legal possessors and non-possessors of nuclear weapons.
Another factor hindering non-proliferation efforts is China’s reluctance to cooperate. Although it claims to support total disarmament, China is an unreliable partner in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, as it has not yet internalized the threat posed by further nuclear proliferation.[xvi] This leads to complications during proliferation negotiations with Iran and North Korea.
Dangers of Nuclear Terrorism
The danger of a nuclear attack by terrorists merits some attention. There is a widespread fear that terrorists might one day detonate a nuclear device. The daunting prospect of such an attack poses the greatest nuclear threat, since terrorists desire nuclear weapons for their unique capacity to “inflict instant loss of life on a massive scale,”[xvii] while they may not be as readily deterred as states.[xviii] Some argue that it is fairly uncomplicated for terrorists to assemble and trigger a nuclear weapon.[xix] Fortunately a nuclear act of terrorism is avoidable, but only when there will be a major change of policy.[xx] To be more precise, unless the world community “acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”[xxi] Since obtaining nuclear material is the main barrier to producing a bomb, there are policy steps that can be taken to prevent terrorists from acquiring it. There has been substantial progress in improving nuclear security, but some stockpiles of nuclear material remain “dangerously insecure.”[xxii] The United States has paid enormous sums of money since the end of the Cold War to improve the security of nuclear facilities in Russia; this program, which included the upgrading of storage areas and protective materials, should be extended to improve security worldwide. Another solution is to greatly reduce nuclear stockpiles so that the risk of theft will be diminished (the feasibility of this option will be addressed shortly). Moreover, the illicit trade in nuclear material is a major problem[xxiii] and should be prevented as much as possible. Lastly, as an example of how states use new policy to try to deter other states from assisting terrorists, U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates has recently elaborated on a vision of expanded nuclear deterrence. Any country or group that helps terrorists acquire or use weapons of mass destruction will be held “fully accountable.”[xxiv] States now have a vital interest in preventing any (nuclear) links with terrorists.
A world without nuclear weapons is thus a world without fear of a nuclear terrorist attack and further proliferation. Since the proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorists is the “most immediate and extreme” threat to American security,[xxv] abolition might make the United States - and the world - a safer place. Total disarmament would also lead to an improved global political climate. And there is of course the moral argument against nuclear weapons. A force so destructive that it can kill all life on this planet almost instantly should not be allowed to persist. But a nuclear-free world cannot be realized while the dichotomy between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” persists.[xxvi] The process of disarmament would need to address this inequality.
The Road to Zero
Steps Toward the Vision
Now that the main reasons for total disarmament have been addressed, it is important to consider how a world without nuclear weapons can actually be achieved. The NPT Review Conference of 2000 is one of the first official documents of the second nuclear age that addresses the basic steps that can be taken toward disarmament. Other proposals quickly followed, including those by Global Zero and Kissinger et al. Even though the details of these initiatives may differ, they generally concur on the following basic steps:
- Diminish the role for nuclear weapons in security policies;
- Reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons;
- Russia and the United States should deeply cut their arsenals;
- Create international management of the fuel cycle;
- Further develop verification capabilities and a sound enforcement system that will be necessary to provide assurance of compliance with disarmament;
- Create new legal frameworks for the phased reduction toward, and maintenance of, a nuclear-weapon-free world.
These initiatives also require that conflicts in key regions be resolved, since “unresolved territorial, political, and religious disputes give rise to the desire to gain some strategic advantage by acquiring nuclear weapons.”[xxvii] Most importantly, disarmament will not take place in a climate of non-cooperation and distrust. Trust, transparency, cooperation, and credible American leadership are the building blocks of a world without nuclear weapons. Without these building blocks, there can never be a genuine change in the desire of states to maintain or pursue a nuclear arsenal. Since states can almost always activate their nuclear “break-out option,” and nuclear technology cannot be wished away, non-proliferation and abolition efforts will never work if the necessary change of intent is not addressed.
After all, there are simply too many ways to cheat. Trust and change of intent should therefore be coupled with a strong verification regime, thus bringing the Reagan maxim of “trust but verify” to life. The gradual steps that will be taken, for instance by steeply reducing existing stockpiles or allowing unhindered inspections by the IAEA, may eventually become mutually reinforcing and foster an environment of cooperation. A solid framework leading toward disarmament will, however, never be achieved if the vision of zero is not properly articulated. Without a clear commitment to disarm by the states that are allowed to have nuclear weapons under the NPT, it will be impossible to reach vital cooperation between the legal possessors and the rest of the world. A “renewed grand bargain” will couple the longer-term vision of disarmament with real steps leading there, thereby drawing in states that are not party to the NPT along the road.[xxviii]
Feasibility of Disarmament
As noted before, the call for disarmament has penetrated many government establishments. Because it is governments that eventually decide whether to give up nuclear weapons, this awareness is a prerequisite for disarmament. Of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and the United Kingdom profess to be the most fervent proponents of abolition. Although China has not fully internalized the threat of proliferation, it stands for the “complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons and the conclusion of an international legal instrument for this purpose”.[xxix] Its nuclear arsenal remains relatively small; the Federation of American Scientists estimated that in 2006, China possessed some 150-200 nuclear warheads.[xxx] The United Kingdom has also demonstrated its support for abolition: Gordon Brown, its prime minister, has vowed to make secure global nuclear disarmament a strong foreign policy priority.[xxxi] Yet, until real steps toward disarmament are taken, it is impossible to ascertain whether these are real intentions or just empty words. Perhaps these promises are made for political gain, especially when it is safe to favor total disarmament when this prospect still seems far-off. The British, for instance, are renewing their nuclear forces. Does this contradict commitments to disarmament?
The same doubts are valid for the European Union in general, and France in particular. Even though President Sarkozy of France has stated, in his capacity of President of the European Council, that “Europe wants to play an important role” in the debate on disarmament,[xxxii] it remains doubtful how genuine these promises are. Not long ago, Sarkozy vowed that it was his duty as Head of State to protect France in all circumstances and that “[n]uclear deterrence is the ultimate guarantee of that”.[xxxiii] The French evidently intend to maintain their nuclear forces, and will continue to develop them.
Apart from France, permanent members United States and Russia are most attached to their nuclear arsenals. In a 2008 report on nuclear weapons and national security in the 21st century, the U.S. government does not even mention the word “disarmament”. It does explain, however, that the United States will retain its nuclear forces for two fundamental reasons.[xxxiv] One is that, in a dangerous and unpredictable security environment, political intentions and technical surprises can change and emerge overnight. The other is that nuclear weapons remain an essential element in modern strategy. The United States cannot afford to ignore the reality that Russia, China, Pakistan, and India continue to “attach great significance to their nuclear forces and their modernization.”[xxxv] Furthermore, U.S. allies are assured that the nuclear deterrence will serve as the “ultimate guarantor of their security,” thereby obviating any need to develop an own nuclear capacity.[xxxvi] This nuclear umbrella thus helps to limit proliferation.
But without total disarmament by the permanent five, the non-nuclear-weapon states may lose faith in the whole non-proliferation regime. Sufficient attention should be given to the needs of these states since, as Choubey argues, the “stark reality is that nuclear-weapon states are in arrears and have a significant debt to pay.”[xxxvii] As long as the grievances of non-nuclear weapon states are not properly addressed, bargaining might not be a simple quid pro quo. A global and non-discriminatory regime, which encompasses multilateral control over both new and all existing nuclear facilities,[xxxviii] could be the only viable option to bring on board all states. One should not forget, though, that international politics is often shaped by the role of power. It is a consequence of dominance that the nuclear-weapon-states may legally possess these weapons, while preventing others from obtaining the same privileges. This may be hypocritical, but it is understandable in a world where power matters.
Another barrier to disarmament is the problem of enforcement. The IAEA currently lacks the resources, intelligence, and automatic mechanisms to ensure proper verification of non-proliferation.[xxxix] Secrecy and technological difficulties may prevent full scrutiny of nuclear capabilities. A final problem is that nuclear power has become a (mostly) trusted source of alternative energy, and might be relied on even more in the future to secure energy supply and help counter climate change. When nuclear material becomes more widespread for civilian use, there is an accompanied risk that terrorists could easier lay their hands on it, or that states pretend to use material peacefully but secretly develop nuclear weapons.
Nuclear-weapon states will never voluntarily relinquish their arsenals if there are no accompanying changes in broader military relations.[xl] It is necessary that states believe there is no need for nuclear weapons as a deterrent force; only with improved relations will states no longer fear attack or invasion. A state will therefore not give up its nuclear deterrent until it is convinced that this deterrent force is no longer required for its defense. There should thus be major improvements in military and political relations so states lose the desire to possess nuclear weapons. Whether this is a feasible prospect and not merely utopia, is a question that is almost unanswerable. Thus, many factors inhibit going down the road to zero. It is indeed easy to criticize efforts to achieve and maintain total and general disarmament. But the elimination of all nuclear weapons is not an end in itself; rather, it is a means to collective security and cooperation.[xli] As ever more people (and states) become convinced of the need for a nuclear-weapons-free world, this goal gradually becomes more realistic too.
Implications of Zero: A Better Vision Needed?
It is interesting to discover that many abolitionists are only concerned with the steps that are necessary to reach a world with zero nuclear weapons. Few of the disarmament proponents ask the more basic question why we actually want to achieve total disarmament. There are various motives that buttress this quest, such as the immorality of nuclear weapons and the indiscriminate nature of the current system. The main reason, however, is security: people desire a world that is more secure and stable than the world today. But this goal may not necessarily involve nuclear disarmament. Surprisingly, many scholars and advocates just assume that a world without nuclear weapons is inherently a safer world. It is necessary to address the validity of this premise in order to discern whether total disarmament indeed enhances global security.
So what are the implications of “zero”? The nuclear umbrella that is offered by the United States currently guarantees the security of many nations worldwide; removing this safety clause could be destabilizing.[xlii] Without nuclear weapons, the nations of this world can only resort to conventional force to protect themselves; that is, until (un)conventional weapons that are even more deadly than atomic bombs will be developed. One might wonder whether many states would accept a world without nuclear weapons while the United States maintains its superiority in conventional forces and military technology. The system of Conventional Prompt Global Strike, which is currently being developed, ensures precise and prompt destruction of almost any desired target on earth.[xliii] Such a system, if shared with others, could have deterrent value to prevent any threats to states’ vital interests. Then again, as only the United States currently has the capacity to develop this system, it is doubtful that other states would let their nuclear guard down while they are vulnerable to highly effective conventional attacks by the United States.[xliv] If states believe they need a nuclear force to deter such attacks, they will not let the U.S. gain superiority by giving up their nuclear arsenals.
Perhaps disarmament should be coupled with a cap on, or even elimination of, conventional weapons capabilities. When every state has limited conventional capability, there can be no superior position and, hence, no fear of unbalanced military power. This seems like a highly utopian prospect, though, since such drastic steps go even further than nuclear disarmament commitments. Can all states in the world ever agree to collectively limit their entire arsenals? It would result in a world without many weapons at all. In a world order that is organized along the lines of statehood, it seems unlikely that states can ever trust each other to such as extent as to voluntarily limit their military capabilities.
Another complication of “zero” is that conflicts that have become practically “frozen” due to nuclear weapons, such as the one between India and Pakistan, could again turn into old-fashioned conventional wars that would have a devastating impact. Furthermore, when a nation would try to develop nuclear weapons while all other nations abide with the rules of abolishment, the international community has no other option but to respond. Responding is absolutely necessary to maintain faith that no state has nuclear weapons. The only forceful way of responding is by using massive conventional force. Such actions, which will be valid to uphold the new regime, would automatically legitimize the use of force. This consequence is highly controversial and deserves further analysis and debate. Another enforcement problem is that secrecy and bad intent may never be completely erased. Since every state with the required knowledge, technology, and money can exercise its nuclear break-out option whenever it wants to, suspicion between states might never be eradicated. And without complete trust, the foundations underlying total disarmament are blown away.
The problems of force and enforcement also appear in the great-power relationships. While disarmament can only occur in an environment of mutual trust between the nuclear powers of this world, it can never be guaranteed that their relations will remain harmonious after disarmament is achieved. If relations become so bad that states threaten each other’s vital interests, it is in the advantage of every state to again acquire nuclear weapons. After all, that state would have the full monopoly on nuclear force until the others regain their nuclear capacity too; this may offset a possible disadvantage in conventional force. It will be in this competitive rush to nuclear re-armament that the world would become most dangerous and instable. As Glaser puts it, “[d]isarmament’s key benefit would be to make proliferation less likely, but it achieves this primarily by making proliferation more dangerous”.[xlv] Even the most fervent abolitionists acknowledge that these risks might be bigger than the benefits that disarmament would bring.[xlvi]
Nevertheless, Schell, a fervent abolitionist, claims that nuclear monopolies have “invariably proved useless”.[xlvii] As examples he mentions the Suez and Vietnam crises, where the nuclear powers could not use nuclear weapons to their benefits. The problem is, though, that these countries’ vital and supreme interests were never at stake in these periods. If this were the case, the situation would become completely different and nuclear weapons might actually be deployed. Schell goes on to say that the dangers surrounding disarmament “cannot be wholly discounted, but [are] surely exaggerated”.[xlviii] Even though this may be true, states will retain the perception that their security can never be fully guaranteed in a world without nuclear weapons. And precisely because of these perceptions, states will never take the decision to abandon their whole arsenal if this simultaneously undermines their vital security. Instead of moving toward complete disarmament, a better option might then be to retain the right of some states to (temporarily) hold on to a very limited nuclear arsenal in order to prevent any state from acquiring a nuclear monopoly which would threaten to take the world hostage.[xlix] The details of such a plan could be agreed upon through a comprehensive legal mechanism, thereby trying to satisfy most states. This option would, however, prolong the dichotomy between legal possessors and non-possessors. Another option would therefore be to put some nuclear weapons at the disposal of an international security organization. Both these options are difficult to work out in reality. Nevertheless, they would at least negate some of the security problems concerned with total disarmament.
Despite all the problems surrounding disarmament, it is still worth aiming for a framework that could lead to a world without nuclear weapons. Severe cuts in existing nuclear arsenals and better verification and control mechanisms, which are the first steps toward disarmament anyway, would significantly reduce the risks of nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism, or the theft of nuclear material.[l] So, even if the number of zero will never be reached, the measures which are to be taken to get there would already have a dramatic impact on world stability and security.
A world without nuclear weapons may be a safer place. The quest for disarmament does not need to be undermined per se. The problem is, however, that one should take into account the uncertainty that accompanies total abolition. This matter is simply too important to ignore. Can conventional weapons threats ever be deterred without a nuclear capacity? As long as doubt and insecurity remain, it is highly unlikely that states that currently possess nuclear weapons will take the gamble and endanger their own (sense of) vital security. Maybe the benefits of “zero” could be achieved in a world that will not take the whole road toward this goal of complete disarmament, thereby obviating its detrimental consequences. But in such a world, the dichotomy between (legal) possessors and non-possessors will persist and states may want to acquire nuclear weapons, unless nuclear arms are put under international command and control. That presents us with a cruel situation: the world might not get safer with total disarmament, while pursuit of this option might be the only means to convince states to stop further dangerous proliferation. Without a profound restructuring of the global order and governing authority, it might be impossible to solve this problem.
The developments in the coming years will shape the global security environment of the future. President Obama is likely the one to initiate the first serious steps toward disarmament; he has announced to host a Global Nuclear Security Summit in March 2010. Obama has also announced, in a major speech on disarmament last April in Prague, that he seeks practical steps toward disarmament and has declared “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”[li] Furthermore, America’s next nuclear-posture review will be submitted to Congress in December 2009, which is a document proponents of nuclear disarmament anxiously await. The world cannot be fated to live with the growing risk posed by nuclear weapons. In Obama’s words, “human destiny will be what we make of it.”[lii] But whether the world would indeed be better off with total disarmament, remains a question to which the answer is unknown.
- Matthew Sohm served as the lead editor of this article.
[ii] Jonathan Schell, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (2007), New York: Henry Holt and Company, p.61
[iv] Ibid, p.199
[v] Richard Falk & David Krieger (eds.), At the Nuclear Precipe: Catastrophe or Transformation? (2008), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p.7
[vi] 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document” (2000), New York: Volume 1, UN Doc NPT/CONF.2000/28 (Parts I and II)
[vii] Harold Muller, “The Future of Nuclear Weapons in an Interdependent World” (2008), The Washington Quarterly 31(2), pp.63–75, at 70
[viii] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger & Sam Nunn, “Toward a Nuclear-Free World”, Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008, p.A13
[ix] Paul Bracken, “The Structure of the Second Nuclear Age” (2003), Orbis 47(3), pp. 399-413
[x] Nabil Fahmy, “An Assessment of International Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts After 60 Years” (2006), The Nonproliferation Review 13(1), pp.81-87, at 82
[xi] Ibid, p.83; see also George Perkovich & James M. Acton, “Abolishing Nuclear Weapons” (2008), Adelphi Paper 396, London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, p.7
[xii] Committee on Foreign Relations (United States Senate), “Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East” (2008), Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p.vii
[xiii] See Perkovich & Acton, supra note 12, p.38
[xiv] George Perkovich, Jessica T. Matthews, Joseph Cirincione, Rose Gottemoeller & Jon B. Wolfsthal, Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (2005), Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, p.84
[xv] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal & Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats (2002), Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, p.16
[xvi] European Council on Foreign Relations, “Is China a Reliable Partner in Non-Proliferation?” (2008), China Analysis 19, pp.1-9
[xvii] The White House, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (2006), Washington, DC, p.19
[xviii] Cirincione et al, supra note 16, p.16
[xix] Peter D. Zimmerman & Jeffrey G. Lewis, “The Bomb in the Backyard” (2006), Foreign Policy 157, pp.33-39
[xx] Graham T. Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (2004), New York: Henry Holt and Company
[xxi] The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, “World at Risk” (2008), New York: Vintage Books, p.xv
[xxii] Matthew Bunn, Securing the Bomb 2008 (2008), Cambridge and Washington, DC: Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University & Nuclear Threat Initiative, p.v
[xxiv] The New York Times, “Gates Provides Rationale for Expanded Nuclear Deterrence”, October 29, 2008, p.A12
[xxv] The White House (Office of the Press Secretary), Remarks by President Barack Obama in Prague, April 5, 2009; see also The White House, supra note 18, p.19.
[xxvi] Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky, “Nuclear Insecurity – Correcting Washington’s Dangerous Posture” (2007), Foreign Affairs 86(5), pp.109-118; and see Perkovich & Acton, supra note 12, p.10
[xxvii] Joseph Cirincione, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (2007), New York: Columbia University Press, p.155
[xxviii] Report prepared by an independent Commission at the request of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “Reinforcing the Global Nuclear Order for Peace and Prosperity: The Role of the IAEA to 2020 and Beyond” (2008), Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, p.viii
[xxix] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (Department of Arms Control), “Fact Sheet: Nuclear Disarmament and Reduction of Nuclear Weapons”, April 27, 2004, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zzjg/jks/cjjk/2622/t93539.htm
[xxxi] Financial Times, “Global Nuclear Disarmament to be Strong Priority”, June 25, 2007, p.3
[xxxii] The New York Times, “Europeans Seek to Revive Disarmament”, December 9, 2008, p.A17
[xxxiii] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Presentation of Le Terrible in Cherbourg”, March 21, 2008, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=20001&prog=zgp&proj=znpp
[xxxiv] U.S. Departments of Energy & Defense, “National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century” (2008), Washington, DC, p.3. This document was produced before President Obama took office. A clear new policy has not yet been elaborated, despite many public remarks by Obama. A new nuclear posture review will be released shortly, however.
[xxxv] Ibid. p.8
[xxxvi] Ibid. p.23
[xxxvii] Deepti Choubey, “Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?” (2008), Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pp.1&4
[xxxviii] IAEA Director General, supra note 24
[xxxix] Ivo Daalder & Jan Lodal, “The Logic of Zero: Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons” (2008), Foreign Affairs 87(6), pp.80-95; and see generally IAEA Director General, supra note 24.
[xl] Perkovich & Acton, supra note 12, p.25
[xli] See Muller, supra note 8, p.65; see also George Perkovich, “Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: Why the United States Should Lead” (2008), Policy Brief: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/abolishing_nuclear_weapons.pdf
[xlii] The Economist, “Nuclear Disarmament: What to do with a Vision of Zero”, November 15, 2008, pp.73-74
[xliii] Committee on Conventional Prompt Global Strike Capability (National Research Council), “U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike: Issues for 2008 and Beyond” (2008), Washington, DC: The National Academies Press
[xliv] Jozef Goldblat (ed.), Nuclear Disarmament: Obstacles to Banishing the Bomb (2000), London: I.B. Tauris
[xlv] Charles L. Glaser, “The Flawed Case for Nuclear Disarmament” (1998), Survival 40(1), pp.112-128, at 113
[xlvi] Perkovich & Acton, supra note 12, p.110
[xlvii] Schell, supra note 3, p.217
[xlviii] Ibid, p.221
[xlix] Sidney Drell & James Goodby, “The Reality: A Goal of a World without Nuclear Weapons is Essential” (2008), The Washington Quarterly 31(3), pp.23-32, at 29
[l] Glaser, supra note 46, p.118
[li] The White House (Office of the Press Secretary), Remarks by President Barack Obama in Prague, April 5, 2009