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Deconstructing Disarmament

Deconstructing Disarmament

By Sharan Banerjee

Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

The debate on Nuclear Disarmament in the 21st Century International polity essentially boils down to a debate between Realism and Idealism within the ambit of International Relations Theory. The scope of Nuclear Disarmament has created several rifts in twentieth and twenty-first century bilateral and multilateral relations and remains one of the most important milestones that is yet to be achieved in the foreseeable future, on the trail for absolute global peace. In building a case against Disarmament, I hold no bias for or against the entire process and I shall act only as an interlocutor who aims to bring the practicalities impeding the process to the table.

The subject of Nuclear Disarmament has created a conflict-zone between the interests of activists, social luminaries and key policymakers from across the globe. While many have continued, with greatly enthused rhetoric about why disarmament now remains “a fool’s dream”, a new school of thought has emerged in the last decade which has laid emphasis to the claims of complete disarmament being logical as well as a distinct and achievable possibility. To begin the debate I draw your attention to excerpts from an article published in January 2007 by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn in the Wall Street Journal, where they idealistically give support to the call for a policy complete disarmament, while recognizing the realist impediments to doing the same.

Nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War because they were a means of deterrence. The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states.”

When we consider a realist approach to International Relations and International Politics, we give emphasis to the more competitive and conflicting side of International Politics, as opposed to the more cooperative angle of inter-state relations espoused in the theories of Idealism. Considering the dynamics of International Politics, with regards to nuclear policies, the debate between Realism and Idealism in this sphere of the Global Polity has reached its tipping point. I term it as a tipping point because of the developments that have taken place recently with regard to the establishment of “Global Zero”, a ‘citizens’ campaign’ movement aimed to rid the World of nuclear weapons by the year 2030. Its aims are built on the earlier work, most famously the 1996 report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

At the other end of the spectrum we had the Nuclear Security Summit at Washington during April 2010, which was productive in the spheres of curbing the risks of nuclear thefts, accidents and terrorism. For instance, Mexico agreed in the summit to convert a research reactor from Highly Enriched Uranium to lower enriched Uranium. Hence what we see here is just a very brief expression of the conflicting interests of two key stakeholders in the Nuclear Disarmament debate, the civil society-which advocates complete disarmament- and policymakers-who advocate measures to increase nuclear safety, a rather minor alteration of status quo.

As Barack Obama begins to realize, the real motivation for the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons is neither utopian nor futuristic. It is not simply to deny extremist countries the excuse of getting the bomb because others already have it. Rather, the motivation is to put significant pressure— more so than is possible today—on rogue countries if they pursue such weapons anyway. With leaders in Teheran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere bent on obtaining nuclear weapons, and charging U.S. policymakers with double standards in their insistence that the United States can have the bomb but they cannot, the president’s ability to galvanize a global coalition to pressure Iran and North Korea (and perhaps others) into walking back their weapons programs may depend on regaining the moral high ground.

If Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Taiwan interpret the U.S. debate over nuclear disarmament to imply that they can no longer rely on the United States as a dependable strategic partner (a formal ally in the cases of Turkey and Japan, an informal but still trusted friend in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Taiwan)—because it no longer takes deterrence as seriously as before— serious consequences could result.

Eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth has technically been a goal of U.S. policy since the 1960s, for example. Moreover, the slowness of negotiating the recent New START Treaty Moscow and the likely slow ratification debates over both it and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the coming years suggests the possibility that nuclear debates will bog down in technicalities and practicalities, losing sight of the big picture.

The desire to eliminate such weapons forever is understandable, given their incredible destructive power; most plausible uses of nuclear weapons would in fact be inhumane and illegitimate. But it is war itself that is most inhumane, and war targeting civilians through whatever means is the fundamental moral blight we should be trying to eliminate. Certain forms of highly lethal biological weapons attack with advanced pathogens, large-scale conventional conflict resembling the world wars, and wars that include genocide could be every bit as inhumane as a nuclear attack. Outlawing nuclear weapons in a way that increases the prospects of other types of immoral warfare would be no accomplishment at all.

Therefore, even as the international community strives to dismantle nuclear weapons, it needs practical options for rebuilding them should other perils present themselves—not only suspected pursuit of nuclear arms by a country bent on violating the accord but perhaps also the development of advanced biological pathogens (a threat the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture review considers) or an especially threatening conventional military build-up by a future extremist state. That is the broad, strategic argument in favour of preserving options for reconstitution; even after a nuclear disarmament treaty is signed and implemented, thus defeating the case and motivation for Complete Nuclear Disarmament.

The case for the fallacies of a Disarmament approach needs to be considered from the point of view of deterrence, technology, regional conflicts and future nuclear crises.

One of the most widely known Hobbesian concepts is that of the anarchic state of nature, seen as entailing a state of war—and “such a war as is of every man against every man” (XII 8). He derives his notion of the state of war from his views of both human nature and the condition in which individuals exist. Since in the state of nature there is no government and everyone enjoys equal status, every individual has a right to everything; that is, there are no constraints on an individual’s behaviour. Anyone may at any time use force, and all must constantly be ready to counter such force with force. Hence, driven by acquisitiveness, having no moral restraints, and motivated to compete for scarce goods, individuals are apt to “invade” one another for gain. Being suspicious of one another and driven by fear, they are also likely to engage in pre-emptive actions and invade one another to ensure their own safety. Finally, individuals are also driven by pride and a desire for glory. Whether for gain, safety, or reputation, power-seeking individuals will thus “endeavour to destroy or subdue one another” (XIII 3). In such uncertain conditions where everyone is a potential aggressor, making war on others is a more advantageous strategy than peaceable behaviour, and one needs to learn that domination over others is necessary for one’s own continued survival. If today we draw a parallel between the Global Polity and the Hobbesian State of Anarchy, we find a lot of similarities between the two considering the virtual absence of a Global Government and a restless struggle for power, where we may often see states abandon ethical value judgements and cite National Security and other “reasons of state” to pursue a nuclear weapons programme.


Overwhelming conventional military superiority can suffice, they say—even if an adversary might itself have chemical or biological arms or a secret nuclear bomb program. But this argument is facile Conventional military dominance is harder to attain, and sustain, than many acknowledge; in many cases translating that dominance into rapid and decisive victories can be equally difficult. In the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is impossible to know just how willing Americans will be to use force to defend far-away allies—especially if adversaries might use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction.

Some also hope that missile defenses may improve enough that offensive nuclear weapons will fade in significance, and defences become dominant, in many key regions of the world. Yes, missile defense can lower the odds of successful attack, especially by lesser powers with small missile arsenals of limited sophistication. But a reliable missile defense against advanced threats has yet to be built. If the day ever arrives when such a defense is possible, it will be far into the future. Currently, missile defenses would do very well to intercept a few warheads launched without advanced countermeasures from a predictable location. Larger attacks, surprise attacks, and sophisticated attacks will probably be capable of punching through available defences for a very long time to come.

Operation Desert Storm in 1991 provides a recent and relevant case on the potential role of nuclear weapons in the current international system. Some attributed Saddam’s restraint in employing chemical or even biological weapons against the U.S.-led coalition to fear of a nuclear response by Washington. Iraq’s foreign minister at the time, Tariq Aziz, and the head of military intelligence, General Wafic Al Sammarai, are both on record stating that they believed American nuclear retaliation was likely against any Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Scott Sagan and others have argued however, that the fear of a conventional operation to overthrow the Iraqi regime might have affected Saddam’s calculations even more than worry about a possible American nuclear strike.

However, it is difficult to argue in the twenty-first century that nuclear deterrence will never again be relevant to deterring conventional war. if, in a future decade or century, a hostile country or group of countries builds threatening nonnuclear forces and plans on using them, in a manner evocative of World War II both in the destructiveness of the attacks and the ambitions of the aggressors, why should other countries not have the option of developing nuclear weapons in response? Even more to the point, it is simply not plausible that a treaty written anytime soon would make status-quo powers feel prohibited from building nuclear arms in such a threatening situation.

This generation cannot be so clairvoyant, or so restrictive, about the future options and actions of its progeny. Whatever the verdict about whether the threat of nuclear or conventional weapons weighed more in Saddam’s decision making, for example, there is little reason to assume that the architecture of the international system today is permanent or that the relative rankings of power among the world’s major nations are likely to endure.

Several reasons suggest that things will change. First, China is clearly bent on catching up—at least in some areas—with the United States and with key American allies such as Japan. This is particularly true of conventional military forces, it would appear. In addition, China is modernizing its nuclear weapons program, and even if the main purpose is to preserve a survivable second strike force as officials and scholars generally claim, the result of this build up will be a more advanced arsenal. Second, the United States may not be able to sustain its large defense budgets indefinitely; the very dominance that so reassures nuclear abolitionists is seen as a provocative and wasteful level of spending by many. With U.S. budget deficits so high, the argument that a strong national defense requires a strong economy may lead to downward pressure on U.S. defense spending in future years.

Moreover, defense spending levels do not determine combat outcomes. Spending more on defense gives the United States certain real advantages in war fighting and deterrence, but it hardly ensures victory in every war or stability through every period of international crisis. Even today the United States could lose wars; certainly, Americans could determine as a nation that the cost of victory is too high for certain conflicts that, although winnable in theory, would be very difficult for the United States and its close allies to handle in practice. Indeed, after overwhelming initial victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has struggled mightily in both places against determined insurgent forces. Each of those forces probably had an effective budget of less than $1 billion a year, or perhaps 500 to 1,000 times less than that of the United States. Each of those opposition movements was far smaller even in manpower than the U.S. coalition forces aligned against it. Yet each almost won, and, as of this writing, the Afghanistan and Iraqi opposition may yet prevail. One wonders what would happen, in a war against a nation state of 100 million or 200 million people, able to employ a combination of conventional military forces, irregular methods, and perhaps weapons of mass destruction against nearby enemies and any foreign invading and occupying forces. War depends greatly on hard-to-quantify variables, such as the quality of leadership, the effectiveness of any surprise, and the performance of new weapons systems or military operational concepts not previously tested in battle (and hence not well understood in advance of combat). Success on the battlefield is certainly not just about money or respective levels of defense investment and technology. According to historical data, even if one country or alliance is clearly stronger than another, as indicated by various military metrics such as overall manpower or combat equipment inventories, high-confidence predictions about which side will win a given war are very hard to make.

The tyranny of distance introduces an added challenge in predicting the outcomes of war. Potential enemies need not give fair notice of intention to attack U.S. allies, of course. They can try to act fast, before American reinforcements can arrive and while local military balances still favor them, and hope to pull off a fait accompli that the U.S. government and American public will decide not to challenge given the likely pain and cost of doing so. The difficulty, and slow pace, of deploying large numbers of military forces halfway around the world must be remembered in this context. Despite the hopes of military revolutionaries and proponents of a transformation in the ways of war, modern military forces remain large and heavy—and thus difficult to move. The fact that military transportation is difficult should be obvious from the broad numbers—preparing for a major war overseas may not involve building skyscrapers or schools or factories, but it can require relocating most other elements of the equivalent of a midsize city like Washington, D.C.

When long-distance deployments take time to prepare, and when casualties are likely to be large, marshalling American political will to respond to aggression can be difficult. The prospect of high casualties remains a deterrent to American involvement in conflicts that are seen as wars of choice rather than wars of necessity. And war often entails the prospect of significant losses. Even when ultimate outcomes in wars can be fairly confidently predicted, costs and casualties often cannot. For example, estimates of likely American losses before Operation Desert Storm ranged into the tens of thousands—including from the Pentagon’s own models. Actual fatalities from all causes were less than 500. By contrast, estimates of U.S. losses in the invasion of Iraq were often in the range of hundreds—but now, nearly a decade later, the United States has lost some 5,000 there. Few predicted substantial losses in Afghanistan—where the number of American dead now number more than 1,000—especially after the initial overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 went so quickly and relatively easily. The notion that a U.S.-led posse of democratic states can be expected to keep the international peace against any and all acts of aggression, or even classic interstate aggression, with conventional forces alone is highly optimistic. It is not a sound assumption on which to base a future world without nuclear weapons.


Nuclear arms control agreements to date have limited large objects, such as intercontinental ballistic missile silos and heavy bombers; the agreements have indirectly constrained missile warheads, air-launched cruise missiles, and the like by counting the launchers that carry them. The world today is full of additional bombs, a great deal of additional bomb material, and nuclear waste and energy facilities in dozens of countries that contain materials that could be diverted to weapons purposes. Sometimes the country holding relevant material does not know the exact amounts in its possession. Nuclear weapons, and the key materials inside of them, are hard to detect. This simple truth about the nature of verification challenges any global zero regime. This fact is not just a reflection of the current state of technology, or an indictment of current worthwhile institutions and efforts designed to impede proliferation such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Proliferation Security Initiative, UN Security Council Resolution 1540 requiring states to improve nuclear safety measures including export controls, and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group export control regime. It is rather a basic reality deriving from the laws of physics—and more specifically the very limited radioactive signatures emitted by fissile materials—together with the possibility that even these weak signals might be reduced much further through shielding.

With a nuclear disarmament regime, the situation could be very different. If one side truly disarmed, even a small number of warheads in the hands of another country could have enormous military implications. The significance of these implications would depend in part on the state of air and missile defences as well as homeland security capabilities of other countries; to have a truly potent threat, the aggressor would likely need to be able to deliver its weapons against others with some degree of confidence. But if the country in question did have some means of credibly threatening successful delivery, the situation would be stark. Being able to destroy even a small number of cities in other places would give the country a potentially decisive war-fighting advantage. Given the realities of basic physics, it is difficult to see how any nuclear disarmament regime could truly ensure that illicit fissile materials or actual bombs did not exist and were not being built. For example, Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz was revealed by dissident groups—human intelligence, in 2002—not by satellite or other remote means. The kind of electromagnetic isotope separation (“calutron”) technology used by Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s, inefficient and small-scale as it is, is nonetheless capable of enriching uranium and hard to detect as well. Even if detection improves in coming decades through technologies such as muon radiography, finding nuclear facilities deep within a country’s territory, where facilities could be tens of kilometres away from even low-altitude orbiting satellites will remain very difficult.

A study group known as the International Panel on Fissile Materials put it well, in summarizing the challenges posed by the nuclear energy industry:

“If countries are allowed to separate plutonium from spent power-reactor fuel—as it is done today in France, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom—they could use this plutonium to make nuclear weapons within weeks. Countries with large national enrichment plants could similarly quickly begin to make large quantities of HEU [highly enriched uranium] for weapons. . . . The breakout times would be longer in a world without reprocessing and where states lacked national enrichment plants. But a state with nuclear reactors still could build a “quick and dirty” reprocessing plant and recover plutonium from spent power reactor fuel within six months to a year.”


Biological pathogens are another complicating matter. If a modified form of smallpox, perhaps genetically joined with a very contagious influenza-like organism, could be developed and then employed against populations, millions could die. The attacking country, knowing more about the properties of the pathogen it had developed than anyone else, might be able to inoculate its own citizens against the disease in advance. Perhaps even more plausibly, it might claim it had such an antidote and then threaten to unleash the biological agent on other countries if they did not accede to its demands of one type or another. How could such attacks—or perhaps other types of mass casualty attacks that currently cannot be foreseen—be deterred absent nuclear weapons? A conventional response requiring many months of preparation and combat could be tough to execute if many of the soldiers of the retaliating country were falling ill from a disease that their doctors were powerless to prevent or to cure.

While the notion of biological weapons conjures up horrible images of incurable and fatal diseases that create slow, painful death, their actual use to date has been so restricted that the perceived potency of the threat has diminished in the eyes of many. In addition, given their typically slow incubation times, and indiscriminate effects, they often have been seen, rightly, as instruments of terror rather than of purposeful state violence. That does not mean the world can safely forget about biological weapons, but it arguably does refute the notion that nuclear weapons would be an appropriate deterrent to their use against the United States or its friends and allies.

The United States has at times recognized this reality. It has publicly committed not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states (unless the latter are allied with nuclear powers in wartime operations). It did that, for example, during the 1995 review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yet the policy has not been consistent. Even while making such commitments at various points in the nuclear era, the United States has also wanted to retain nuclear weapons as an explicit deterrent against other, nonnuclear forms of weapons of mass destruction as a matter of targeting policy and nuclear weapons doctrine.

Biological weapons could become much more potent or be dispersed far more efficiently than has been the case. Biological knowledge certainly is advancing fast. Microbiological research often takes place in small facilities that are hard if not impossible to identify through remote sensing. Various inspection regimes, export control regimes, and enhanced biological safety regimes have been proposed to reduce the risks of pathogens being developed by irresponsible actors. But the rigor of on-site inspections has to be balanced with companies’ legitimate interests in protecting industrial secrets if and when they develop a new commercial product, adding to the challenge. And no inspection regime can confidently thwart the actions of a sophisticated state actor bent on developing advanced pathogens secretly; the technologies are becoming too ubiquitous, and the possibility of hiding illicit activities is too great. For such reasons, it is eminently possible that a future aggressor state could secretly develop an advanced “bug” and also might simultaneously develop a vaccine or new antibiotic to protect its own people against the new disease.

What if a state thought a biological attack by an aggressor imminent? Or what if it had already suffered one such attack, and others, against additional parts of the country, seemed possible. Would there really be no potential value, and no moral justifiability, in a nuclear threat against the belligerent state warning that any future use of biological attacks against the people of the state or their allies might produce a nuclear response.

In his classic book on just and unjust war, Michael Walzer asserts that “nuclear war is and will remain morally unacceptable, and there is no case for its rehabilitation.” He also argues that “nuclear weapons explode the theory of just war. They are the first of mankind’s technological innovations that are simply not encompassable within the familiar moral world.” This would seem to argue (since biological weapons of certain types predated nuclear technologies) that in fact nuclear threats could never be justifiable against a biological attack. However, the logic of Walzer’s overall case against nuclear weapons is based explicitly on their indiscriminate and extreme effects—characteristics that advanced biological pathogens, which did not truly exist when he wrote these words, would share. To be sure, the entire concept of nuclear deterrence is one of questionable morality—and Walzer is right to demand that an alternative be sought as quickly as possible. That said, it is hard to argue that nuclear deterrence of an adversary’s possible use of nuclear weapons is any less moral or justifiable than nuclear deterrence of an adversary’s possible dissemination of an advanced pathogen that could kill millions.

Indeed, a nuclear response to such a biological attack might possibly be done in a more humane way than the biological attack— if that was desired in a given situation. Nuclear responses might target military bases and command headquarters, for example, avoiding populated areas except where those leaders most directly responsible for the initial aggression were being targeted. To be sure, civilians would also be killed in such a nuclear attack; this reality cannot be denied. But in proportionate terms, a nuclear retaliatory blow could well cause fewer casualties among innocent civilian populations than would a biological pathogen.

No nuclear disarmament regime should inadvertently encourage the proliferation of biological weapons; any such regime needs to follow the Hippocratic oath of first doing no harm. It is thus important not to risk sending a message that a state producing a superbug, as well as a vaccine to protect its own people from that bug, could find itself with a war-winning strategy and escape many types of retaliation in the process. The international community need not be explicit about exactly when it would respond in this way. By the same token, however, the international community should not give sanctuary to such a proliferator. A nuclear disarmament regime must be designed to anticipate such superbug scenarios and have mechanisms for responding to them. It should deter the development and possible use of advanced biological agents in the first place, while reassuring nonnuclear allies that they need not develop their own nuclear arsenals to address such a contingency.


Perhaps the task of extended deterrence, towards potential nuclear states and assurance to allies on the part of the United States is easier considering that the Soviet Union no longer exits. However this expanding umbrella of deterrence being catered out to the allies may just make the Russian Federation motivated to increase the scale of its nuclear arsenal, which shall only complicate the process of disarmament considering the lack of support from other global powers. Let us just take one example in this regard. Is Japan really confident that it will not need Nuclear Weapons to deter a rising China? If Japan succeeds in getting a Nuclear Weapon what will be the policy of South Korea, which will then be surrounded by four nuclear powers. Worst of all, perhaps, will Taiwan really believe that an already-indirect American security pledge is reliable enough that it can forgo a nuclear capability of its own? Since China has in the past declared that Taiwanese pursuit of nuclear weapons would be grounds for war, this scenario is very troublesome.

The situation is also very difficult in the Middle East. To be sure, Iran is attempting to justify its own nuclear programs by exploiting the alleged hypocrisy of the NPT regime and the established nuclear powers. Depriving Teheran of this excuse for its nuclear ambitions would seem to argue in favour of a nuclear abolition treaty. Rather, their commercial interests in Iran, or their inherent belief in positive diplomacy as a tool for improving other states’ behaviour, or even a desire to frustrate the United States seem to be more important factors limiting their willingness to get tough with the Iranian regime. The world’s acute need for Iran’s oil further compounds the problem. It is not clear that the double standards of the NPT are the core of the problem. Iran has made direct and grave threats against Israel in recent years. It has also thrown its weight around quite a bit in the region, in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf, to the point of threatening the stability of ruling regimes. Under such circumstances, American steps toward nuclear disarmament could produce undesired dynamics. Countries like Saudi Arabia that do not have formal security alliances with the United States could be extremely skittish about facing an Iranian nuclear capability without their own deterrent, should Washington join other key capitals in moving toward a nuclear-free world.

The cornerstone to achieving a major breakthrough in global peace shall be the resolution of major regional conflicts such as those Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, and North-South Korea. In all these cases the political dynamics have had the nuclear angle instated into them. Having watched Pakistan and India demonstrate their nuclear arsenals in the 1990s, North Korea do so the following decade, and Iran continue on its march toward a likely weapons capability, they are concerned that the process will not stop. Should it continue much longer, the norm against proliferation will weaken, and other countries that have been dissuaded in the past from getting the bomb may reconsider their options. If the sense develops that “everyone else is doing it” and that the penalties for building a bomb are modest in scale and scope, a snowballing process could begin. Moreover, the international community’s current ability to stem this kind of tide is compromised by the existing nuclear arsenals of the major powers, which put them in an inherently inconsistent position when they argue against the pursuit of nuclear weapons by other states.

Regional nuclear proliferation could actually accelerate under the wrong approach to nuclear disarmament. Countries that now feel protected as a result of American extended deterrence could well begin to worry that the deterrent would weaken as the United States pursued the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Perhaps the United States would no longer be seen as willing to respond with nuclear forces, if necessary, to an attack on its friends or allies abroad. And if it was not willing to respond with nuclear forces, even under extreme circumstances, the question would arise whether the United States would be willing to come to allies’ defense with conventional forces alone. Conventional forces are time-consuming to mobilize and deploy, and their use often leads to protracted and bloody wars. Relying entirely on conventional capabilities may therefore not be as credible as current security arrangements. In such circumstances, allies would have powerful incentives to develop nuclear weapons of their own—even before a nuclear disarmament treaty was implemented and in fact possibly before it was even signed.

The countries most likely to consider pursuing their own nuclear arsenals should the American deterrent seem to weaken might include Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps one or more smaller Gulf states, largely because of the perceived threat from Iran; Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, mostly in light of their worries about China; and various neighbors of Russia. Similar pressures could arise in other parts of the world such as South America, where acquisition of the bomb by one major regional country could impel others to do the same. These American allies might worry that even as the United States and countries such as France and the United Kingdom got serious about giving up their arms, regional adversaries would find a way to circumvent any treaty restrictions.

An East Asian power might decide that, absent an American nuclear umbrella, it could no longer tolerate threats to its security from China’s conventional military and should build its own bombs. Taiwan in particular might feel this way, given China’s claims on the island and the lack of a formal security treaty between Taipei and Washington, but Japan and the Republic of Korea might reach such a conclusion as well. China has taken some steps to mitigate tensions in areas such as the South China Sea and East China Sea, and otherwise tried to reassure neighbouring states about its intentions—although it has also taken some provocative actions, and its overall rise surely creates anxieties in a number of places in the region. Upsetting the current state of affairs that has helped keep the peace in East Asia for decades is a risky proposition and needs to be carefully considered. Simple minded pursuit of nuclear disarmament in such a situation may do more harm than good—even to the immediate non-proliferation agenda, if it makes leaders in Taipei or Seoul or Tokyo decide they better get the bomb just in case. Perhaps nuclear deterrence has been only a minor factor in preserving peace in the past; the issue is arguable. But policymakers need to be careful, and gradual, about how they run the experiment to test that proposition. An extended process of continuing to improve great-power relations, address sources of possible tension such as Taiwan, reduce nuclear arsenals, and reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in the security policies of key countries should precede a firm commitment to a nuclear disarmament accord.

Some advocates of nuclear disarmament downplay these kinds of concerns, arguing that they are somehow anachronistic, or not reflective of the true security challenges faced in key parts of the world today. In short, they argue that analysts and policymakers in the countries mentioned above are not worried about threats to their security under a nuclear disarmament regime or related treaty.

Previous attempts by international policymakers to show that history had fundamentally changed, and that the basic nature of interactions among nation-states had forever evolved, have been discredited in past eras. Policymakers must be careful to avoid making similar mistakes today. To be sure, prevailing realities of the international system can change with time; the prevalence of interstate war among great powers has been far less now for decades than its historical norm, and this may reflect a fundamental and durable shift. But to assume with ironclad confidence that it is permanent would be optimistic—and unprovable. Maria Rublee, in her recent study of why many states have not chosen to pursue their own nuclear weapons, balanced the competing arguments and pressures nicely:

“The case studies provided persuasive evidence that we need a multitude of tools to discourage proliferation and encourage nuclear forbearance. Foreign intervention, great power pressure, and export controls hampered Egypt and Libya’s nuclear programs, whereas security guarantees opened up enough policy space for conservatives in Japan, Sweden, and Germany to allow for nuclear abstinence. In short, realist measures made a difference. But in democratic countries, antinuclear peace groups leveraged the emerging international norm to strengthen their own position, making it too costly politically for conservatives to pursue a nuclear option.”

Countries such as Germany, Japan, and Sweden have not needed nuclear weapons, given the strength of U.S.-led security systems in their neighbourhoods, among other factors. Political actors in each state favoured a nuclear weapon, but their motivations were ultimately seen as perhaps too nationalistic, or too autarkic, and the weapons were ultimately judged unnecessary under their specific circumstances. Similar arguments could counter pronuclear weapons movements in other countries as well. But for countries less sure of their security, pursuing a nuclear weapon may seem a more reasonable recourse—and one less easily defeated by international pressure or lobbying.

Beyond these issues—questions of verifiability, deterring advanced biological attack, recognizing the limits of conventional military power, and avoiding undesired regional security dynamics that actually increase proliferation risks in the short term—the goal of global nuclear disarmament faces other major impediments. Notably, several other existing nuclear weapons states can be expected to object to the idea even more strongly than the United States would. Their positions may change over time—after all, countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Libya, South Africa, and Ukraine have abandoned bomb programs or even relinquished nuclear arsenals in the past, when their governments or their basic incentives and national priorities have changed. But right now the challenge is considerable.

Russia is the lead case in point, given its large land mass and long borders to defend, as well as its shaky economy and declining population. It has for years reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict and shows few signs of changing that policy. Israel is another example. Perhaps it would forgo its existing nuclear arsenal if a comprehensive Mideast peace deal combined with verifiable and lasting proof of Iranian nuclear disarmament were achieved. But the challenges are immense. And they do not revolve only around Iranian president Ahmadinejad, who is adamantly opposed to the very existence of the Jewish state and whose attitudes thereby pose a fundamental reason why Israel will continue to worry greatly about its security for many years to come. In addition, in the words of several notable Russian scholars, “the authoritarian nature of the majority of Islamic regimes and the growth of fundamentalism and radicalism in the Greater Middle East would not allow Israel to rely fully on the inviolability of agreements with neighbouring countries, without having some kind of military ‘insurance policy,’ including nuclear weapons.” Indeed, the same authors conclude that even hypothetical U.S. nuclear guarantees and Israeli membership in NATO would not suffice; their best idea “could be the partial dismantling of nuclear warheads and their storage in a non-operationally-ready (separated) state under international oversight, with the understanding that if Israel felt the threat of aggression, it could fairly quickly reassemble its nuclear deterrent.” In any event, Israel is likely to be extremely reluctant to eliminate its nuclear weapons for a very long time to come. In this light, it was probably unfortunate that the most significant initiative of the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York was to call for negotiations on creating a nuclear-free Middle East. There could be some benefits to such talks if they are adroitly handled, such as forcing more regional states effectively to acknowledge Israel. But the prospects for realization of the stated objective of the negotiations would seem mediocre at best.

Even a country like Great Britain has resisted disarmament. When he was prime minister, Tony Blair made an impassioned statement against the idea. In defending his decision to modernize the force, Blair argued that his critics “would need to prove that such a gesture [British unilateral disarmament] would change the minds of hardliners and extremists in countries which are developing these nuclear capabilities. They would need to show that terrorists would be less likely to conspire against us with hostile governments because we had given up our nuclear weapons.” In the end, both Britain and France could well be open to a nuclear disarmament debate under the right circumstances—but a good deal would have to change in their national strategic thinking first.

Sharan is a first year Economics student at Presidency University.

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