The abolishment of nuclear weapons would constitute the complete and multi-lateral disarmament of all current nuclear weapons and material earmarked specifically for their development or production.
Nuclear weapons first dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, forever changed the face of war, and the half-century of Cold War which followed was dominated, above all, by the threat of nuclear destruction. Both superpowers raced to produce a greater arsenal than their opponents, leading to the point where they had the ability to destroy the world several times over. Added to the direct destructive power of the weapons was the consensus growing among scientists from 1970s onwards that a major war would plunge the world into a ‘nuclear winter’, destroying life even in places that had escaped attack. This led to the concept of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, a stalemate in which both sides knew that the use of their weapons would lead to their own destruction as well as their enemies.
The global situation has, however, changed substantially since the end of the Cold War. Nuclear Weapons have ceased to dominate world politics; however, the fear of proliferation – the spread of weapons of mass destruction to many more countries – is also on the rise. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are all now believed to be nuclear powers, and many fear that Iran will soon join them. Proponents focus on the total abolition of the world’s nuclear arsenals as a realistic and necessary goal to aim for. It will take time, as President Obama has recently argued “I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime.” The opposition is more pragmatic, not defending the weapons per se but insisting that they remain a necessary means to a peaceful end.
President Obama has moved the idea of nuclear disarmament up the international agenda. In Prague in 2009 he stated “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Obama followed up with a Nuclear Security Summit which sought to safeguard nuclear materials but did not much advance any attempt to abolish nuclear weapons.
 Obama, Barack, ‘Remarks by President Barack Obama Hradcany Square Prague, Czech Republic’, The White House, 5 April 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivere
 Marcus, Jonathan, ‘Barack Obama’s nuclear summit of small victories’, BBC News, 13 April 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8619015.stm
Nuclear weapons are, by their very nature, indiscriminate and disproportional; any weapon which could not possibly be used in a responsible manner should not be permitted. Over the past fifty years, we have seen a general tendency towards limited warfare and precision weapons, allowing military objectives to be achieved with minimal loss of civilian life. The entire point of nuclear weapons, however, is their massive, indiscriminate destructive power. Their use could kill tens of thousands of civilians directly, and their catastrophic environmental after-effects would harm many more all around the world. These effects could never be morally acceptable, particularly as the basis of one’s national security strategy. They place ‘humanity and most forms of life in jeopardy of annihilation’ (Krieger, 2003). No state or leader can be entrusted, morally, with a power and responsibility that could come close to annihilating humanity.
States have the right to possess any weapon that will materially support their ambitions of survival, regardless of their destructive power. There is no greater principle than that of self-defence, and a state is entitled to develop any means by which it improves its position vis-à-vis an enemy and subsequently promotes peace in the region and internationally. Furthermore, the damage done by a nuclear weapon is no more indiscriminate or disproportional than the damage potentially caused by a prolonged aerial bombardment. In World War II for instance, far more damage was wrought by fire-bombing Tokyo than either of the nuclear attacks. The issue is therefore not whether nuclear weapons should be held, but under which circumstances they are used, or threatened. Either way, they should not be abolished.
By claiming the efficacy of nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent, the current nuclear powers encourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (Krieger, 2003). To be a part of the so-called 'nuclear club' is seen as a matter of great prestige; when India and Pakistan recently declared their nuclear capability and held mutual tests in the 1990s, it was seen in both countries as increasing their international status. Nevertheless, tensions in the region have only increased since the mutual announcements, not least the Kargil War of 1999 that almost precipitated a nuclear war. Nations opposed to a nuclear power therefore feel that they need to develop their own capability in order to protect themselves. The declared nuclear powers must therefore take the lead in disarmament, as an example for the rest of the world.
States seek nuclear weapons not primarily in order to use them, but in order to take advantage of the security they offer. If states existed in a world post-disarmament, the incentives to develop nuclear weapons for reasons of security would not have disappeared, in fact they would have increased as no other state would be able to use their more powerful conventional forces against that state. As Paul Robinson notes, ‘conventional armaments…will remain the backbone of U.S. defence forces, but the inherent threat to escalate to nuclear use can help to prevent conflicts from starting, prevent their escalation, as well as bring (them) to a swift and certain end (Robinson, 2001)’. Such potential advantages will not be lost on states in a nuclear-free world.
While nuclear weapons exist, they can fall into the wrong hands. This is particularly prevalent in an environment whereby there are extremist groups actively seeking to cause instant, egregious harm to their ideological and political enemies. Such groups do not lack for funding; therefore the fear of weapons falling into the wrong hands has never been higher. This is particularly true in Russia, which now has control of all of the nuclear weapons which were distributed around the former Soviet Union. In particular during the 1990s the military was disastrously underfunded; technicians and officers who were used to a high standard of living found themselves without pay, sometimes for years. At the same time, other states and extremist groups are willing to pay substantial sums for their services, and to gain access to nuclear weapons. This same danger is now as much, if not more, of a problem in Pakistan (Ambinder, 2011). The danger of a weapon being stolen, or a nuclear base being taken over by disgruntled members of the military or other extremists, can only be ended by destroying the weapons (Allison, 1997).
The abolishment of nuclear weapons does not reduce the risk of them falling into the wrong hands. While nuclear weapons can be dismantled, the weapons-grade plutonium which forms their warheads cannot simply be destroyed. Instead, they must be stored in special facilities; in Russia, there are some three hundred sites were military nuclear material is stored (National Intelligence Council, 2002). It is producing this plutonium which is in fact the most difficult stage in building a weapon - by dismantling missiles, you are therefore not destroying their most dangerous part, and hence the risk of theft does not decrease. In fact, it may increase: missile silos in Russia are still the most heavily funded part of the military, whereas in recent years it has become clear that security at storage facilities is often inadequate. Moreover, it is far easier to steal a relatively small quantity of plutonium than an entire Intercontinental Ballistic Missile; there were three such incidents in Russia in the 1990s of weapons-grade uranium theft (National Intelligence Council, 2002). Ironically, the safest place for plutonium in present-day Russia may be on top of such a missile.
The disproportionate and indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons use renders their possession illegal under international humanitarian law. The International Court of Justice in 1996, asked to provide an advisory opinion, declared unanimously that any use or threat of nuclear weapons had to be compatible with existing international law relating to armed conflict (International Court of Justice, 1996). The principles of discrimination and proportionality inherent in the laws of wars are codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and are quite clearly violated by nuclear weapons. As such, a majority of the judges present felt that any such use or threat would ‘generally be contrary’ to those rules of international law and therefore, unanimously, ‘there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control’ (International Court of Justice, 1996).
The Count was only asked to provide an advisory opinion; their adjudication had no subsequent basis in law. Anyhow, the very same jury voted unanimously that ‘there is in neither customary nor conventional international law any comprehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons as such’ (International Court of Justice, 1996). Unlike biological and chemical weapons, for which specific treaties have been developed to regulate and prevent their use, the absence of regulation for nuclear weapons implicitly recognizes wide-held appreciation for their deterrent effects
The co-operation of the United States and Russia, demonstrated in their regularly-renewed START treaties, confer the ability of nuclear powers to work towards a reduction in nuclear stockpiles. A new campaigning body, Global Zero, has laid out the path to nuclear abolishment, concerning first bilateral accords to reduce stockpiles in the manner already occurring. From there, they advocate the ‘universal acceptance of a comprehensive verification and enforcement system accompanied by tighter controls on fissile materials produced by civil-nuclear programmes’ (The Economist, 2011). The process will not be swift, but it is plausible and not a stretch considering the success of previous START treaties and the example of the International Atomic Energy Agency as an independent body charged with verifying nuclear installations.
The process is implausible, primarily because whilst the actual weapons can be dismantled, the technology remains and the only effective means to deter the development of a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. Even if this were not the case, such a gradual and incremental process of disarmament does not account for the weapons held by states who have not officially declared their presence, like Israel. Furthermore, though a verification agency may have universal access to nuclear stockpiles, it has little power to enforce states to adhere to treaties, precipitating the scenario whereby one state refuses to give up its final weapon and stalling the process indefinitely. Finally, this process assumes that states wish to see nuclear weapons abolished, rather than the more common assumption that states view nuclear weapons as necessary, not merely to deter other nuclear powers but for traditional deterrence and nuclear blackmail. Would all states willingly give that up?
The use of nuclear weapons would indeed be a great tragedy; but so, to a greater or lesser extent, is any war. The reason for maintaining an effective nuclear arsenal is in fact to prevent war. By making the results of conflict catastrophic, a strategic deterrent discourages conflict. The Cold War was in fact one of the most peaceful times in history, particularly in Europe, largely because of the two superpowers' nuclear deterrents: ‘the principal function of nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack’ (Record, 2004). During the Gulf War, for example, one of the factors which prevented Iraq from launching missiles tipped with chemical weapon warheads against Israel was the threat the USA would retaliate with a nuclear strike. Although there is no longer as formal a threat of retaliation as there was during the Cold War, the very possibility that the use of nuclear weapons by a rogue state could be met a retaliatory strike is too great a threat to ignore. Moreover, although the citizens of the current nuclear powers may be against the use of force against civilians, their opinions would rapidly change if they found weapons of mass destruction being used against them.
The idea of a so-called 'nuclear deterrent' no longer applies – the United States would not be deterred from attacking a newly nuclear Iran because the U.S. would have a first strike capability so would be able to wipe our Iranian nuclear weapons before they could be used. While it is true that political leaders on both sides during the Cold War were terrified of a nuclear conflict it was as much the balance of power that maintained the peace. Neither superpower had an advantage large enough to be confident of victory. However, there is no longer nuclear deterrence. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, some rogue states may develop the ability to strike at enemies who have no nuclear weapons of their own. Unless the country under attack is allied to another nuclear power It is not clear that any of the major nuclear powers would then strike back at the aggressor. This is further complicated by the fact that most of the emerging nuclear threats would not be from legitimate governments but from dictators and terrorist groups. Would it ever be acceptable to kill thousands of civilians for the actions of extremists?
The nuclear genie is out of the bottle, and there is no way to go back. Nuclear technology exists, and there is no way to un-invent it (Robinson, 2001). Much as the ideal of global disarmament is fine, the reality is that it is impossible: it takes only one rogue state to maintain a secret nuclear capability to make the abolition of the major powers' deterrents unworkable. Without the threat of a retaliatory strike, this state could attack others at will.
Similarly, the process by which nuclear weapons are produced cannot easily be differentiated from the nuclear power process; without constant oversight it would be possible for any state with nuclear power to regain nuclear capability if they felt threatened. This is the same as the nuclear ‘breakout’ capability that many states such as Japan have whereby they can create a nuclear bomb in a matter of weeks or days – if a country has nuclear power and the technology they have this capability even when they have disarmed their nuclear weapons.
In 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The treaty, which calls for an end to all nuclear testing, includes provisions for extensive and independent mechanisms for the monitoring of nuclear activities. Such mechanisms could easily be co-opted for use in implementing, monitoring and verifying any future nuclear disarmament process.
"The de facto global nuclear test moratorium and CTBT’s entry into force are crucial barriers to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states and are essential to the future viability of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). They are the first two of the 13 practical steps for systematic and progressive nuclear disarmament that were unanimously adopted in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference (Kimball, 2005).” Even if countries could rapidly produce a bomb without any testing they would not be able to see if it works and any state engaged in breakout would take time to make their bomb deployable on delivery vehicles.
Nuclear weapons have a restraining effect on warfare, preventing escalation through fear of their destruction. To abolish them is therefore to act counter-productively: ‘it will not advance substantive progress on non-proliferation; and it risks compromising the value that nuclear weapons continue to contribute, through deterrence, to U.S. security and international stability’ (Robinson, 2001) Nuclear weapons are a necessary evil; the doctrine of mutually assured destruction prevented the outbreak of nuclear war during the Cold War because in the neither side was willing to risk the response and neither side could risk even a small scale war due to the threat of escalation. Nuclear weapons therefore act as a check upon the very institution of war between those states that have nuclear weapons, restraining aggressors through fear of escalation and certain destruction.
Nuclear weapons provide the source of the greatest possible barbarity in warfare; therefore it is disingenuous to suggest that their abolishment would only exacerbate conflicts. States do not start wars with major powers contemporaneously merely because those major powers happen to have nuclear weapons; traditional deterrence will still be as effective as it is currently. Furthermore, the abolishment of nuclear weapons would allow thereafter mutual co-operation on the issue of non-proliferation without the current fear that others are only concerned with preventing proliferation in countries likely to be opposed to their interests.
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Ambinder, G. a. (2011, November 9). The Pentagon's Secret Plans to Secure Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal. Global Security Newswire. http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/the-pentagons-secret-plans-to-secure-paki...
International Court of Justice, I. (1996). Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. Hague.
Kimball, D. G. (2005, September 22). Statement on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty for the Fourth Article XIV Conference on Accelerating Entry-Into-Force. Retrieved May 9, 2011, from Arms Control Association: http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/ctbt/NGO_Statement_09_05
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Record, J. (2004, July 8). Nuclear Deterrence, Preventive War, and Counterproliferation. Retrieved May 9, 2011, from Policy Analysis: http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa519.pdf
Robinson, C. P. (2001, March 22). A White Paper: Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century. Retrieved May 9, 2011, from Sandia National Laboratories: http://www.sandia.gov/media/whitepaper/2001-04-Robinson.htm
Roche, D. (2000, October 12). Abolition of Nuclear Weapons: Vision, Courage, Strength, Perseverance. Retrieved May 20, 2011, from Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.: http://roche.apirg.org/public_html/writings/documents/nuclear/mpispeechparisOct00.html
The Economist (2011, June 16) Nuclear endgame: The growing appeal of zero. Retrieved June 23, 2011 from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/newsbook/2011/06/world-without-nuclear-we...