Ten years ago, the US President reaffirmed in a major international speech that the United States sought ‘the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons’. Despite the vision, Obama didn’t say why he thought a nuclear-weapon-free world would be peaceful and secure.
So the question arises, from the perspective of nuclear-armed and allied states, can nuclear disarmament as a process and endpoint (‘nuclear-zero’) help to improve the global security environment?
Why would nuclear-armed states disarm?
The leaders of nuclear-armed and allied countries regularly state their support for complete nuclear disarmament. Yet there is a constant tension between this rhetorical support for global zero and their nuclear deterrence policies. NATO, for example, sees nuclear weapons as the ‘supreme guarantee’ of allied security, and Russia believes that nuclear weapons are ‘an important factor’ in preventing nuclear conflict.
So why would nuclear-armed countries want to eliminate the weapons?
This question is vital for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which marks its 50th anniversary in 2020. The NPT is a foundation of the global security order. It is the core legal basis of efforts to stop more countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, and the only multilateral treaty that creates a binding obligation regarding nuclear disarmament (Article VI) for any nuclear-armed state.
All NPT members have repeatedly and unanimously agreed that the disarmament obligation in NPT Article VI requires nothing less than achieving nuclear-zero. The NPT ‘nuclear weapon states’ (China, France, Russia, UK, US) were parties to those agreements. Yet the nuclear weapon states last engaged in multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations in 1996. Since then, the number of states with nuclear weapons has increased from six to nine. India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea also have nuclear weapons, but are not NPT members.
Meanwhile, Russia-US arms control is in freefall, and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is all but dead due to events triggered by unilateral US withdrawal, despite all Western allies except Israel opposing the US move. The world is witnessing a complex new arms race that makes the simplicity of the Cold War seem almost quaint. Most experts believe the likelihood of nuclear weapon use, whether by accident, miscalculation or madness, is increasing.
Doubts among non-nuclear weapon states
As global security deteriorates, many non-nuclear weapon states are increasingly suspicious about the claims from nuclear states to support complete nuclear disarmament. Some believe the nuclear weapon states are using the NPT to control access to nuclear technology while retaining their nuclear weapons indefinitely.
To ensure non-nuclear weapon states continue to support the NPT and refrain from seeking nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon states need to find a way to demonstrate the credibility of their disarmament commitments. The most credible way to do that is to negotiate for disarmament and actually disarm, but as noted, that isn’t happening. An immediate step in that direction is to explain why they think a world without nuclear weapons is desirable.
Why would that world be ‘peaceful and secure’?
The security value of nuclear-zero
The most obvious reason that a nuclear-weapon-free world is desirable is because nuclear use is the most likely trigger for nuclear war, and the likelihood of nuclear use is lowest at nuclear-zero. Let me explain.
Nuclear-armed and allied states argue that they can only reduce their arsenals when a permissive security environment allows them to. Logically, that means that achieving nuclear-zero will be impossible without a fundamental transformation of the global security environment.
Put another way, arriving at zero would be proof that a fundamental transformation of the security environment had already occurred. Otherwise, states that see nuclear weapons as essential to their security would not take the final step from low numbers to zero. Any discussion of the security environment or strategic incentives in a nuclear-weapon-free world must account for this point.
Building trust through disarmament
How might that transformation happen? A 2009 joint statement from the US and Russian presidents offers a clue. It affirmed that reducing nuclear weapons in a negotiated, verified process would ‘enhance the security of the Parties and predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces’. That implies that an iterative process of verified disarmament can help to improve the overall security environment by progressively increasing predictability and stability.
In addition, such a process can help to build trust between countries. To get close to nuclear-zero, the world will have to go through multiple rounds of verified reductions in the number, and role, of nuclear weapons. Each new round of verified reductions would improve trust levels among nuclear-armed states, and between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states, because it would involve negotiating and/or promising disarmament action and then verifiably delivering it. Otherwise, further reductions would be unlikely to happen.
This cycle would also improve inter-state trust because, for political and technical reasons, the transparency and intrusive international inspections for all parties would probably increase with each round of reductions. All these developments could help progressively to alleviate security concerns related to other countries’ nuclear weapons. And if the risk of nuclear conflict continues to increase due to threats from disruptive technologies, the relative incentives to maintain nuclear weapons would decrease.
There’s nothing inevitable about this logic of course. The nuclear states achieved enormous nuclear reductions within the permissive security environment that followed the Cold War. Yet in 2019, respected experts are warning of a global nuclear crisis.
So it’s necessary to think about the difference between a permissive security environment that might allow for nuclear reductions, and the active political motivation that would drive a process towards elimination.
A key question that arises in that regard is, is it possible to achieve nuclear disarmament while maintaining the belief that nuclear deterrence increases national and international security?
New forums have emerged that could usefully address that question. Examples include the Swedish ‘stepping stones’ approach, or the US-led Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) Working Group, both launched in 2019.
All states should seize the opportunities that these and other similar initiatives offer to address the critical threat that nuclear weapons continue to pose to global security. In particular, they could start by urging nuclear-armed states and their allies to explain why they believe that nuclear disarmament is a desirable outcome.
Dr Lyndon Burford is Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies, King’s College London, and a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel