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Insights into Editorial: Between disarmament and deterrence

Insights into Editorial: Between disarmament and deterrence



For the second time in the last decade, the Nobel Committee awarded its annual peace prize to the laudable goal of nuclear disarmament. This year’s recipient, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of nuclear dangers.

The ICAN, a coalition of NGOs from almost 100 countries, has been tirelessly working on a global campaign to mobilise people to inspire, persuade and pressure their governments to initiate and support negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons (the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations). This treaty is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, reflects the ambition of many states to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

To make further progress, focus must be kept on practical steps to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons being used. Without such work, the prohibition treaty risks becoming merely a moral victory, rather than contributing to concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.

The treaty is significant but it does not completely ban nuclear weapons

The nuclear weapon ban is a landmark treaty, of great political and historical importance. The prohibition treaty creates a legal basis for banning nuclear weapons among adhering states; however it hasn’t actually banned such weapons. Nuclear arsenals exist and will continue to exist for years to come.

  • The treaty establishes no new mechanisms to encourage states with nuclear weaponsto dismantle them.
  • Instead, it seeks to delegitimise nuclear weaponsas tools of statecraft on the grounds of indiscriminate humanitarian effects.
  • A state that joins the treaty while still possessing nuclear weapons is not required to accept any safeguards until after it has eliminated its weapons. This is a major weakness – elimination could take years, during which time the state could be producing new weapons to replace those it is eliminating.

The nuclear prohibition movement has no doubt gained momentum but neither the advent of a nuclear prohibition treaty, nor the increase in nuclear dangers seems to have weakened the belief in nuclear deterrence by the states possessing such weapons.

What is Nuclear Deterrence?

The strategic concept of deterrence aims to prevent war. It is the justification virtually every nuclear state uses for maintaining nuclear arsenals.

  • The concept of deterrence can be defined as the use of threats by one party to convince another party to refrain from initiating some course of action.
  • The concept of nuclear deterrence follows the rationale of the ‘first user’ principle.
  • States reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in self-defence against an armed attack threatening their vital security interests.
  • Possession of nuclear weapons could be seen as the ultimate bargaining tool in international diplomacy under such concept.

The supporters of this concept argue that without nuclear weapons  there would be more violence. Many of the states opposed to the prohibition treaty are located in Europe and East Asia, regions whose politics continue to be shaped by the trauma and outcome of the Second World War.

How do International security problems the reason for the quest for nuclear weapons?

In the present international security problems that the current ban movement and the nuclear prohibition treaty have trouble addressing. States facing potentially existential threats find few alternatives to nuclear deterrence.

Many states will join the treaty in the hope that it will stigmatise nuclear weapons but many states will reject the treaty and continue to hope that nuclear weapons and alliances backed by them will guarantee their security.

Indeed, states with nuclear weapons are now engaged in efforts to modernise their arsenals to be useful for decades to come.

  • The U.S. is considering building smaller nuclear weaponsto target buried facilities.
  • Pakistan has tested nuclear weaponsthat could be deployed on the battlefield.
  • Russia may be developing new, intermediate-range missiles in contravention of an arms control treaty with the U.S.
  • India has been deploying nuclear weaponson new submarines.
  • China is fielding new long-range missiles with multiple nuclear warheads. 
  • North Koreais racing to test and field a scary array of nuclear missiles.

None of the weapons possessors seems particularly concerned with the stigma created by the prohibition treaty.

Role of civil societies in searching for middle ground

For international civil society actors who support the objective of disarmament, this international situation presents an uncomfortable choice. In reality the prohibition and nuclear disarmament camps are so divided that it is difficult to find credible middle ground.

But there are useful means to push both sides towards a safer world.

  • In states possessing nuclear weapons, civil society actors can challenge the most expansive and dangerous ideas that extend nuclear deterrenceobjectives to absurd ends.
  • Sharp analysis can highlight the negative outcomes of nuclear deterrence policy.
  • It is useful to foster debate that forces policymakers to justify their investment in nuclear weapons.
  • In states desiring to prohibit nuclear weapons, civil society actors can encourage actions and policies that aim to mitigate security threats that drive demand for nuclear weapons.
  • Strengthening international institutions and mechanisms that prevent proliferation and enhance the credible peaceful uses of nuclear technology is a critical enabler of disarmament.

Way Forward

Success in expanding the middle ground between nuclear disarmament and nuclear deterrence will require the same ambition and idealism that drove the conclusion of the nuclear prohibition treaty.

  • It will require innovation and perseverance to identify and promote mechanisms to reduce risks of nuclear use.
  • It will require building trust that states and civil society actors on either side of the debate share the objective of mutual security.
  • The relationship between the ban treaty and other treaties such as the NPT, the CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty), and nuclear weapon-free zone treaties, has to be clearly specified.