The case against total nuclear abolitionism

Amid calls for a ban on nuclear weapons, Jack Cunningham proposes a different route: instead of seeking total abolition, accept nuclear weapons where they reinforce global stability, and oppose them where they undermine it.

By: /
April 24, 2017
The Soviet Star and two doves of peace are painted on a floor of the former Soviet Army nuclear weapons depot near the village of Misov, 90 km (56 miles) southwest from Prague, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Petr Josek

Events leading up to North Korea’s abortive ballistic missile launch earlier this month have concentrated the minds of many observers on the dangers posed by nuclear proliferation and how to deal with them. At the same time, we are in the run-up to the second round of negotiations at the United Nations resulting from last year’s Resolution L41, which calls for negotiation of a new ban on nuclear weapons.

Some commentators, including Cesar Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares, who wrote recently on the subject for OpenCanada, have called for aggressive pursuit of the goal of the abolition of nuclear weapons, with L41 as the blueprint. Yet this misconstrues the sources of our present discontents and the ways to deal with them.

The inescapable reality is that not all nuclear weapons are alike, in their effects or their moral status. Under some circumstances, nuclear weapons are a force for stability; under others, they are profoundly destabilizing. Recognition of this reality was present from the start of the contemporary history of nuclear arms control and disarmament. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to attempt the invasion of Cuba and a tacit agreement to remove obsolete American missiles from Turkey. But not everyone applauded the resolution of the crisis — official statements from Beijing chastised Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for cowardice in not running the risks of nuclear war.

In the years that followed, the superpowers explicitly cooperated to prevent the emergence of further nuclear powers. They concluded the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which obliged signatories to refrain from most forms of the testing necessary to developing nuclear arsenals, and then the 1968 Non-proliferation Treaty, which explicitly targeted the proliferation of nuclear capabilities.

Understanding the motives of nuclear powers

Why the concern with non-proliferation? In part, for reasons concerned with the technical characteristics of new nuclear forces. Joseph Nye of the Kennedy School has referred to what he calls the “valley of vulnerability” through which new nuclear forces must pass. During this period, they are small, vulnerable to pre-emptive attack from local rivals and useless if not launched before one, and generally with poor command and control arrangements, rendering them susceptible to accidental or unauthorized launch.

But the concern was also rooted in geopolitical considerations. As the Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, the Cold War superpowers were fundamentally status quo powers, separated by oceans and continents, without directly competing claims to the same territory, and not economically dependent upon each other. Moreover, they dominated a bipolar international system with stable and well-defined spheres of influence, which did not require the sophistication of a Metternich or a Bismarck to direct.

Interestingly, the flashpoints of the Cold War tended to be where boundaries were unclear or anomalies existed, as in Korea, Indochina or Berlin. But under these circumstances, nuclear deterrence proved stable and hardy (though, to be sure, there were near misses), and it not only prevented nuclear aggression in Europe but provided an unprecedented half-century without conventional conflict that might have occurred in a non-nuclear world. This was hardly coincidence; any reader of the rich documentary record in the United States Department of State’s Foreign Relations series will find that decision-makers were constrained by the pervasive fear that any East-West hostilities would rapidly escalate to all-out nuclear war.

"Nuclear deterrence not only prevented nuclear aggression in Europe but provided an unprecedented half-century without conventional conflict."

The prospects of a stable nuclear balance were murkier as far as the feared potential proliferators of the 1960s were concerned. As the historian Francis Gavin observes, several of them had disputed borders or outstanding territorial claims (Germany; China), were feared by their neighbours because of their histories of previous aggression (Germany again; Japan), or had regimes that seemed to contemplate nuclear war with disturbing equanimity (China under Mao; later, North Korea).

The superpowers took a variety of measures to discourage proliferators. Both urged their client states to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and then the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Soviets withdrew technical assistance to China’s nuclear program, and in fact in 1963 there were even tentative conversations between the superpowers about joint military action to take out Chinese nuclear facilities. And then there was extended deterrence. The U.S. extended its nuclear umbrella to protect those who might otherwise be tempted to develop indigenous nuclear capabilities, fuelling destabilizing local arms races (Taiwan; Japan; South Korea).

And of course the NPT implied a bargain, where existing nuclear powers would disarm and non-nuclear signatories would pledge not to acquire nuclear capabilities. During the Cold War and after, the nuclear signatories were often criticized for hypocrisy in pursuing disarmament half-heartedly while denying others the right to go nuclear. But the logic was specious, because the apparent bargain rested on the fallacy that vertical proliferation (growth or modernization of existing nuclear arsenals) was connected with horizontal proliferation (the emergence of additional nuclear powers). The two have generally had little to do with each other. While the superpowers built up their arsenals over the '70s, the several dozen new nuclear powers some had predicted did not materialize. And while they drastically reduced their arsenals since the end of the Cold War, it was in those years that China chose to enhance its nuclear capability, Pakistan to build weapons, and Iran and North Korea to seek nuclear capabilities of their own.

Some nuclear powers did not emerge because they encountered economic or technical barriers, concluded nuclear ambitions would make them less rather than more secure, or were reassured by extended deterrence. And some did emerge, unexpectedly, when they concluded it was in their interest to do so. Pace proponents of the NPT “bargain,” new nuclear states are not goaded into mindless emulation of the existing nuclear powers. Rather, they act on more or less rational calculations of their own geopolitical interest, not how many nuclear weapons the declared nuclear powers have. China, for example, went nuclear in order to challenge the Soviets for leadership of the Communist camp; India to deter Chinese aggression and stake its claim to leadership of the developing world. As for Israel’s undeclared but widely known deterrent, since 1973 its neighbours have given up on trying to destroy it by direct conventional attack, and it is easier to believe they feared a nuclear force that could be used in extremis than that a sudden epidemic of sanity struck the leadership of the Arab world.

Only alternative: unequal possession and selective non-proliferation

Disarmament by the existing nuclear powers will not remove the genuine clashes of interest that encourage states to seek nuclear weapons. If the NPT is not a promising avenue, how then should we deal with the prospect of post-Cold War nuclear proliferation? Two otherwise opposed schools of thought commit the same fallacy. One, associated with the political scientists Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, holds that possession of nuclear weapons tends to make states more sober international actors, and that their wide dissemination is conducive to global stability. The other school holds the weapons are so malign or destabilizing that no state can be trusted with them. Both reason, as Nye puts it, from the equal right of self-defence to an equal right to possess nuclear weapons...or not. 

"It is illusory to believe that if we got rid of all the weapons we would return to a truly pre-nuclear world."

But this ignores the context in which the weapons would exist. The moral status of any weapon is the function of its destructiveness and the likelihood of its being fired in anger, and in some cases that likelihood is far higher than others. New, small and vulnerable forces (the “valley of vulnerability”) are inherently problematic, and forces in the world’s trouble spots more so. And the nature of the regime matters. Some potential proliferators are governed by individuals infinitely less predictable than any conceivable American president, even the egregious Donald Trump. Their records and public statements suggest that neither the crazed theocrats contending for power in Iran nor the dynasty of lunatics who have ruled North Korea since its inception are rational enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. Gambling that nuclear weapons would sober either one is a very risky bet indeed. If we pay attention to context and probable consequences, we are left with no alternative to unequal possession of nuclear weapons and selective non-proliferation.

In contemplating the appeal of nuclear abolitionism, we should recall the wisdom of the philosopher Bernard Williams, who argued that it is illusory to believe that if we got rid of all the weapons we would return to a truly pre-nuclear world. On the contrary, we would live in one in which nuclear weapons were always just about to be invented, because the knowledge of how to fabricate them cannot be unlearned. In that sense, belief in their abolition is an exercise in denial akin to creationism or disbelief in anthropogenic climate change. And of course their reintroduction would tend to either cause or exacerbate a geopolitical crisis, hardly conditions conducive to global stability.

Even the declared pursuit of abolition as a goal has its perils. Former President Barack Obama’s endorsement of the goal of “Global Zero” was followed by discussion in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Turkey of the possibility of developing indigenous nuclear deterrents, undermining the credibility of extended deterrence and threatening a spate of regional nuclear rivalries that would be less predictable than the present equilibrium.

The course of accepting nuclear weapons where they reinforce stability and opposing them (even forcibly) where they undermine it is perhaps a less inspiring rallying cry than nuclear abolition, and in some abstract sense it is perhaps unfair that some states be permitted nuclear weapons, others denied them. But it is the beginning of political maturity to realize there are inequities that cannot be addressed at a tolerable price.