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Commentary | 24 June 2014

Avoiding the Worst: Re-framing the Debate on Nuclear Disarmament

Image of Alexander Kmentt

Alexander Kmentt |Ambassador, Director for Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation at the Austrian Foreign Ministry

Arms Control NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Global Security

Nuclear weapons, if used, bring about terrible consequences. This is well-known and arguably continues to give these weapons their special status. During the Cold War, the knowledge that any attack would be immediately met with devastation and death on a scale unacceptable to the adversary was the basis for “mutually assured destruction”, or MAD, as it was aptly called. For nuclear weapons states today, this notion still forms the backbone of a security policy that is based on nuclear deterrence as the “ultimate security guarantee” and as a means to maintain strategic stability between them.

As such, the concept of strategic stability requires nuclear weapons and MAD. Any one state will always find its military force inferior or superior vis-à-vis another state. The threat of complete destruction through nuclear weapons is thus necessary to believers of nuclear deterrence to equalize real or perceived military imbalances. Consequently, nuclear weapons allow for a notion of global stability that is not only acceptable for nuclear weapons possessors but also virtually impossible to overcome.

However, it is a circular concept. Nuclear weapon states feed on each other’s threat perceptions. In so doing, they provide the rationale for one another to retain nuclear weapons. Enter a situation like Russia’s current brinkmanship in Ukraine and nuclear deterrence is immediately brought forward as a reassuring “ultimate security guarantee” for European NATO states. Given US missile defence plans and conventional global prompt strike capabilities, Russia’s military planners think they must counter with the modernisation of their nuclear weapons. The same dynamic goes for China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and the UK.

Nuclear disarmament and a world without nuclear weapons will never be achieved unless this vicious cycle is broken. Regrettably, nuclear weapons possessing states have proven themselves to be unable to make this mental switch in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. A continued reliance on nuclear weapons is possibly the greatest driving force for the proliferation of these weapons. Nuclear weapons states may not proliferate the weapons and the technology themselves but they certainly proliferate the symbolism and status associated with these weapons.

A new dynamic is however emerging with the potential to reframe the issue: states without nuclear weapons and civil society are seeking to take more ownership of the debate by focusing on the potential humanitarian consequences and risks associated with nuclear weapons. Since 2010, when the Review Conference of the NPT expressed “deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”, a wealth of national and international activities have focused on this issue. Most prominent among them were international conferences devoted specifically to this issue in Norway in 2013 and Mexico last February. Another such conference is planned for December 2014 in Vienna, Austria.

These conferences provide an outlet for the latest research looking at the consequences of nuclear weapons explosions on the environment, climate, health, social order, human development and global economy. The research makes a compelling case that these consequences are even greater than we previously understood. Even a so-called “limited nuclear exchange” using a small fraction of today’s nuclear arsenals could result in an immediate humanitarian emergency of enormous scale. The images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would pale by comparison. No national or international capacity exists to deal with such consequences in any adequate manner. Moreover, the global temperature drop as a consequence of smoke and soot in the atmosphere would have devastating consequences on staple food production. Worldwide famine and a breakdown of social order around the globe would ensue. There cannot be a winner in such a scenario; in the words of Ronald Reagan: “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought”.

New information is also becoming available about past near-misses, accidents and human errors associated with nuclear weapons, coupled with a better understanding about the risks inherent in all complex technological systems. These risks are there, they are more serious than previously known and can never be eliminated completely. Humankind has been very lucky on several occasions in the past; reason should demand urgent action to move beyond nuclear weapons.

The five nuclear weapon states recognized by the NPT have so far largely refused to engage in this discourse and to participate in the international conferences. The argument put forward to justify their absence is that the whole humanitarian discourse is a distraction from the NPT and merely a vehicle by some states and civil society to push for a nuclear weapons convention – an international legal prohibition of nuclear weapons – which nuclear weapons states do not support. This is an unconvincing and self-serving argument. Everybody agrees that additional legal norms to complement the NPT are required for nuclear disarmament. The different options should be discussed in earnest.

The humanitarian discourse should not be reduced to a discussion about one legal approach or another. It focuses on the weapon itself rather than the symbolism that has been created around nuclear weapons and deterrence. It is thus a discussion that should reinforce momentum towards nuclear disarmament. Nuclear deterrence may appear to be an attractive concept: a means to end global war through the threat of unacceptable consequences. However, this could just be a chimera and certainly means taking a big risk with the future of all humankind. This may be an uncomfortable topic for nuclear weapon states but they should participate in the debate. The need to prevent such a humanitarian disaster ever occurring should unite us in urgent action to move beyond nuclear weapons.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.