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Commentary | 4 January 2017

The Case for a Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

Image of Francesco Calogero

Francesco Calogero |Former Secretary-General of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs

Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Global Security

A comment on the United Nations General Assembly initiative to forbid nuclear weapons for humanitarian reasons, proffered by F. Calogero in response to a request by the London main office of the European Leadership Network (ELN).


The pursuit of a nuclear-weapon-free world (NWFW) is obviously a worthwhile goal, and in the long run the eventual success of this endeavour is essential for the survival of our civilisation, indeed maybe for the survival of homo sapiens.

A significant step in this direction—unfortunately, with no significant follow-up, mainly for reasons having to do more with internal than with foreign policy—was the speech in Prague (5 April 2009) by Barack Obama in which, as President of the United States, 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. (Applause) I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.” (Applause).

I am much older than Obama, yet I entertain the hope that this goal—the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons—might, perhaps, be achieved in my lifetime: at least, the initiation of a process aiming at a universal Convention banning nuclear weapons, analogous to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that has essentially eliminated chemical weapons. But, perhaps, this goal will only be achieved after a catastrophic nuclear explosion has caused enormous human casualties: a nuclear explosive device manufactured by terrorists in the target city, or the accidental explosion of a nuclear weapon, or possibly the deliberate or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons in a warlike contest (maybe as a consequence of the still prevalent strategy to keep some nuclear-armed missiles on short-time alert). And after the widespread revulsion against nuclear weaponry caused in world-wide public opinions by such a major tragedy.

In any case I believe that an essential precondition for the eventual transition to a NWFW is that this goal be jointly pursued by the two nuclear superpowers, the USA and Russia. Such joint action is, in my (perhaps unconventional) opinion, now in the nature of things: the ideological contrast among these two States has disappeared (both societies are now based on market-oriented capitalism and are less-than-perfect democracies—Russia of course less perfect than the USA); the common interests they share are overwhelmingly important (prevention of nuclear-weapon proliferation, prevention of catastrophic world instabilities); and now they even share a common enemy, world terrorism (which is more of a threat to Russia than to the USA). It is therefore logically inevitable that they will eventually collaborate. This process had begun with the involvement of Russia in NATO, and I expect that it will eventually resume—being well aware that at the moment this is considered a naïve wishful thinking, but being myself convinced that the contrary conventional wisdom is myopically flawed. In fact I think that the inclusion inside NATO of East European States such as Poland and all the other former Soviet-bloc States is more convenient for Russia than the alternative situation with these States left alone to take care of their security; and that a stable situation advantageous for all is a NATO gradually including Russia (and eventually also China), which thereby gradually transforms itself from a military alliance to an overall security organisation; with the military aspect remaining mainly relevant for the joint overarching goal to defeat terrorism. (As a minor example let us remember that the simultaneous presence within NATO of Greece and Turkey has been over time the main impediment to these two countries waging an open war against each other).

In my personal view, these considerations provide the appropriate background to assess the recent initiative in the UN context to outlaw nuclear weapons, on which I have been asked to comment. I clearly do not believe that this initiative—in spite of its support by a quite large majority of UN countries—will be the main route to arrive at a NWFW; because to achieve this goal the involvement of the nuclear-weapon countries (and their allies) is of course essential, and at the moment all of them seem to be contrary to this particular development. But it seems to me that the main issue is whether this development is likely to damage the progress towards a NWFW—by reinforcing the rift among nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear states; or whether it might be marginally useful to push towards the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons—by focusing the attention of public opinions worldwide on the humanitarian unacceptability of any use of such instruments of catastrophic destruction, and by thereby consolidating the current regime of nuclear-weapon nonproliferation—based on the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and on Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones—the crumbling of which is in my opinion clearly undesirable but unfortunately not altogether unlikely.

I personally lean towards the second of these two alternative views. I also hope that eventually the nuclear-weapon countries and their allies will understand that it is also convenient for them to agree with the statement that any use of nuclear weapons should be considered unacceptable on humanitarian grounds hence that the ultimate goal of the elimination of these weapons via a universal verified convention analogous to the CWC is a desirable eventual outcome—though they are not prepared to dismantle immediately their nuclear arsenals (but they might at least refrain—consistently with the spirit of the NPT—from allocating enormous sums to their modernization, with plans to do so extending over decades…).

A final (wishful) thought. Ronald Reagan was not, temperamentally, a peace enthusiast, yet when—as an outsider from the nuclear-weapon fraternity—he was confronted with the responsibility to decide the eventual use of nuclear weapons he realized the craziness of the nuclear-weapon theology; and perhaps the same ideological trajectory was followed by Gorbachev. This led to their joint assertion that “a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore should not be fought”. They were then dissuaded by the nuclear theologians advising them from making the bold, major progress towards a NWFW that they perhaps had therefore identified as desirable. Might it be that the person just voted in to serve as President of the United States—who is ideologically more similar to Ronald Reagan than to Barack Obama—might suffer a similar shock when presented with the responsibility to have possibly to decide within minutes the use of nuclear weapons—hopefully with a detailed illustration of the consequences? Might it be than in his innocence about nuclear theology he will have the analogous reasonable reaction to recognise its crazy aspects and to therefore take bold actions towards the goal of excluding forever the use of these instruments capable to destroy our world?

This article was drafted in mid-November 2016.


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.