A nuclear weapons free world: some reflections

17 December 2009

Prominent statesmen support President Obama’s call for a world without nuclear weapons. What are the crucial problems for realizing that vision? This comment concludes that while there is no way mankind can regain its nuclear innocence, there are several measures to diminish the nuclear threat

Obama’s Prague speech

On April 5, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague where he presented a vision of “a world without nuclear weapons”. The president outlined concrete steps forward, among others that the US would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in American national security strategy and he urged others to do the same. There should be a global ban on nuclear testing, a strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime and it must be ensured that terrorists never acquire a bomb.
The president was careful not to seem too optimistic and added that the US would go forward with no illusions: “Some countries will break the rules. That’s why we need a structure in place that ensures when any nation does, they will face consequence”. Rules must be binding and violations must be punished. The last sentence is really a killer amendment.

Other nuclear abolitionists

The American president is supported by other nuclear abolitionists. In September, the UN Security Council, with political leaders from 14 countries attending, unanimously adopted a resolution calling for steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, the notion that nuclear weapons should be abolished was primarily advocated by starry-eyed grassroots. However, in 1986, the proposal of starry-eyed abolitionists was supported by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, at their summit in Reykjavik.

After the Cold War, nuclear abolition has been advocated by surprising new groups as it happened in an article in the Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn. In that piece, two former Secretaries of State, a former Secretary of Defense and a prominent former Senator, all called for a world free of nuclear weapons. The new ‘gang of four’ of hard-noted Realists noted that nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historical opportunity for American leadership to reverse reliance on nuclear weapons globally and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world. The four prominent Americans outlined some practical steps, similar to Obama’s, and suggested a redoubling of American efforts to resolve regional confrontations and conflicts.

It is surely an impressive array of gentlemen calling for a world free of nuclear weapons: pick your favourite - they all advocate the notion that nuclear weapons should be abolished. Why not abolish nuclear weapons? Why not cleanse the planet earth of these deadly poisons?

Reaching a world free of nuclear weapons: crucial problems

The decisive problem is that reaching the abolitionist vision cannot be reduced to a problem of destroying all nuclear arsenals. That is a misleading trade description. Nuclear weapons cannot be wished away or wiped out. They were invented 60-70 years ago and the knowledge of how to construct these weapons and the materials and skills needed are widely spread. The fear of nuclear war will remain a part of the human psyche for the rest of human history.

Stating that nuclear weapons cannot be de-invented is terrible trite and easy to forget. Nuclear weapons can be outlawed just as slavery has been outlawed. Also murder, stealing, and a lot of other bigger and smaller crimes in human life have been banned. Yet, such crimes are committed every day all over the world. The crucial challenge is how we handle the widespread knowledge of producing nuclear weapons in a world with numerous conflicts between countries and within states. The challenge is learning how to live with nuclear weapons and the danger that somewhere in the world a government or some private group may hold nuclear weapons also after they have been banned by a global agreement. And that is a matter of institutional change in international politics.

A world with nuclear weapons: options

Stating that nuclear weapons cannot be de-invented is easy to forget. However, it is also tempting to abuse that truth. It should never be an excuse for cynicism or inaction. A utopian vision can be useful for pragmatic purposes. There are several expedient measures which may diminish the threat that nuclear weapons are used, for example those mentioned above. I will call attention to particularly one.

Today there are about 200 nuclear bombs scattered across on air-force bases in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy They are technically owned by the US, under a NATO agreement going back to the 1960’s. A December 2008 American task force on nuclear weapons, chaired by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, concluded that the weapons were an important guarantee of NATO security and supported non-proliferation efforts by preventing allies from developing their own weapons program. The weapons remained an “essential political and military link between European and North American members of the Alliance.”  Without going into details, it has to be asked if that reasoning is valid. To me it seems a kind of nuclear fetishism.

Concluding observations and reflections

In 4 ½ years, it is a century since one of the biggest catastrophes in Europe’s history began, WW I. The rush to war in the summer 1914, and the expectation that “our” boys would be back home before Christmas from glorious battles, was never dampened by nuclear fear. It took place in a world without nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, nobody imagined that a war could be started between East and West in Europe without a real risk of escalating into a nuclear exchange. The fear of nuclear war may have been the ultimate checking block for war in crises like Hungary 1956 and Berlin 1958-62. The same applies to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. So concluding can only be a counterfactual statement, but it seems plausible that the very existence of nuclear arms had a war-preventing role during the Cold War.
I am not sure what to make of this. But I am sure we should scrutinize how these observations from the 20th century bear on international politics in the 21st. Maybe the very knowledge that a war between today’s great powers may escalate into a nuclear war is the ultimate war-prevention measure.

Erik Beukel
Dr. Scient. Pol., Senior Researcher 

Read more

Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, April 5, 2009

The Harvard Nuclear Study Group, 1983. The Nuclear Debate: What are the Problems?. In Living with Nuclear Weapons. Toronto, N.Y., London, Sydney: Bantam Books
Kissinger, Shultz, Perry & Nunn. Call for A World Free of Nuclear Weapons. The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007
Safe without the bomb? The Economist, April 8, 2009
UN Security Council, Resolution 1887, adopted September 24, 2009
What to Do About Europe’s Secret Nukes. Time, Dec. 2, 2009

Opdateret: 17/12/09