5 April 2017

Thinking Strategically About a Nuclear Ban

By Christine M. Leah

A nuclear weapons ban, whilst probably a noble and humanitarian goal, reflects misplaced idealism and an under-appreciation of fundamental strategic issues and concepts. A nuclear weapons ban addresses symptoms of a problem, not the underlying problems themselves. This is not to say that a ban would not help alleviate states’ security concerns. It may well, but it is seriously misguided to think that nuclear issues can be tackled separately and independently from broader military issues and conventional force imbalances.

The idea of a nuclear ban is, of course, an idea pushed forward by a not insignificant number of non-nuclear weapons states, frustrated by the lack of progress by the nuclear weapons states and American allies towards deeper reductions and, eventually, nuclear disarmament. This is the latest of efforts following what has come to be known as the “humanitarian initiative.”

Since 2010 there has been a series of conferences about the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons, the last one of these conferences in Vienna, Austria. Part of that movement stresses that the nuclear weapons countries are not serious about disarmament and that the world needs to pass a treaty that outlaws nuclear weapons. After the 2010 NPT Review Conference the international community refocused its attention to the humanitarian dimension of and the risks associated with nuclear weapons. The Humanitarian Initiative is a group of states that evolved within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and nuclear weapons diplomacy more widely. 159 states subscribed to the last iteration of the initiative's Joint Statement in 2015. Since 2013, it led to a series of conferences exploring the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, culminating in the Humanitarian Pledge, issued by the Austrian Government, to "fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons." The discussions led to the conclusion that the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons should now be at the center of global efforts related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. In an address to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last September, the Vatican’s deputy foreign minister, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, supported the view that “the mere existence of these weapons is absurd and that arguments in support of their use are an affront against the dignity of all human life.”[i] For abolitionists, once the “political” barriers to nuclear elimination are broken, there is no other military problem that requires the retention of nuclear weapons.[ii]

At the recent Carnegie “Nukefest,” the Trump administration’s National Security Council’s senior director for WMD and counter-proliferation stated that an examination of whether global nuclear disarmament “is a realistic goal,” would be conducted. "We are reviewing policy across the board," Ford said. "That necessarily includes reviewing, among many other things, whether the goal of a world without nuclear weapons is, in fact, a realistic objective in the near-to-medium term in light of current trends in the international security environment."[iii]

Of course, the United States is obligated under its NPT commitments to pursue the goal of disarmament, but it is also obligated to pursue Article VI, which obliges states to work towards general and complete disarmament of conventional weaponry. This is an issue which is not given nearly enough attention, yet should be. Nor is multilateral nuclear & conventional arms control, especially in the South Asian + China context where whilst for now unrealistic, is desperately needed what with something of an arms race going on.[iv]

This is one of the major challenges of, and obstacles to deep reductions and nuclear disarmament by the U.S. and other states facing acute security dilemmas – a credible, holistic, and durable accompanying arms control regime. As I show in my new book,[v] this is one of the many challenges (and dangers) of nuclear disarmament. No-one has yet laid out a serious case for conventional arms control in the Asia-Pacific especially, beyond modest confidence-building measures.[vi]Still, any potential proposals would surely run into serious opposition from NATO, Russia, and China in particular. In the book I provide a historical examination of conventional arms control prior to the dawn of the nuclear age, from the late 1800s to the late 1930s, and examine the concepts and metrics used by great European powers to think about the relationship between land, air, and naval power, and how much was considered “enough” for national defense. The purpose of this is to identify possible future challenges Western and Asian governments would have to deal with in negotiating successful and enduring conventional arms control agreements. I argue that, in addition to the problems European states have traditionally faced, because of the multitude of challenges relating to strategic competition between China and the U.S., geography, and multipolarity in Asia, that formal conventional arms control agreements are an unlikely prospect. This, in turn, does not make for conditions suitable for the U.S. either reducing or disarming its nuclear arsenal. However, there can be progress on these issues in the next decades, provided the right mix of incentives is applied to all the players.

If one argues for further nuclear reductions and nuclear disarmament, then one needs to be responsible and also think seriously about conventional arms control, since it is upon conventional imbalances that any remaining system of deterrence would increasingly rely.[vii] Especially because, in many instances, these have remained partially hidden in the current nuclear age.[viii] In the meantime, it should come as no surprise that the Trump administration has adopted a healthy degree of skepticism about a nuclear weapons-free world. What is surprising is the rightly or wrongly frankness with which it has been expressed.


[i] Antoine Camilleri, Address to the 58th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, September 22, 2014. Cited in Gerard Powers, “From Nuclear Deterrence to Disarmament: Evolving Catholic Perspectives”, Arms Control Today, May 2015. At: http://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2015_05/Features/From-Nuclear-Deterrence-to-Disarmament-Evolving-Catholic-Perspectives#endnotes

[ii] Stuart F. Johnson, “Introduction: The Rise of the WMD ‘Niche’ Threat”, in Stuart Johnson (Ed), Deterring The Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (NDU Press, Washington, D.C., 1997), p.5

[iii] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-nuclear-idUSKBN16S1M6

[iv] http://www.firstpost.com/world/agni-effect-is-china-pakistan-mulling-to-scale-up-defence-cooperation-to-counter-indias-ballistic-missile-progress-3340200.html

[v] https://www.amazon.com/Consequences-American-Nuclear-Disarmament-Strategy/dp/3319507206/ref=sr_1_1/162-9897235-0344705?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490332348&sr=1-1&refinements=p_27%3AChristine+Leah

[vi] See, for example, the efforts made by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. Desmond Ball and Kwa Chong Guan (Eds.) Assessing Track 2 Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific Region, (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2010).

[vii] See also Christopher Ford, “A New Paradigm: Shattering Obsolete Thinking on Arms Control and Nonproliferation”, Arms Control Association , 3 November 2008. At: http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2008_11/ford; “NORAD Commander: Our Missile Defense Strategy Won’t Work”, Sputnik News, 12 August 2015. At: http://sputniknews.com/us/20150812/1025680080/Losing-NORAD-Missile-Defense-Strategy.html

[viii] Christine M. Leah, “Deterrence and Arms Control in a Second Conventional Age”, Comparative Strategy Vol. 34, Issue 5. (2015).).

Christine M. Leah is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

No comments: