Nuclear bomb

Some Theoretical Concerns on Nuclear Disarmament

Further nuclear proliferation increases the risks associated with nuclear weapons, and at the same time, total nuclear disarmament might cause regional tensions and global instability. There is a need to establish those conditions which will ensure that nuclear disarmament will lead to a more peaceful world

Nuclear bomb


The nuclear disarmament agenda may seem to be based, at least in declaratory terms among politicians, on a wide consensus that humanity should actively seek the end of nuclear weapons. Even the objections raised by the dismissive realists mainly pertain to the feasibility of the task at hand, and much less to the desirability of the ultimate goal. Focusing on the latter issue, and from a largely theoretical perspective, I would argue that it is not yet clear, let alone self-evident, as many think, whether nuclear disarmament will lead us to a less violent, much safer world.

In retrospect, few would now disagree that man should have never had invented nuclear weapons in the first place. That being said, the argument that it was nuclear weapons which prevented another world war in the second half of the 20th century is difficult to refute. There are dimensions to this issue that merit some reflection. First, the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry provides considerable empirical indications that between more or less equally strong nuclear powers, mutually assured destruction (MAD) ensures that all-out war is consciously avoided by state leaders as a policy option. The general assertion that nuclear weapons have contributed to peace since 1945 seems valid even if its truthfulness is considered theoretically impossible to prove. Furthermore, at the present state of affairs the claim that the abolition of nuclear weapons will increase international security has not been adequately supported. It seems preconditioned on a radically different, almost utopian(?), international system than the one we have now, in which serious disputes that fuel proliferation are non-existent, and states have attained a maturity and wisdom one can barely imagine at the moment. Even if the ‘global zero’ is at some point achieved, in an anarchical international setting of sovereign states – which is historically in constant flux – nothing can preclude new rivalries emerging that might induce nuclear rearmament. Moreover, nuclear deterrence seems anything but losing its efficacy. It can be argued that it is exactly North Korea’s nuclear capabilities that deter the US from seriously considering any military actions against it, which is perhaps a valuable example and lesson convincing the Iranian leadership that nuclear weapons are the only credible defence against another Iraq-type American campaign in the region, this time aimed at their country.

In addition, it generally seems to be implied that the certain annihilation entailed by a nuclear war must somehow automatically convince all states to either abandon the option of possessing them. But in a MAD scenario, the fact that the use of nuclear weapons on a large scale is practically ruled out can induce only a potential aggressor to agree on a global zero, on the grounds that he cannot use them anyway. On the contrary, a nuclear state of purely defensive posture is actually benefiting from MAD, because that is exactly what deters external threats, and thus would have no strategic/military reason to change this balance. The US, for example, would have never considered nuclear disarmament in the early 50’s, given the perceived aggressiveness and conventional superiority of the Soviet Union, and regardless of how pointless a nuclear confrontation might be at the time.

The above issue of balancing power might seem too theoretical, but has important practical implications, especially when it comes to non-nuclear states’ willingness to commit to non-proliferation, or that of weaker nuclear states to disarm. For such states, the global zero environment could be seen as a situation in which they have lost perhaps the only possible means of defending against a much stronger opponent, should a rivalry occur. While a major power would relinquish only one of its assets of superiority, the weaker state, whether currently nuclear or not, would be required to forego perhaps the most effective possible way of deterring a potential aggressor. In the absence of nuclear weapons, what options would India have in defending against a much stronger and expansionist China, or, similarly, Pakistan against India? How could Israel engage in a conventional arms race with a hypothetical belligerent coalition of Egypt and Syria, without the balancing effect of its nuclear arsenal? Or, why should current Russia, now that the tables are turned, strip itself of the ability to counter Western conventional predominance? With disarmament, the relative position of states to each other clearly changes to the disadvantage of the weaker ones.

Apparently we have reached a dangerous point where, on one hand, further proliferation considerably increases the risks associated with nuclear weapons, given the specifics of the cases of North Korea and Iran – especially the problematic character of their political regimes – as well as the threat of nuclear terrorism, and on the other, total nuclear disarmament, besides being practically very difficult to implement, might regionally cause power imbalances, increased tensions, renewed arms races, as well as further global instability. The nightmarish prospect of widespread nuclear proliferation notwithstanding, the disarmament agenda can also be considered ethically problematic. After decades of advanced and powerful states having enjoyed the benefits of nuclear weapons in terms of security and international position and leverage, now that the oligopoly threatens to collapse, a total ban is being promoted by, one might say, those who do not need them anymore or don’t want to see others ‘catching up’. In any case, there seems to be a need for a deeper theoretical exploration of the issue, in order to establish those conditions and parameters which will ensure that nuclear disarmament will lead to a more, not less peaceful world.


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