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Thinking About Nuclear WeaponsPrinciples, Problems, Prospects$

Michael Quinlan

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199563944

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199563944.001.0001

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The Abolition of Nuclear Armouries?

The Abolition of Nuclear Armouries?

(p.153) 12 The Abolition of Nuclear Armouries?
Thinking About Nuclear Weapons

Michael Quinlan (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the idea of abolishing all nuclear armouries, observing that both extremes of debate about this often oversimplify the issues, but that the NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon possessor states have all in the past undertaken to accept abolition as an ultimate goal. It then notes that any path toward it, envisaging the abandonment of the contribution which nuclear weapons have probably made to the absence of major war between advanced powers since 1945, must tackle both deep political issues and complex technical problems—it will not suffice for study to focus just upon the latter. This chapter sketches in outline a range of issues in both categories, and argues that those who believe in abolition and those who do not could usefully make common cause in supporting study work to deepen understanding about avenues, obstacles, and implications.

Keywords:   abolition, over-simplify, political issues, study, technical problems

The Abolitionist Goal

As Chapter 7 has explained, there is a widespread global commitment in terms of political declarations—the formal legal position is less clear‐cut, save in a remote context of general and complete disarmament—to the eventual abolition of all nuclear armouries. The idea has a history reaching back to 24 January 1946, when at its inaugural meeting in London the UN General Assembly set up an Atomic Energy Commission and tasked it with making proposals for ‘the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction’. Regular reaffirmations of this goal can be heard from many states. There have also been, from time to time, high‐level suggestions of giving real political impetus to its pursuit. Examples are to be found in the Reagan–Gorbachev dialogue at Reykjavik in 1986 and in the speech by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to the UN General Assembly on 9 June 1988. With a few notable exceptions, however, and despite the recurrent rhetoric, the subject for a long time attracted curiously little examination, at least by states, at a level that could be regarded as of truly serious quality, depth, and objectivity.

There was a wide divergence observable—for the most part it scarcely deserved to be called a debate—between two polarized extremes. One pole, which might be called that of the righteous abolitionists, pointed to the commitment and insisted that countries possessing these weapons ought to get on, more or less forthwith, with disposing of them; there were regular demands that abolition negotiations be initiated without delay. The other pole, that of (p.154) the dismissive realists, asserted that complete abolition was fanciful dreaming. They recalled the truism that nuclear weapons can never be disinvented, and maintained that the world must expect to have to concentrate on managing their existence for the rest of human history—or perhaps, to put the matter slightly less starkly, that successful abolition must imply an international environment so vastly different from that of the present or the foreseeable future that it was idle to spend time now on talking about it.

Both of these viewpoints were wrong. The righteous abolitionists tended to talk of giving up nuclear weapons as though it were a sort of international equivalent of giving up smoking—the kind of thing that any sensible and strong‐minded state ought to be able to do without long‐drawn‐out shilly‐shallying. But this ignored the fact that states do not acquire or retain a nuclear armoury, with all its costs and other drawbacks, just as a matter of idle whim. They do so for reasons centred upon, even if often by no means confined to, their national security (and in at least three instances—Israel, Pakistan, and Russia—it is far from self‐evident that their perception of the case for possessing nuclear weapons would necessarily be reversed if others gave them up). One may think such reasons in this or that or indeed every case to be mistaken or overrated, but they cannot be simply brushed aside. Demands for early negotiation on abolition are little more than posturing if the political conditions do not yet credibly exist and the groundwork has not been laid for it to have a chance of success. (The Berlin Wall was always plainly deplorable, but to have demanded in the 1970s that negotiations for its demolition should be embarked upon would have been near‐frivolous.) In January 2006 Pope Benedict XVI assured the world that the idea that nuclear weapons could contribute to security was ‘completely fallacious’.1 The Pope's words customarily command widespread attention, even in matters of practical judgement where the Vatican has no inherent or distinctive expertise. But no analytical exegesis was offered, and mere assertion cannot suffice.

The dismissive realists were wrong because whether or not it may now be believed that the implication of a long‐term goal of eventual abolition conveyed in the NPT and subsequent declarations at its five‐yearly review conferences was unwise or unreal, it was a goal (p.155) clearly accepted, notably though not only at the 1995 conference which agreed on the unlimited extension of the Treaty's duration. It cannot be shrugged off as simply pious dreaming. It has often been reaffirmed and invoked, and it continues to be relied upon as a load‐bearing component in the set of bargains that constitutes the global non‐proliferation deal, the deal that is the best and indeed only generally accepted international regime that exists for controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. The longer possessor countries continue to act, or are thought to be acting, as though ‘eventual’ meant something like ‘contemporaneously with the abolition of all evil in the world’, the greater the danger that this element of the multi‐part deal centred upon the NPT will cease to bear its load, with peril to the entire regime.

And the peril may go wider. As Chapter 6 has discussed, the risk of nuclear‐weapon use is at any one time extremely low. The fact that the world has come through over sixty years without its happening is not just a benignly miraculous fluke, and there can be no meritorious ground for occasional attention‐seeking claims that use is near‐certain within some specified period. But the probability of use, whether by states or by terrorists, cannot be zero. However low it may be thought to be at any particular time it cannot, in the multiplication of the passing years and decades, be regarded as merely trivial, especially if the much wider spread of nuclear energy—which must for several reasons be highly likely—puts at least some of the potential ingredients of weapon capability in increasingly numerous hands. That some of these hands may be unstable adds to the concern.

Given all this, there is a need for cool and careful examination—if possible neutrally approached rather than driven by pre‐determined campaigning preference in the direction of either pole—of what an acceptable non‐nuclear world that was at least as satisfactory in other respects as today's (or, to express more accurately the comparison which policy‐makers have to address, as the world that is judged likely to exist in future if nuclear armouries are not abolished) would look like, and what would be needed to create and sustain it. The words in the United Kingdom government's 1981 Defence White Paper2 still seem apposite: (p.156)

Any readiness by one nation to use nuclear weapons against another, even in self‐defence, is terrible. No‐one… can acquiesce in it comfortably as the basis for international peace for the rest of time. We have to seek unremittingly, through arms control and otherwise, for better ways of ordering the world. But the search may be a very long one… and impatience would be a catastrophic guide….

Article VI of the NPT does not explicitly call for complete nuclear disarmament, but understanding to that effect was affirmed unanimously at the 1995 review conference, and again—very clearly—at the 2000 conference as part of the programme to which the five NWS pledged themselves politically (though at the 2005 conference the US administration of President George W. Bush and the government of France declined to reiterate it). UK governments have repeatedly, for over twenty years and most recently in the White Paper of December 2006 on the future of UK nuclear‐weapon capability,3 declared their adherence to the ultimate abolitionist goal.

Paths and Conditions

Examination of what would have to be done to achieve a reasonably secure non‐nuclear world might fall initially into two parts. One part concerns what might be termed the disarmament mechanisms, the other the political conditions. The latter constitute if anything the more important and difficult segment of the task. In January 2007 a highly interesting and weighty statement4 on nuclear abolition made by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn—not a group of natural nuclear peaceniks—rightly attracted considerable attention. Their initiative (which was strongly reaffirmed a year later5) was intended as a major push towards taking abolition seriously, but the text was primarily about the disarmament‐mechanisms (p.157) element, with only one point in a set of eight addressing the political‐context element that is ultimately cardinal. US President Harry Truman once said6:

Let us not become so preoccupied with weapons that we lose sight of the fact that war itself is the real villain.

The memoirs of Javier Solana's great‐uncle, Salvador de Madariaga, a distinguished figure in League of Nations disarmament striving between the wars, comment7:

The trouble with disarmament was (it still is) that the problem of war is tackled upside down and at the wrong end… Nations don't distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter… Disarmers would avoid wars by reducing armaments. They run to the wrong end of the line. The only way… consists in dealing day by day with the business of the world… the true issue is the organisation of the world on a cooperative basis.

The most dependable path to abolishing unwelcome security apparatus, whether in the form of weapons or of walls like that which once divided Berlin, is to bring about the political change that would make it irrelevant. But as the Berlin Wall's persistence for over a quarter of a century illustrated, such change is often not achievable easily or in predictable timescales. Against that background, the existence of nuclear armouries is widely judged to have made a crucial contribution to the prevention since 1945 of conflict on the scale of the two World Wars. It is nowadays legitimately noted that nuclear deterrence is essentially about preventing armed collision between major states, and that on current indications conflict in the twenty‐first century seems generally unlikely to take that form (though nucleardeterrence may well itself have something to do with that unlikelihood).

It is undoubtedly true, and welcome, that the shadow of nuclear weapons has lost much of the dark immediacy it seemed to have (p.158) during the cold war, and that deterrence based on them mostly plays a much more limited and less forward part among the instruments for managing international affairs. It would however be shallow, unhistorical, and potentially dangerous to assume now that global interdependence and sixty years of freedom from that level of conflict have so irreversibly altered mindsets and perceptions of interest that the continuance of such freedom can henceforth be taken for granted without the nuclear contribution yet at the same time without need to consider, before it is discarded, what ought to be done to reinforce non‐warlike instruments within a dependable toolbox for ensuring the freedom. The need for such a toolbox is, on a long view, made all the more compelling by the likelihood that, as pages 9–10 have suggested, the march of science will place in the hands of advanced states other weapons of a destructive effect similarly capable of rendering war between such states utterly intolerable.

To insist that nothing should be done in military and technical terms towards the eventual abolition of nuclear armouries until a long and ambitious list of political ameliorations has been securely achieved would be neither necessary nor reasonable. But the two streams of action cannot be wholly separated. Some degree of parallel advance is essential.

Political Change

The political‐context element of the striving toward nuclear‐weapon abolition might be subdivided into two parts. The first sub‐division concerns particular disputes of a grave and long‐lasting character, the type of issue to which the Shultz group referred by implication in general terms—the Israeli/Palestinian problem, India/Pakistan issues especially over Kashmir, perhaps also the relationship of Taiwan to China. It seems absurd to imagine that key actors, especially Israel and Pakistan, will be found willing permanently to scrap their nuclear‐weapon insurance unless the relevant dispute has either been resolved or else somehow reduced to a condition in which, rather as with Greco‐Turkish disagreements over Cyprus and still more between Spain and the United Kingdom over Gibraltar, all parties can be confident that major war is dependably absent from the ptions that either side might even consider. This chapter makes no attempteither to propose or to predict the means by which, or the timescale (p.159) in which, such situations might be attained. The point for present purposes is simply that all this has to be part of any serious agenda for global nuclear abolition.

It might be added, even though the matter does not turn on any particular territorial dispute, that it would be necessary also to think hard about what would have to change in respect of Russia—in her political condition and attitudes, and in her security environment—to induce her to give up the nuclear armoury that now constitutes probably the most significant remaining feature enabling her to feel in some sense still a special international power. This armoury has moreover received if anything greater emphasis, not less, in the adaptation of Russian defence concepts to the changed post‐Soviet setting, and (unlike in the United States) the introduction of new weapon systems is in hand. That changed setting includes unrest at several points close to her enormous borders as well as pressure from Chinese immigration into eastern Siberia, alongside grave weaknesses in the bulk of Russian conventional forces. Russia moreover is perhaps the most vivid exemplar of the problem that the massive and versatile conventional military strength which leads some US voices to suggest that the United States might be well suited by a non‐nuclear world—Defense Secretary Les Aspin, for example, speculated along these lines in the early 1990s8 —may lead others to feel that hat is precisely why they would be disadvantaged by it. They may not easily forgo the ultimate equalizing power of nuclear weapons.

The second main sub‐division of the political‐context element is less specific, but perhaps in the long run not less important. As the foregoing discussion has noted, it is reasonable to judge (even if impossible to prove) that nuclear weapons have played a large part in the remarkable absence of war between major advanced states since 1945. That absence has been a colossal blessing to the whole world, not just to those states themselves. We should not lightly tinker with the structures which seem to have helped to achieve it. Nuclear weapons, bringing the unmistakable reductio ad absurdum of all‐out war between advanced states, have meant that such states have been compelled, like it or not, to accept that such warfare is permanently off the table—that it has to be absolutely excluded (p.160) from the menu of options which they can entertain for resolving or managing disagreements among them. And the nuclear‐abolition agenda has to consider what would have to be changed in other respects, from the world we live in today, to achieve that hugely valuable exclusion as reliably by less disagreeable and less costly means, whether or not with a continuing armed‐force component. That may be both intellectually and practically the hardest part of the whole enterprise. What would we have to envisage, short of the utopian notion of a world government?

We may be optimistic that old‐fashioned territorial disputes of the Palestine/Kashmir/Taiwan kind are largely now a matter of historical legacy. Those three have been with us since the 1940s, and scarcely any comparable new ones involving major advanced states have arisen since then save perhaps in the wake of the break‐up of the Soviet Union. But it would be a very sanguine analyst who predicted that there would never again in future be disputes of similar severity over, say, water, energy supplies, or other natural resources such as key scarce minerals, migration (perhaps driven by climate change or demographic pressure), or humanitarian outrages. So we might well need more dependable and universal agreement on rules of international behaviour, procedures for handling disputes, and instruments (whether global or regional) for enforcing conformity with those procedures. Detailed suggestions are not attempted here, but by way of example one might envisage that the UN community would need to make more headway than its 2005 summit meeting managed to do both with Security Council reform and with the effective entrenchment of internationally agreed concepts to discipline recourse to military force, on lines such as those put forward in thepowerful 2004 report by the eminent international study group established by Secretary General Kofi Annan.9 In a world still made up of sovereign states there can never be absolute assurance of conformity with rules and their enforcement. It has been said that one defining feature of sovereignty is the ultimate ability to default on one's commitments; anduncertainty about readiness to abide by done deals does not relate only to ‘rogue’ states, or to small ones. But we can strive for better probabilities of respected order than exist today, and the striving should be seen as a more important (p.161) task than some of the key actors at the 2005 summit appeared to accept.

The need for stronger political arrangements, and better probabilities of obedience to them, would not be merely in order to prevent the re‐emergence of old‐style major conventional war. If, in a non‐nuclear world, technologically advanced countries came seriously to blows over what they regarded as vital interests, the temptation might be powerful—if only as insurance against break‐out by the adversary—to acquire or reacquire nuclear weapons, with all the dangers that could then flow from a competitive rush to rearm amid the pressures of immediate crisis or conflict. It is sometimes suggested that the very fact of this reconstitution risk could serve as a deterrent to war—weaponless deterrence, it has been called, a sort of deterrence at one remove. But that implies a worldwide and long‐sighted wisdom on which it would surely be imprudent to count unless there had been real, systematic, and dependable advance in structures, methods, and attitudes for the handling of disputes.

Disarmament Mechanisms

The disarmament element of the necessary agenda was given fuller treatment in the Shultz group's declaration, though their specific suggestions were mostly the familiar arms‐control agenda such as the CTBT and an FMCT. These are important projects both individually and, still more, in the aggregate, and they are amply worth pursuing in their own right. But while they would helpfully clear some of the ground for abolition, and much improve the political climate for it, they do not actually lead to it at all closely. The key fact is that having no nuclear weapons is politically, strategically, and technically a very different thing from having a modest number, or de‐emphasizing them in policy and doctrine. Carrying through the current set of arms control ideas, or other complementary concepts such as improving still further the technical ability to achieve by non‐nuclear means military tasks previously thought to require nuclear explosive power, all have merit. But complete abolition would have to have, quite aside from the wider political aspects touched upon earlier, a more radical agenda on the disarmament‐mechanisms side. It would need, in outline example, to have plans for at least three aspects: (p.162)

  • First, identifying accurately the starting baselines of existing capability, and defining what long‐term denuclearization was required to mean—what matériel, apparatus, and facilities must no longer exist.

  • Second, devising worldwide verification arrangements to provide all countries (not merely a few technologically advanced ones) both with adequate and lasting assurance, technical and political, of that non‐existence, and with evidence that could not be ignored if break‐out was attempted.

  • devising a path and a timetable by which current weapon possessors were to move to abolition without at any stage in the process creating new instabilities perceived as damaging to their security. As the discussion of minimal armouries on pages 105–8 has suggested, the risks to stability and confidence might be at their highest as numbers of weapons fell very low and the proportionate effect of imbalance or evasion became more significant.

Establishing in concrete terms how all this might be done, and still more agreeing the result internationally, would be a formidable task. Comparatively little of it has as yet been undertaken, especially by governments. Even if the eventual political environment for its comprehensive application is judged remote, there is a strong case for seeking to carry exploration forward so that implications, problems, and options are understood thoroughly and in good time.

This book does not seek to consider the disarmament‐mechanisms segment of the agenda in any detail.10 Two preliminary comments may however be pertinent. The first is that it would surely be essential, both for the global legitimacy of the abolition regime at its inception and in order to enhance the prospect of united enforcement action against subsequent defaulters, that verification arrangements should be universal and non‐discriminatory—no exemptions because, for example, our country is ‘the special country’ or ‘the good guy’, or has lucrative commercial secrets to protect, or a legislature apt to make difficulties. The second comment is that perfect and assured certainty in every aspect of definition and verification is bound to be unattainable, however massive the international (p.163) effort—already foreshadowed by UK proposals for exploratory discussion among NWS weapon laboratories11 —that comes to be devoted to developing systems and putting them in place. (That development and its implementation would on any view be enormously demanding, both in resources and in the time needed to design and agree them and then carry them to completion.) The technical apparatus, structures, and procedures for an abolition regime would therefore have to be complemented by a substantial and worldwide measure of trust that could flow only from extensive political changes in the directions sketched earlier in this chapter.

Even the disarmament‐mechanisms as distinct from the political segment of the task would itself inevitably raise many issues with a political dimension. It might turn out that the process of moving together towards the goal valuably reinforced confidence, but awkward questions would remain unavoidable. Would key countries, especially current nuclear‐weapon possessors, be prepared to live with the inescapable margin of technical uncertainty in verification? Would they be prepared to shoulder a fair share of the costs? Would they be prepared to accept possible restrictions upon economically useful activities which, even when genuinely not intended for weapon‐creating purposes, had to be prohibited because they were capable of being so used? Would they be prepared to accept a depth of intrusive inspection almost certainly exceeding anything that previous arms‐control agreements have entailed? Would they be prepared to guarantee participation in tough enforcement action against breaches even in instances that were politically or economically uncomfortable, and moreover to trust such guarantees given by others?

Still further issues not examined here would have to come into consideration. For example, the nuclear‐weapon prospect might well stand to be influenced by what happens over BW and CW. It would not be easy to achieve denuclearization unless the effective prohibition of those was generally regarded as secure. That goal seems at present within less difficult reach; but its entrenchment would have to be made dependable for an environment where the last‐resort underpinning of nuclear deterrence, which has in the past facilitated the political shaping of arms control agreements with (p.164) imperfect verification or sometimes even with none, would no longer be available. And though it would be important to avoid overloading with ancillary issues an agenda already very formidable, questions might also arise about weapons in space or anti‐missile defence, or, in the longer term, about new technologies of destruction not yet generally visible. There might well be difficult questions also—their weight perhaps depending upon how successfully and dependably there had been put in place more benign arrangements for the management of disputes—about whether, in order to maintain deterrence of adversaries or wrong‐doers, greater conventional military power (costing more in both money and manpower) would have to be provided. In situations of political mistrust—as perhaps in South Asia, for example—wide divergences in conventional strength might become more troubling, as they would have done in Europe during the cold war.

The Case for Study

The discussion in this chapter does not rest on any naive supposition that the abolitionist quest could be the sole or even the prime motor of all the political changes that seem desirable in order to make the goal securely achievable. In many respects it could make no more than a useful motivating contribution to those. The central point, however, is simply that the theme of abolishing nuclear weapons is one on which there is broad and serious analytical work to be done, and work moreover upon which, or at least upon the need for which, widely different viewpoints could initially converge—whether it be the righteous abolitionists hoping to prove that abolition is less intractable and less distant than sceptics suppose, or the dismissive realists expecting to demonstrate that there is no worthwhile ground for thinking that it will ever happen, or those in the middle inclined to believe (as I do) that the goal has to be taken seriously but will entail, at best, a long, difficult, and as‐yet‐uncertain road. The aim of study would be in the first instance not to establish or advocate a programme of action or to inaugurate a negotiation, but simply to lay a better foundation of understanding upon which debate about prospects, options, and possible path‐clearing work might be advanced.

(p.165) In brief, there is complex and demanding work to be done, by believers and non‐believers alike, on the idea of abolishing nuclear armouries altogether. At best, however, that outcome could not be achieved swiftly. The next and final chapter considers what more might be done in the meantime—whether that meantime is judged to be of indefinite or merely long duration—to limit costs and risks.


(1) Message of Pope Benedict XVI for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2006.

(2) ‘Statement on the Defence Estimates’, April 1981, Cmnd. 8212–1, p. 14. The full text of the section in which this appears is given in Appendix 1 to this book.

(3) ‘The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent’, Defence White Paper, December 2006, HMSO Cm. 6994, paragraph 2.2.

(4) ‘A World Free of Nuclear Weapons’, Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2007. In Britain a comparable group later issued a joint statement in similar if slightly more guarded terms: ‘Start worrying and learn to ditch the bomb’, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen, and George Robertson, The Times, 30 June 2008.

(5) Public statement of 15 January 2008.

(6) President Harry S Truman, Mr. Citizen, Bernard Geiss Associates, New York, 1960, p. 267.

(7) Professor Salvador de Madariaga, Morning Without Noon, Westmead, Saxon House, 1973, pp. 48–9.

(8) I recall this from conversation at an informal meeting in the margin of a NATO conference in 1993.

(9) Report of the Secretary‐General's High‐level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, December 2004: ‘A more secure world: Our shared responsibility’.

(10) For a substantial discussion see IISS Adelphi Paper 396, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, by George Perkovich and James Acton, September 2008.

(11) See speech by UK Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne to the UN Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, 5 February 2008.