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Change the incentives: Stigmatize nuclear weapons

15 March 2016
Kjølv Egeland

Kjølv Egeland

Kjølv Egeland is a doctoral candidate in international relations at the University of Oxford, Wadham College. He is writing his thesis on the history of the nuclear nonproliferation and...


According to mainstream international relations theory, states build nuclear weapons because they need them for security, particularly to counter the capabilities of beefy adversaries. The renowned British defense strategist Michael Quinlan, for example, wrote in 2007 that “countries do not acquire or retain a nuclear armoury, with all its costs and other drawbacks, as a matter of idle whim – they do so for reasons centred upon […] their national security.”

Quinlan is quite right that states do not build nuclear arsenals on a whim, but his “security model” of proliferation, while influential in both policy circles and academia, does not tell the whole story. Although the security model may explain a handful of cases, and provide nuances to others, it cannot explain why the world’s nine nuclear-armed states are not generally small states in need of a “great equalizer,” but rather are major powers with mighty conventional capabilities, perfectly able to deter adversaries without threatening them with weapons of mass destruction. In fact, with the exception of North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Israel and Pakistan, the states that possess nuclear weapons are among those that have the least “need” for them. Indeed, if security threats alone provided the motivation for developing and retaining nuclear arsenals, we would expect such states as Finland and Singapore to build nuclear weapons, not Britain and the United States. Should British policy makers decide not to renew the Trident submarine missile system, Britain would still be in a far better position than Finland to defend itself against any potential adversary.

Status symbols. Nuclear weapons are primarily sought and retained not for reasons of security, but for prestige. Security concerns are typically secondary or post-hoc rationalizations. According to Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair, for example, the utility of nuclear weapons is “non-existent in terms of military use.” Nevertheless, Blair writes in his memoir, giving up Britain’s arsenal would be “too big a downgrading of our [Britain’s] status as a nation.” In 2007, the former prime minister also pointed out that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “makes it absolutely clear that Britain has the right to possess nuclear weapons.”

What unites the nuclear-armed states is not that they find themselves in particularly difficult security environments, but rather their leaders’ view of their nations as somehow exceptional and thereby entitled to nuclear weapons. A 1959 statement by General Charles de Gaulle of France—president of a nation with hundreds of years of history as a European great power—is illustrative: According to him, a France without nuclear weapons would be “unworthy of herself.” Following the same logic, India decided to “go nuclear” in 1998 because the NPT had been indefinitely extended three years earlier, which, in the Indian view, meant an indefinite extension of “nuclear apartheid” and, by implication, second-class status for non-nuclear states.

A right of great powers. Much has been written about the “nuclear taboo” against using such devastating weapons, but it seems that this taboo, if it does indeed exist, does not extend to the possession of nuclear weapons. In fact, throughout the history of the NPT and its review process, most states have accepted the treaty’s distinction between “nuclear” and “non-nuclear-weapon” states. It is true that many non-nuclear-weapon states frequently—some would say “ceremonially”—express their dissatisfaction with what they see as insufficient disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states, but few states have been willing to go beyond rhetoric. As long as this remains true, nuclear weapons will continue to be seen as a natural right of great powers.

The Indian case illustrates the link between great power status and nuclear weapons: Following bilateral agreements with the United States and other governments, India, which developed nuclear weapons outside the NPT, is now recognized as a nuclear-weapon state (in practice if not in theory). While some see this implicit recognition as an unfortunate suspension of the norm of nonproliferation, others take a more lenient view. According to University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimer, full recognition of India as a nuclear-weapon state is no more than what India “deserves” as an emerging great power. Because this view is widespread, India’s nuclear adventure has turned into a huge success. In fact, while visiting New Delhi in November 2010, US President Barack Obama expressed support for India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Obama’s refusal to offer the same support for Brazil’s bid when he visited Brasilia a few months later, even though Brazil’s economy is significantly larger than India’s, led many in the Brazilian capital and elsewhere to identify Brazil’s nuclear shortcoming as the sticking point for recognition as a great power. This created an unfortunate incentive for Brazil, and other states with global ambitions, to go nuclear. As long as nuclear weapons are seen as a badge of power, nuclear-armed states are unlikely to disarm, and aspiring powers without nuclear weapons are likely to keep their options open.

Repugnant weapons. To create a world free of nuclear weapons—a stated goal of the international community since 1946—the incentive structures of the nuclear order must change. As with chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons must be re-cast as uncivilized, repugnant weapons, rather than status symbols. The humanitarian initiative, an attempt by non-nuclear-weapon states at reframing the debate on nuclear disarmament, has been a notable expression of this idea. By describing the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons in simple, everyday terms, the supporters of the initiative hope, much like the child in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, to undress the woolly rhetoric of “deterrence,” “stability,” and “special responsibilities” in which nuclear weapons are wrapped. Banning the use and possession of nuclear weapons through a new legal instrument—advocated by a growing number of non-nuclear-weapon states—is arguably the most potent tool available for those who wish to change the status quo. Such an instrument, which could be negotiated and adopted without the participation of the nuclear-armed states, could blunt or even reverse the incentive to possess nuclear weapons, and would fundamentally withdraw the implicit recognition of certain states as being entitled to possess them.

Such a ban would not be a substitute for arms reduction treaties. But by reducing the incentive to possess nuclear weapons, it could facilitate and expedite the laborious process of negotiating the number of nuclear weapons in the world, making the nuclear-armed states more willing to reduce and eventually eliminate their stockpiles.

The idea of a ban is, not surprisingly, vehemently opposed by the nuclear-armed states, and has, to some extent, polarized the international community. This proves that the strategy is working precisely as intended. Redefining the sources of status in international society cannot be done without causing some kerfuffle.

A somewhat unfortunate implication of the ban strategy is that it might work better at inducing nonproliferation and disarmament in democratic states than in authoritarian ones. Democratic, liberal states are logically more susceptible to moral pressure than non-democratic, illiberal states. It is no accident that, with the exception of Israel, the only states that have not acceded to the conventions on chemical and biological weapons are authoritarian. Accordingly, in a worst-case scenario, one could end up with a world where nuclear weapons are held not by the entitled but by the wicked. This would be an unfortunate chain of events indeed, yet its prospect is not a very good argument against a principled ban. It would imply that moral principles should only be allowed to enter into play when it has been decided in advance that doing so would not conflict with other interests, whether of status or security. This, it seems to me, negates the notion of having principles in the first place.

If the international community deems a nuclear world order managed by a select group of global custodians as better than a non-nuclear one, fair enough. But if the nations of the world are serious about creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, they must change the nuclear incentives. If they do not, they will be locked in a never-ending fight against their own desires.