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Experts from emerging and developing countries debate crucial, timely topics related to nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Each author contributes an essay per round, for a total of nine essays for the entire Roundtable. This feature was made possible by a three-year grant from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Zero: The correct goal?

The United States and Russia have obligated themselves to pursuing complete nuclear disarmament. But despite the two countries' treaty obligations, it's reasonable to wonder if Russia and the United States will ever accept the constraints on power that total disarmament implies. Therefore, is complete abolition of nuclear weapons an appropriate goal for the disarmament movement? Or would disarmament proceed faster if its aim were reducing stockpiles to the point that they represented only a minimum possible deterrent?

Round 1

08/19/2014 - 08:27

No commitments for the powerful?

Wael Al Assad
08/21/2014 - 08:44

Major problems with minimum deterrence

Li Bin
08/25/2014 - 08:50

The case against total nuclear disarmament

Sinan Ulgen

Round 2

09/18/2014 - 10:04

Four decades of pre-negotiations: Enough

Wael Al Assad

Round 1

08/19/2014 - 08:27

No commitments for the powerful?

If each of the five recognized nuclear weapon states possessed just 30 nuclear warheads, would the world be a safer place? Yes, probably so. But it wouldn't be safe enough. Nor would these smaller stockpiles be consistent with "general and complete disarmament," something to which the nuclear weapon states committed themselves under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Reductions in the number of weapons cannot, and should not, be considered disarmament's ultimate goal—no matter how big the reductions might be. A focus on reductions would provide a false sense of security. It would divert attention from the objective of complete disarmament. In any event, some argue that when nuclear weapon states reduce their arsenals, they do so only out of economic necessity. What they really want, according to this argument, is to establish arsenals of optimal size—affordable, yet capable of conferring national power and prestige. So smaller arsenals would not change the essential nature of international power dynamics, according to which the nuclear weapon states maintain supremacy based on their possession of nuclear weapons.

No equivalence. In 2005, when Kofi Annan was secretary general of the United Nations, he said that "[p]rogress in both disarmament and nonproliferation [is] essential, and neither should be held hostage to the other." I am not sure that Annan's framing is correct, or that non-nuclear weapon states should act in accordance with it. Granted, disarmament and nonproliferation are linked. Incentives for proliferation will remain, and non-nuclear states will resist tighter nonproliferation controls, unless serious steps are taken toward disarmament. And nuclear weapon states will never seriously consider eliminating their weapons without tough nonproliferation measures in place. But all this obscures a central fact: that nuclear weapons are a threat to global peace and security no matter who possesses them, and the uniquely inhumane nature of these weapons confers unique responsibilities on the countries that do possess them. So, though nonproliferation and disarmament are linked, there can be no real equivalence between nuclear and non-nuclear nations.

One area in which nuclear and non-nuclear nations demonstrate little equivalence is in their adherence to treaty commitments. The non-nuclear weapon states, with very few exceptions, have kept their end of the NPT bargain—while nuclear weapon states have failed to keep theirs. Or perhaps a more cynical take is in order: The nuclear weapon states, in exchange for the treaty's nonproliferation commitments, made disarmament promises that they had no intention of honoring.

This pattern seems to have continued throughout the treaty's existence. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the nuclear weapon states agreed to additional disarmament commitments to secure the treaty's indefinite extension. (These commitments included, among other things, implementing the Resolution on the Middle East, which endorsed creating in that region a zone without weapons of mass destruction.) Now, because those commitments haven't been honored, some non-nuclear weapon states are questioning the extension's validity.

In 2000, the nuclear weapon states made another set of commitments, widely known as the "13 practical steps" toward nuclear disarmament. But in negotiations toward an agreement at the 2005 conference, the United States resisted including any reference to the 1995 and 2000 commitments—which is one reason that no substantive agreement could be reached.

It has become quite evident, then, that nuclear weapon states do not take their disarmament pledges seriously. Rather, they make audacious claims about their great strides in disarmament and their full compliance with their obligations. What's needed, they assert, is additional constraints on non-nuclear nations to ensure that they don't become proliferators!

New approach. Amid all this, the credibility of multilateral disarmament is seriously in question—and the nonproliferation regime may be unraveling. So what can non-nuclear states expect to occur at the 2015 review conference? Will nuclear weapon states make yet more commitments that they have no intention of honoring? Averting that outcome requires that drastic new measures be taken. Only drastic measures will prevent the powerful few from overwhelming the interests of the many.

A core group of non-nuclear states should forge a new alliance with like-minded nations from all regions. This alliance should launch a campaign emphasizing that the current state of affairs is neither sustainable nor acceptable, and should work to win both public opinion and the support of nongovernmental organizations. The alliance should create an annual forum where non-nuclear states coordinate their positions. Most crucially, the alliance should declare that it will accept no new nonproliferation commitments until four specific steps toward disarmament are taken.

The first step is to outline a framework for the disarmament negotiations that are required under the NPT's Article VI. As part of this, the legal, political, and technical requirements for eliminating nuclear weapons must be identified. (For example, specific verification mechanisms would need to be established.) The second step is to form a body, as part of the treaty review process, that would oversee implementation of the 13 practical steps toward nuclear disarmament. The third step is for nuclear weapon states, within a declared time frame, to cease nuclear sharing with non-nuclear states. (I am referring here to NATO's nuclear deterrence policy, according to which nuclear weapons are placed on the territory of non-nuclear states and these countries' militaries are contemplated in the weapons' delivery.) The fourth step is for weapon states to stop all nuclear cooperation with the de facto nuclear weapon states, and also to exert serious pressure on them to join the treaty process as non-nuclear weapon states.

Admittedly, this approach carries risk. If the nuclear weapon states decide that they have no use for a regime that limits their powers, the already fragile treaty regime could collapse entirely. This would leave a void in the international system that would be difficult to fill. Still, I believe that such an approach is necessary. The global security environment is power-based, and the powerful few feel no need to play by the same rules as others. Only a radically different approach can alter the status quo.

08/21/2014 - 08:44

Major problems with minimum deterrence

Nuclear disarmament is proceeding very slowly. Some have suggested that the pace might pick up if disarmament's goal were, instead of eliminating nuclear stockpiles completely, reducing them so that they constituted only a minimum deterrent. But realistically speaking, how would this approach affect the existing disarmament and nonproliferation regimes?

First, it would undermine the five nuclear weapon states' solemn political commitments to disarm. Second (and as a result), it would undermine the nonproliferation commitments made by the non-nuclear parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To these nations, complete disarmament is the core of the treaty. If abolition were no longer the goal, it would be very difficult for the nuclear weapon states to explain why they should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons while other countries should not. And non-nuclear states could be expected to withhold their support from important nonproliferation efforts.

Still, under certain circumstances, a minimum-deterrence approach could have some value. If focusing on minimum deterrence could achieve deep nuclear cuts faster than an abolition focus could achieve its goal, deep cuts would have to be considered a positive development. Even so, these cuts would represent only an interim step in the process toward achieving "zero"—not a replacement for disarmament's original goal.

Disruptive innovation. Over the years, one of the main principles guiding the nuclear reductions carried out by the United States and Russia (or the Soviet Union) has been strategic stability. According to the theory of strategic stability, nuclear rivals have very little incentive to launch a nuclear attack against the other, or for that matter to enlarge their nuclear arsenals, if the other side's arsenal contains a certain number of survivable weapons. Minimum nuclear deterrence, then, is the strategy of maintaining the smallest force necessary to deter nuclear attack.

In a given country, the size of a minimum nuclear deterrent depends on the offensive and defensive capabilities of its rivals. Today, US and Russian strategic nuclear forces seem too large for the purposes of minimum nuclear deterrence, while those of France, the United Kingdom, and China may come closer to the mark. If the United States and Russia reduced their nuclear forces to a level appropriate for minimum deterrence, and the other three nuclear weapon states joined in the process, this would represent real progress toward global disarmament.

But this doesn't tell the whole story. True, a multilateral arrangement for minimum nuclear deterrence would at first glance seem to promote stability—under such a regime, no one would have to worry about the size of other countries' nuclear forces. But this holds true only if nuclear factors are taken into account and non-nuclear factors are ignored. That is, new technological developments in the non-nuclear realm could change weapon states' nuclear calculations and complicate the situation radically.

One arena for such developments might be in intelligence capabilities. Improved intelligence in one nuclear weapon state always has the potential to reduce the survivability of nuclear weapons in another nation. The state with decreased survivability then must compensate somehow—one obvious solution being to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal. A second arena for disruptive technological developments is missile defense. If any state develops an effective missile defense system, its rivals may feel the need for a larger nuclear arsenal to penetrate the defenses. A third arena is that of precision conventional strikes. Some long-range conventional weapons may become capable of destroying an enemy’s nuclear weapons or disrupting nuclear launches. Again, increasing the size of nuclear arsenals would be a possible response. So even if a multilateral regime for minimum nuclear deterrence could be developed, the arrangement would be neither stable nor permanent. Nations might support the regime under certain circumstances but—when conditions changed in intelligence, missile defense, or conventional strike capability—become uneasy.

None of this would pertain if nuclear weapons were abolished. Under an abolition scenario, strong intelligence capabilities would be a positive force because they could detect violations against the disarmament regime. Missile defense could deter violations because it would make a small number of hidden nuclear weapons less effective. Overall, technological innovations would likely support rather than undermine a "global zero" world.

Define your terms. Perhaps a more fundamental problem with striving for minimum nuclear deterrence is that minimum deterrence is a difficult thing to quantify. First, no consensus exists regarding how many retaliatory warheads are sufficient to deter a nuclear attack. Estimates might vary from a few dozen to a few hundred. Second, no consensus exists regarding how many extra nuclear warheads might be needed to ensure survivability against an enemy's nuclear and conventional attacks and to ensure penetration of the enemy's missile interception capabilities (estimates will depend significantly on assumptions about a rival's counter-nuclear capabilities). In the absence of a universally accepted way to calculate the proper size of a minimum nuclear deterrent, limits would have to be arrived at through negotiations. Such limits, unavoidably, would have an arbitrary aspect. But as for defining "complete abolition of nuclear weapons?" It would be enough to say that no country can possess any nuclear explosive device.

Similarly, verification would be simpler in a nuclear-free world than in a regime built on minimum deterrence. In a nuclear-free world, nations would not need laboratories or production facilities for nuclear weapons. They wouldn't need stockpiles of fissile material. They wouldn't need military nuclear personnel. Any evidence that these facilities, stockpiles, or personnel existed would be evidence of a violation. So verification would be very straightforward. Moreover, the intrusiveness of verification procedures would be no great concern—if nations had no nuclear weapons facilities or capabilities, they would not have to worry that their nuclear weapon designs would be detected by intrusive inspections. Compare this to a minimum deterrence regime, where nuclear laboratories and all the rest would still exist, making verification much more complicated and doing nothing to reduce concerns about intrusiveness.

These difficulties with definitions and verification provide further evidence that minimum deterrence cannot be a workable long-term solution to the problem of nuclear weapons. A minimum deterrence regime might prove a useful interim step toward disarmament. But the ultimate goal must remain complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

08/25/2014 - 08:50

The case against total nuclear disarmament

Complete nuclear disarmament is a dangerous chimera. For three fundamental reasons, pursuing this theoretically laudable goal would likely produce a more dangerous world.

First, as a means for maintaining security, it is difficult to identify a credible alternative to nuclear deterrence. Simply put, nuclear deterrence has worked. Even at the height of the Cold War's ideological polarization, the world never witnessed the sort of large-scale wars that, in the absence of a nuclear deterrent, were fought in the first half of the 20th century. Policy makers fully recognize the destructive capability of nuclear weapons and have come to understand the complexities inherent in a nuclear world. The concept of mutually assured destruction has provided, and continues to provide, a sound basis for limiting the scope and scale of confrontations between nuclear weapon states.

Devoid of a nuclear deterrent, the world would immediately become more dangerous. If military assets were limited to conventional weapons, nations would experience fewer inhibitions against armed conflict. This would hold true even for the major powers. With disincentives to conflict reduced, the renewal of conventional arms races would likely be unstoppable. Among other things, this would have an important effect on national budgets. Today, at least for nuclear weapon states, the existence of a nuclear deterrent allows for drastic reductions in defense spending during times of austerity. In a similar vein, countries that fall under another nation's extended nuclear deterrence can spend less on conventional military capabilities than they otherwise would; they benefit from a nuclear dividend. So overall, though it may sound paradoxical, nuclear weapons are a force for stability. It is hard to imagine how similar levels of stability could be achieved through any means other than nuclear weapons.

Second, how would a world without nuclear weapons be managed? If the world were essentially one big "peace cartel," this cartel would be very fragile indeed. Economic theory indicates that members of a cartel become more likely to engage in cartel-busting behavior as the rewards for doing so increase and the penalties decrease. A similar logic would pertain where nuclear weapons are concerned. In a world without nuclear weapons, breaking one's cartel commitments by developing a nuclear deterrent would seem to have enormous security benefits. And as for penalties, nothing short of a sanctioned military attack intended to destroy the country in question would change the calculus of a rogue regime intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. In other words, ensuring that the world remained free of nuclear weapons would require the establishment of a universal regime devoted to that purpose, backed by the unambiguously credible use of force. The world has never witnessed the emergence of such an institution, and likely never will.

The third factor agitating against total disarmament is the difficulty of effecting a transition to a nuclear-free world. States have developed nuclear deterrents for a variety of reasons, but chief among these—whether for the great powers, or for middle powers such as India, Pakistan, and Israel—has been threat perception. Until the threats that have led these powers to acquire nuclear weapons are permanently eliminated, it is difficult to envision them agreeing to disarm completely. For example, Pakistan's security and policy establishment will never agree to total disarmament until Pakistan feels secure vis-à-vis India, its more powerful neighbour and its geopolitical rival. A similar argument could be made about Israel. The world will have to become much more adept at peacefully solving or at least managing its regional conflicts, whether through a universal security architecture or a multiplicity of regional architectures, for the middle powers in particular to perceive complete disarmament as safe.

Eliminating nuclear weapons, though a lofty goal, is a difficult proposition. But this is not to say that disarmament efforts should be abandoned. To the contrary, the nuclear weapon states (with the United States and Russia in the lead) should move forward with reducing their arsenals. Otherwise, the consensus that underlies the entire nonproliferation regime will be increasingly open to challenge. But there is a limit to what nuclear disarmament can accomplish without introducing new security risks.

Nuclear deterrence has served the world well for many decades. It would continue doing so even if arsenals were much smaller. Stability could be maintained if arsenals approached—but did not reach—zero. Indeed, that should be the goal of the global nuclear community.

Round 2

09/18/2014 - 10:04

Four decades of pre-negotiations: Enough

In Round One, my colleagues Li Bin and Sinan Ulgen advanced highly contrasting visions of nuclear disarmament. Ulgen argued that complete disarmament is an impractical goal and that nuclear deterrence has proven itself extremely useful for security. Deterrence, Ulgen argued, has prevented large-scale wars and conventional arms races for decades. Li, meanwhile, argued that reducing nuclear stockpiles to a level consistent with minimum deterrence would represent welcome progress toward "zero"—as long as such an approach were only an intermediate step toward complete disarmament.

I'm more in sympathy with Li's views than Ulgen's—but those who accept gradual reductions as a stepping stone to total disarmament seem to believe that nuclear weapon states are actually serious about disarmament. I do not believe that they are. More than four decades have elapsed since the nuclear weapon states committed themselves to starting good-faith disarmament negotiations. Somehow they are still in the pre-negotiation phase. Every time they are asked to fulfill their disarmament commitments, they claim that security, technical, or political obstacles prevent them from doing so. Something always stands in the way—verification problems, or threat perceptions, or non-state actors. But what, other than serious negotiations, can overcome such obstacles? And if the world can nearly eliminate chemical weapons—though the same set of obstacles has complicated that project—why can't it do so with nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapon states have demonstrated time and again that they have no political will to pursue serious disarmament negotiations. That is why, in Round One, I reluctantly proposed a set of drastic steps through which non-nuclear weapon states could put pressure on their nuclear-armed counterparts. To be sure, non-nuclear weapon states should support the ongoing initiative toward declaring the use of nuclear weapons illegal for humanitarian reasons—but if that approach fails, only drastic measures will be capable of forcing the nuclear weapon states to honor their commitments.

As for Ulgen's argument that nuclear deterrence and an emphasis on strategic stability have proven useful, I consider this proposition dangerous and alarming. If nuclear deterrence provides security, after all, it has done so for the few nations that possess nuclear weapons—so shouldn't other nations strengthen their security by obtaining their own nuclear deterrents? And if nuclear weapons prevent arms races, shouldn't all states maintain nuclear arsenals? The more nuclear weapons, the safer the world!

According to Ulgen's reasoning, nuclear weapons are responsible for the lack of large-scale wars over recent decades. But why not reverse this logic—why not conclude that nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945 because no large-scale wars have occurred? Why not credit the relatively fresh memory of World War II with preventing additional conflicts on that scale?

Then again, with the passage of time, humanity forgets its own terrible history—and tends to repeat it. In the meantime, the idea that nuclear weapons contribute to security dilutes the disarmament commitments of the nuclear weapon states and renders obsolete the entire nonproliferation regime.