Four decades of pre-negotiations: Enough

By Wael Al Assad, September 18, 2014

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.

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Topics: Nuclear Weapons