How to make the case

By Siddharth Mallavarapu, September 12, 2013

In Round One, my colleagues and I discussed several ways in which a nuclear detonation would constitute a disaster for poor countries' development prospects. With consensus on that point established, perhaps it is time to assess how development considerations can best be marshaled to support arguments for the abolition of nuclear weapons. My own field of study, international relations, offers a starting point for this discussion.

In the study of international relations, a large body of literature examines issues such as deterrence, states' motivations for acquiring nuclear weapons, and strategic dynamics among nuclear-armed countries. But far less attention is devoted to nuclear renunciation—the unilateral disarmament of the sort that occurred in post-apartheid South Africa, or to the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones, as in Africa and Latin America. Why does nuclear renunciation suffer from this relative lack of attention? In large measure, it is because of the great sway that realism, one of the three major points of view in international relations, holds within the field; the other two points I will pursue below.

Classical realists adhere to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' dark view of human nature, and therefore they are very dubious that nations can ever establish the trust necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons. Realists tend to view disarmament initiatives as futile in an anarchic and uncertain world. Indeed, the late structural realist Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear weapons deserved partial credit for the stability that characterized the bipolar world and that "the gradual spread of nuclear weapons is better than no spread."

At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I would suggest that realists are unlikely to make an enthusiastic audience for the argument that a nuclear detonation, particularly in a developed country, would represent an unacceptable disruption to development in poor and middle-income nations. From the perspective of many realists, most developing nations are marginal players in the international system; they cannot seriously influence global events; therefore, they need not be taken seriously. This is an enormous fallacy in light of the contemporary world's interconnectedness, but the attitude exists nonetheless.

A second major point of view in international relations is liberal institutionalism. Adherents of this viewpoint are likely to reject the Waltzian idea that nuclear weapons' spread may be a good thing and, like Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan, they may instead emphasize that the dangers of accidental or irrational use of nuclear weapons can never entirely be eliminated. Liberal institutionalists, due partly to their belief that economic issues can form a basis for international cooperation, are likely to make a fairly receptive audience for development-based arguments in favor of nuclear abolition.

The third major grouping in international relations is made up of critical theorists—feminists, neo-Marxists, postcolonial theorists, and so forth. Critical theorists are likely to connect nuclear weapons to issues of race, gender, class, and citizenship; they are disposed to view nuclear weapons as a manifestation of deep, festering inequities in the international system. As such, they are quite likely to sympathize with arguments that, because of the dangers that nuclear weapons pose to development, they must be abolished.

These schools of thought are not merely abstractions; they find resonance in the real world. The actions of major powers, for example, reveal a generous amount of realist skepticism. The five countries recognized under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as nuclear weapon states are obligated by Article VI to pursue general disarmament. But more than four decades after the treaty came into force, the goals expressed in Article VI still appear to be a chimera.

The liberal institutionalist case would find some support in Europe, especially in Berlin—Germany might well be receptive to arguments that multilateralism is urgently needed if global disarmament is to be achieved and a humanitarian disaster in the developing world is to be avoided. The arguments of critical theorists, meanwhile, are most likely to strike a chord in some regions of the Global South; it is there that inequities in the international system are most conspicuous. In short, development-based arguments for nuclear disarmament must be tailored to particular audiences. But persuading the nuclear weapon states to disarm appears a difficult job, no matter what arguments are marshaled.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons