Moralism and its failures

By Sinan Ülgen, October 3, 2014

From an ethical perspective, championing nuclear weapons is a difficult proposition. But from a practical perspective, moral arguments for complete nuclear disarmament are highly problematic. Disarmament advocates such as my roundtable colleagues have their hearts in the right place, but their moral approach to disarmament exhibits two serious shortcomings. First, their approach fails to explain how security will be maintained if nuclear weapons are eliminated. Second, it fails to acknowledge that, if total disarmament is in fact achieved, renewed nuclear proliferation will represent a very grave danger.

The disarmament advocates who urge the world toward Global Zero generally propose a mechanistic approach to disarmament, one that depends on gradual elimination of nuclear stockpiles. But can such an approach really lead to zero? To assume it can is naïve. Simply put, nuclear weapon states retain their arsenals because they believe that nuclear weapons contribute to their security. They will continue relying on nuclear weapons until they develop better strategies for addressing security challenges—and no such strategies are immediately apparent. Li Bin acknowledged as much earlier in Round Two when he wrote, "If nuclear weapon states believe that their weapons are useful, important, and (notwithstanding their treaty commitments) legitimate, they will be in no special hurry to eliminate their nuclear arsenals." So disarmament arguments will lack credibility as long as they fail to address the world’s broad-ranging security challenges and—without lapsing into moralism—provide policy makers good reasons to forsake their nuclear deterrents.

But nuclear weapons don’t provide security only to weapon states—like it or not, they provide security to non-weapon states as well. This is a point that Wael Al Assad skipped over when, also in Round Two, he posed this rhetorical question:  "[I]f nuclear weapons prevent arms races, shouldn’t all states maintain nuclear arsenals?" To answer his question, not all states need to maintain nuclear arsenals as long as certain other states do maintain them. That is the whole idea behind NATO’s nuclear umbrella. It is the whole idea behind US extended deterrence.

The danger of zero. The atom cannot be unsplit; nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. Therefore it is a dangerous fallacy to believe that rogue states could be prevented from reintroducing nuclear weapons to a world from which these weapons had been eliminated. Failing to acknowledge this reality is where the disarmament moralizers exhibit their second major shortcoming. In a "zero" world, the incentives for a rogue state to go nuclear would be so powerful that no threat could overcome them—short of the guaranteed destruction of the state and elimination of its leadership.

From the perspective of international security, living in such a world would represent a difficult trade-off, to say the least. But when disarmament advocates make their arguments, I see no discussion of trade-offs such as these. It’s as if they believe, once nuclear weapons disappear, that the world will suddenly be capable of policing itself effectively. That assumption is very dangerous.

The nonproliferation regime would likely fall apart completely when the first rogue state went nuclear. Today, the regime is not universal—countries such as India, Pakistan, and Israel, not parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, have developed a nuclear deterrent. Yet the regime remains effective in constraining the nuclear ambitions of nations such as Iran and is generally able to withstand its lack of universality. In a world without the security that nuclear weapons provide, a single episode of noncompliance would likely cause many nations to seek their own deterrents. The result would be a collapse of the regime and a cascade of proliferation. Does that sound like a world where anyone really wants to live?

Topics: Nuclear Weapons