The practical path toward disarmament

By Li Bin, October 16, 2014

In his second essay, Sinan Ulgen wrote that Wael Al Assad and I exhibit a moralistic approach to nuclear disarmament. We argue for a world without nuclear weapons, he writes, but we fail to advance practical, specific methods for maintaining security and preventing proliferation in a world where nuclear weapons no longer exist. Essentially, Ulgen faults Assad and me for taking a normative approach to nuclear weapons—describing how the world should be, on the basis of our values—instead of taking a positive approach—describing how the world is, on the basis of empirical evidence.

I think it's fair to say that all authors in this roundtable have advanced both normative and positive arguments. Indeed, all the authors take a normative approach to security simply by assuming that security is important. But the word "security" means different things to different people. For Ulgen, "security" is often synonymous with "national security." For Assad, global security is the emphasis, along with fairness in the way nations carry out their disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. My own use of the word tends to emphasize the idea that security issues must be managed in such a way that security dilemmas are avoided. Personally, I don't think that my belief in the desirability and feasibility of complete nuclear disarmament is normative. Rather, my disarmament views flow from my approach to security, which unavoidably has a normative element.

Though Ulgen and I both start from a normative belief that international security must be maintained, he and I disagree on three positive points. The first point of disagreement is whether nuclear weapons are useful in maintaining international security; much of the roundtable has been devoted to our divergent views on this question. The second point is whether nuclear arsenals are useful in preventing nuclear proliferation. Ulgen says yes and I say no—as I wrote in the first round, verifying compliance with the nonproliferation regime would be more effective and efficient, from a political and technical standpoint, if no nuclear weapons existed. The third point of disagreement is whether a practical path toward complete nuclear disarmament exists. Ulgen assumes that nuclear-armed states will never disarm completely because they place so much value on nuclear weapons' role in security. I believe that, over time, states can become willing to disarm. But such a change requires that new attitudes emerge toward nuclear weapons' acceptability and efficacy. This in turn requires that the disarmament movement alter the emphasis of its efforts.

For decades, the focus of nuclear disarmament has been reductions in, and numerical limitations on, nuclear arsenals. But this was exactly the approach underlying the failed Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which limited the number and size of the warships that nations deployed but did nothing to change the notion that warships were useful, legal weapons. As the treaty was negotiated, the major naval powers calculated their quantitative need for warships based on the size of rival fleets; the unsurprising result was that, by the middle of the next decade, an even more intense naval arms race had developed. The treaty collapsed—because controlling numbers of warships didn't change attitudes toward warships. The same principle holds in nuclear disarmament. A focus on numerical controls without any focus on underlying attitudes will make "zero" a very difficult goal to reach.

As I mentioned in the second round, the history of chemical weapons disarmament demonstrates a more promising approach. The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited signatories from using chemical weapons (or, in some cases, from using them first). The Protocol helped establish the idea that, for any nation using chemical weapons, costs would outweigh benefits. Thus it became less likely that chemical weapons would be used, the value of these weapons dropped precipitously, and nations became more willing to relinquish their weapons. Today, chemical disarmament is in its final stages.

The history of chemical disarmament suggests two things: Beliefs about weapons are mutable and banning the use of weapons is a good way to devalue them. For the nuclear disarmament community, the priority now should be delegitimizing the use of nuclear weapons and working to devalue them in the eyes of national decision makers. If the notion ever truly takes hold that nuclear weapons' disadvantages outweigh their benefits, nuclear abolition has a real chance of becoming reality.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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