Is a world without nuclear weapons possible?



by Marius Grinius

March 30, 2017

This week the United Nations began negotiations to create “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”, in other words, to make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal. These negotiations are the culmination of lengthy and energetic efforts by the international nuclear disarmament community, including in Canada, to rid the world, once and for all, of nuclear weapons. It is believed that making nuclear weapons illegal will contribute to their eventual demise. It is born of the frustration that nuclear weapon states have done little to live up to their legal commitments to get rid of their nuclear weapons.

Last fall the UN General Assembly passed, by an overwhelming majority, a resolution that allowed these negotiations to proceed. The US, UK, France and most members of NATO, including Canada, voted against the resolution. The only exception was the Netherlands, which abstained. Russia, as well as nuclear-ambiguous Israel, also voted against, as did Australia, South Korea and Japan, the latter three having formal defence arrangements with the US. The other nuclear weapon states, China, India and Pakistan, abstained. North Korea, the only other state with a demonstrated nuclear explosive capability, was absent for the final vote.

Full disclosure: last year I joined four other former Canadian disarmament ambassadors in signing a public letter in favour of a nuclear weapon convention. I agreed that the humanitarian consequences of using any nuclear weapon would be catastrophic. Separately, however, I am also on record in stating that nuclear weapons will not go away anytime soon given prevalent old military thinking. At its 2016 Warsaw Summit NATO reiterated that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance” and regretted that “the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favourable today”. Russia’s current military doctrine maintains the right to use nuclear weapons, including against a dire conventional threat. China, with the US and Russia, is modernizing its nuclear forces. India and Pakistan continue to update their nuclear delivery capacities. Israel’s nuclear ambiguity remains its existential guarantee. All blame each other and the prevailing international security climate for their continuing reliance on nuclear weapons.

It is uncertain whether any nuclear weapon state will participate in these negotiations although China and India did attend a preparatory meeting. The US, UK and France will not participate. Nor is it likely that any US ally will participate, the Netherlands being perhaps the only exception. This does not mean, however, that these negotiations will simply be an aspirational Don Quixote effort. Besides crafting possible treaty language, it should be a serious opportunity to address substantive questions related to nuclear weapons. These include how to disarm and dismantle nuclear weapons, how to verify that they are indeed dismantled, how to ensure that they will not be recreated again, and what to do if a state is caught cheating. These negotiations must also ensure that any outcome will not undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which is already under severe stress.

While such questions need serious attention there is arguably one overriding issue regarding the proposed ban on nuclear weapons that demands a credible answer. What will a world without nuclear weapons look like? Given man’s well-established inhumanity to man, how will states govern themselves or allow themselves to be governed post-nuclear weapons? The 1955 Einstein – Russel Manifesto, the humanitarian plea against thermo-nuclear weapons and reference point for the nuclear disarmament movement, presciently refers to the challenges around state sovereignty. Times have not changed. If anything, geopolitical calculations have become more difficult, unpredictable and dangerous.   

As conventional munitions become more accurate, faster and more deadly to the point where they can destroy targets that once were reserved for nuclear strikes, and as once exotic weapons such as lasers become more credible, the utility of nuclear weapon use must be questioned. Future battlegrounds will more likely be cyberspace and outer space. In the interim, however, any credible push to get rid of nuclear weapons must also have realistic answers to how a world without nuclear weapons will function.  

Image: Markus Gann/

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