Security in a world without nuclear weapons: visions and challenges

By Emily Munro and Dr David Atwood,
9 January 2014
Security in a World without Nuclear Weapons: Visions and Challenges

Security in a world without nuclear weapons: visions and challenges

By Emily Munro and Dr David Atwood,

Executive Summary

Few would disagree that a world without nuclear weapons would be desirable – sooner or later. However, there are key differences in opinion as to how long it will take to arrive at this point, what the major obstacles will be on the path to nuclear-weapons abolition and how a world without such weapons will be maintained peacefully. The objective of this volume of seven chapters, and the wider project at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy on Security in a World without Nuclear Weapons, has been to focus on a specific aspect of this process by asking what would be the basis of security, particularly the institutional arrangements necessary to prevent major-power conflict, in a post-nuclear-weapons world. The focus is on the security arrangements necessary for this stage to have been reached and the elaboration of the means by which it could be sustained. There has thus been a deliberate attempt to step back from current disarmament and non-proliferation dynamics and work on the assumption that nuclear weapons have actually been abolished – that we have accomplished this seemingly impossible task. The authors in this volume have recognized that achieving this state will by no means be easy and that the path to achieving global zero will inevitability impact the security conditions of the post-nuclear-weapons world. They have also acknowledged that although the experience from the pre-nuclear age can be instructive, tackling these issues requires new thinking about the requirements for security in a world in which nuclear weapons no longer play any role.

The examination of three conditions in a post-nuclear-weapons world are central to this volume: the mechanisms required to manage relations among major powers (including emerging powers); the establishment of new, or the renewal of existing, international institutions to prevent the outbreak of conflict in general and among the major powers in particular; and managing weapons proliferation, particularly with regard to conventional weapons and new technologies.

The first chapter, by Ward Wilson (United States), presents nuclear weapons as clumsy weapons from a bygone era that in today’s world of new technologies are outdated and impractical. They are not “magic”. Wilson argues that as the perceived value of nuclear weapons becomes debased and the danger of their continued existence becomes increasingly understood, countries will choose not to possess them, nor will nuclear weapons be as attractive to potential cheaters as previously thought. He further argues that the absence of nuclear weapons will not require large changes in structures and institutions, as the impact of these weapons is already greatly overstated.

Robert Green (United Kingdom/New Zealand) suggests the need for a reframing of the security paradigm surrounding nuclear weapons from a discriminatory system based on nuclear deterrence to humanitarian disarmament and principles based on good faith. He recognizes the need for confidence-building measures, especially as regards Russia and non-nuclear-weapons states. Green also warns against the replacement of nuclear deterrence with conventional deterrence based on superiority. Instead, he argues that a more cooperative approach to the governance of the security environment required to abandon nuclear deterrence will facilitate the tackling of other security threats facing humanity.

The third chapter, by Monica Herz (Brazil), argues that social practices and cultural changes could help us shift current thinking towards a world without nuclear weapons. She addresses this aspect by looking at (1) the centrality of international humanitarian law and humanitarian and human rights principles; (2) the need for a new order of nuclear governance that replaces non-proliferation, is more inclusive (including emerging actors) and is based on common interests; and (3) a new vision of conventional deterrence based on trust and greater cooperation. Herz looks to various actors for leadership, not only nuclear-weapons and non-nuclear-weapons states, but also non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the academic community, the United Nations (UN) and others, and urges us to think across regions and social environments.

Harald Müller (Germany) proposes three parallel processes – changing the narrative of the utility of nuclear weapons, transforming the relationship among former nuclear rivals to one based on cooperative security and building cooperative institutions – that would help us move along the path to a nuclear-weapons free world. He argues that a world without nuclear weapons will have to move beyond even “virtual” and conventional deterrence thinking. Instead, alternative security institutions based on cooperative/collective security and a “concert” of great-power engagement will be required. Müller also examines how the problem of cheaters could be handled and discusses ways to strengthen the capacities of UN mechanisms to react to threats to the new status quo of a world without nuclear weapons.

Chapter 5, by Andrei Zagorski (Russia), recognizes that a profound change in the security environment would have to occur if we are to move towards a nuclear-weapons-free world. This change would be long term and would include a multitrack process. He treats a number of issues that could act as incentives for the great powers to embrace this vision, including moving beyond nuclear deterrence towards a security community; working within existing institutions and frameworks to facilitate political consensus; and strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Zagorski urges a process in which not only are existing nuclear weapons abolished, but the acquisition of nuclear weapons is made impossible for any state. To arrive at this point, he argues for disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives that would proceed in parallel and mutually reinforce each other, balancing the interests of nuclear-weapons and non-nuclear-weapons states.

In her chapter, Wu Chunsi (China) emphasizes the need for the major powers to act responsibly as the key actors in the international system and for a move from confrontation to new forms of cooperation among themselves. She argues against the concept of alliances and for a more inclusive system of cooperation to enable the creation of a true global security community. While strategic stability among major powers will remain central, such a security community will require enhanced capacity for international and regional institutions, including enforcement mechanisms, and the active participation of other actors (e.g. NGOs).

Rajesh Rajagopalan (India) divides his chapter into two parts. Firstly, he looks at the consequences of nuclear-weapons abolition for international politics and relations. He examines the potentially uneven effects of nuclear-weapons abolition on the international system in general, on definitions of polarity in the international system and on the role of conventional deterrence. Secondly, he offers insights on the steps that could be taken to ensure a reasonably peaceful and stable international order in a nuclear-weapons-free world. Here he addresses the challenges and make-up of institutions for facilitating stability in an international system of changing power balances. Rajagopalan concludes that although bringing some benefits, peace and stability are unlikely to be enhanced by the abolition of nuclear weapons. He points particularly to the potential instability that could be brought about by the current “great equalizer” effects of nuclear weapons possession for weaker, conventionally armed states.

It is clear that the authors in this volume do not ultimately all agree on the requirements for security and stability in a world without nuclear weapons, nor do they provide a single vision of the route from here to there. The chapters do, however, point to key issues and approaches that will have to be part of the discussion as we think even more seriously about nuclear disarmament in the years ahead.

The volume concludes with a presentation of a number of issues that could help to advance our thinking on achieving and maintaining security in a world without nuclear weapons. These include further study on cooperative security as a concept to build consensus, addressing regional conflicts among nuclear weapons possessor states, the role of regional organizations and institutions (including nuclear-weapons-free zones), building confidence between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear-weapons states and among nuclear-weapons states, developments related to conventional weapons and their management, identifying coalitions and encouraging leadership to enable this process, the risks associated with hostile non-state actors, and integrating international security related issues such as the environment and development into the discussion.