Is there such a thing as a responsible nuclear-armed state in the 21st century? If so, what does it look like?
The nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime is in crisis, arms control has lost its appeal and strategic nuclear relations look more dangerous today than at any time in a generation. Not only are nuclear tensions growing between Russia and NATO but there is instability as well as tension between India and Pakistan, and fear remains over an uncertain nuclear future in the Middle East.
Some say the situation is more dangerous and unpredictable than ever (although they conveniently forget the risks of the cold war). We are desperately in need of a reframing of the global nuclear-weapons agenda. Looking to past solutions is not only inadequate—it could be fatal.
There have been attempts in the past to kick-start a worldwide conversation around the responsibilities states and non-state actors have towards the international community, to its stability and evolution, and to its ecological and social sustainability. But we need a fresh effort in the nuclear field.
That conversation needs to be inclusive, because a co-operative, activist agenda based on progressive ideas attracts strong resistance from those who disagree with its basic assumptions. It therefore also has to be pragmatic, recognising that we live in a world mediated to an extent by power relationships.
But everyone understands and accepts that states and other international entities have some responsibility towards the international community. Every state leadership understands the need to command basic legitimacy. So the dialogue needs to be framed in a manner sufficiently open that everyone, regardless of perspective or culture, can accept its foundation: it needs to be based on conceptions of fair principle and justice rather than simple expression of raw power.
Many have been shocked not only by the rapid descent in relations between Russia and NATO, precipitated by events in Ukraine, but particularly by the manner in which the Russians appear to have pursued aggressive, strategic, military manoeuvres with a veiled nuclear threat to intimidate opponents within Europe. This is part of Russia’s strategy to balance what it perceives to be NATO’s inexorable expansion eastwards and the deployment of emerging US technologies which destabilise the east-west balance, while appealing to nationalist sentiment at home. Wherever one chooses to attach blame in this complex Shakespearean play—all involved have had a part in reaching the strategic mess in which we find ourselves—are nuclear weapons now considered legitimate tools for bullying or is it really responsible to be planning to use them tactically for war-fighting, beyond their strategic deterrent role?
If this becomes the general attitude to arms control and to broader treaty agreements, it has worrying implications.
These actions cross a number of red lines, not least the legal framework set down by the 1996 opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This may have left unclear whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons could ever be lawful but it averred that any use beyond the securing of the most fundamental survival of the state would most certainly not be. Does Russia really believe that its actions are those of a responsible member of the international community? Does it genuinely believe that from a position of weakness it has no other choice than to meet the strategic expansion of NATO and the EU with such a threat?
The nuclear-weapon states were already on course for a difficult time when states gather for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference later this month in New York. But it can be expected that Russia will draw strident criticism usually reserved for the US.
The mood at this year’s Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington DC in March was despondent. On the second day, the veteran Russian commentator and policy practitioner Alexei Arbatov had the unenviable task of explaining the evolution of the Russian nuclear-diplomatic perspective to a largely unfavourable, largely American audience. He did an excellent job.
His fellow panelist Frank Miller levelled a series of allegations against Russia for breaking bilateral arms-control agreements with the US. But Arbatov responded by saying that in Russia as many equally serious allegations were made against the US record.
It had already broken the arms-control taboo by leaving the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty soon after George W. Bush entered the White House, treating arms control as essentially an unnecessary constraint on US freedom of action, he said. This attitude remained prevalent on Capitol Hill and could easily return to the administration with a change of president. When so many nuclear arms-control agreements appeared to facilitate US superiority in the conventional field, many in Moscow asked why the Russians should not take a leaf out of the American playbook. States could not be constrained indefinitely by agreements made by previous administrations in very different eras, if they believed that those agreements harmed their longer-term national interests.
If this becomes the general attitude to arms control and to broader treaty agreements, it has worrying implications. Each generation will have to recommit to or, worse, reinvent the international machinery they inherited from their predecessors. It would be a grave error not to recognise the dangers of this approach and to underestimate the sustained effort and expertise over many decades which has gone into formulating this most extraordinary, if highly imperfect, international machinery.
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a case in point and under severe pressure. Promises made in 2010 at the last Review Conference now look hollow, with only minor progress and in some important respects steps back. In the longer term it appears as hopeless as ever to attract India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea into the treaty, and states-party who joined with particular expectations cannot be expected to tolerate indefinitely the discrimination the nuclear-armed states appear to believe the treaty legitimises.
The negotiation of the treaty in the 1960s was a heroic achievement. And its success has been remarkable, notwithstanding the emergence of these four nuclear-armed states outside the treaty. But there is a danger that the complacency and cynicism already apparent will deepen and states’ commitment to their treaty obligations could atrophy.
Direction of travel
It is time the next generation had its own debate on how we achieve strategic stability and a direction of travel that makes good use of the better machinery of international management but avoids the pitfalls of the past. In terms of nuclear diplomacy, deterrence and strategic relations, this could revolve around the question:
What does it mean to be a responsible nuclear-armed state in the 21st century?
This does not imply indefinite protection of the status quo or an acknowledgment that it is responsible for a state to possess nuclear weapons at all. One answer could be that the only responsible nuclear-armed state would be one that resolved rapidly to demobilise its arsenal and encourage other states to do the same.
There are at least three strands to this question:
Such a framing could engage the Russians and Chinese, for legitimacy in the international community is as important in Moscow and Beijing as in Washington or London, though perhaps with different interpretations and with a different set of factors in play. A Russian response might be that responsible states recognise the importance of stable nuclear relationships with each other and do not seek technological advantage which could upset that stability. This question could also engage those states outside the NPT, which reject its discriminatory nature but nevertheless acknowledge the need for responsible action, as well as those leading the argument on a nuclear-weapons ban.
It could incorporate current thinking on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons: if they have such devastating effects, then how can a responsible state threaten them? The conditions for use or threat of use must surely be extreme, if they exist at all (as the ICJ ruled). Certainly it would be hard to see a state qualify as a responsible member of the international community if it was motivated to use nuclear threat in pursuit of status or advantage in regional competition.
The discussion over what a responsible nuclear-armed state might be is part of a wider global conversation about how we mediate individual, state and global common interests, when the more extreme pursuit of national interests deeply damages the common good. The control of military nuclear technologies is of particular importance, because the adverse consequences of the further spread and then likely use of nuclear weapons in war are of such incredible scale.
Coercive control of the international arena by states with the capability to exert it will only ever be partially effective. It will increase the sense of injustice and the attraction to others of nuclear weapons, and have a wide range of other unintended negative impacts. We need intergenerational, intercultural, global buy-in to the strategies of international control, starting with an all-inclusive dialogue.