The increasing association of nuclear weapons states with the concept of deterrence through nuclear weapons has weakened the prospects of the so-called nuclear ban treaty. The success of nuclear ban treaty calling for a nuclear disarmament is directly linked with how nuclear weapons states perceive of their possession of nuclear weapons in the contemporary nuclear politics.
While closely observing the nuclear history with regard to nuclear deterrence, it is imperative to note that the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability and subsequently the essence of nuclear deterrence played a significant role in state’s foreign and defense policy.
The sheer purpose of nuclear weapons was soon realized by the rationale actors that these weapons are for “deterrence purposes” rather than to be considered as “instrument of war”. Later it was realized that even a small/limited war could escalate to a bigger military war involving nuclear weapons that in turn could erode the essence of nuclear deterrence.
Bernard Brodie, a U.S. civilian military strategist, rightly quoted with regard to nuclear deterrence in his book the Absolute Weapon: “Thus far the chief purpose of military strategy has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”
The bulk of contributions in the field of nuclear strategies during the Cold War period provided a sense to nuclear weapons states that these weapons are to be treated differently given the amount of destruction they could cost upon others if and when they are unleashed.
Perhaps, it is this particular fear associated with nuclear weapons that contributed towards nuclear deterrence what is commonly known as “nuclear peace”, and until today, nuclear optimists are proud to declare that “two nuclear weapons states do not fight major wars.” Indeed, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons are not used.
Nevertheless, the risk of military escalation to major wars that could include the use of nuclear weapons has not completely diminished. This risk existed during the peak of the Cold War when both the Soviet Union and the U.S. possessed thousands of nuclear weapons with sophisticated delivery systems that could over kill each other. And the similar risk continues to exist in the contemporary nuclear world.
Given the risk of accidental nuclear war and the risk of escalation through nuclear weapons, world leadership belonging to nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states realized the concepts of arms control and disarmament. Therefore, a number of international treaties were crafted both at bi-lateral and multilateral levels with an agreed principle that one day these states would strive for a complete disarmament.
In this context, a number of Nuclear Weapons Free Zones were also created encouraging states within the said zone not to go nuclear. Although various arms control processes did succeed particularly between the Soviet Union and the U.S. reducing the danger of war and sustaining deterrence stability between these two Cold War powers, but complete nuclear disarmament has not yet fully strategized between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states.
Despite the creation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT –the largest treaty with an indefinite life extension since 1995), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) yet to be enforced, the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) and rising significance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) within the contemporary nuclear politics, nuclear disarmament is not taking place anywhere.
Nuclear weapons still continue to exist despite the Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 dreaming about the world free from nuclear weapons followed by a number of Nuclear Security Summits. Although both the U.S. and Russia successfully crafted the New Start Treaty enforced in 2010 enabling to reduce their deterrent forces to 1550, conventional and nuclear forces modernization, tactical nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defense system and long range bombers are not part of the discussion. These indicate the sheer limitations of arms limitation treaty even at the bilateral level.
Many in the U.S. alone think of the irrelevance and impossibility of nuclear disarmament. The recent U.S. strong observations against the so-called Nuclear Ban Treaty in March 2017 at the United Nations is the reflection of the same traditional perception of keeping nuclear weapons without going for a Nuclear Zero. The last U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in 2010 itself declares that the U.S would continue to have nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons exist. The upcoming NPR might not bring a revolutionary change for the international community. All the major and recognized nuclear weapons states do not agree with an idea of nuclear disarmament at the immediate future.
Almost every nuclear weapon states consider nuclear weapons for security purposes for their ultimate survival and existence. This increases the essence and value of nuclear weapons even more in the contemporary nuclear politics. For example, the U.S. certainly faces a security dilemma, that is, it can neither uplift the nuclear security guarantee from both its European and Asian allies, nor could it let these allies to acquire their own nuclear capability.
One, if the U.S. uplifts its nuclear guarantee and withdraws its forces from its allies, they could either face vulnerabilities against the possible threats these states may perceive or they could quickly develop their own nuclear capabilities, thereby, creating a strategic balance that could then be, what Lawrence Freedman calls a “dead end of nuclear strategy.”
Second, while letting the U.S. Asian and European allies go nuclear, the U.S. influence of extended deterrence will largely get affected. This would then means the U.S. power projection over these countries will reduce greatly. Also, this could put a blow to international non-proliferation regime as the U.S. largely considers its extended deterrence a service to the international non-proliferation regime where states under the US nuclear umbrella may not necessarily go nuclear.
In addition to this, there are no signs of nuclear disarmament between the nuclear weapons states both in the near and long future. Each nuclear weapons state makes a convincing argument for retaining its own nuclear weapons until their security concerns are fully addressed to their satisfaction level.
The international non-proliferation regime has contributed a little, if not much, containing the spread of nuclear weapons states. However, it is to the credit of these non-proliferation regimes that today we witness only 9 nuclear weapons states compare to the Cold War thinking that there could be a two dozen of them. That being said, the international non-proliferation regime such as the NPT, the CTBT, the proposed FMCT, the NSG as rising cartel group etc. are not free from weaknesses. The prospects for a universal arms control regime and a nuclear ban treaty are dim.
An ideal road to complete disarmament would require the international community to address the issues of discrimination, negative security assurances, increasing conventional imbalances, advance nuclear and conventional force modernization, outstanding security issues between the nuclear weapons states, restructuring process of non-proliferation regime, and the absence of major responsibility by the major nuclear weapons states towards nuclear disarmament. Without fully understanding and addressing these outstanding issues, complete disarmament is not taking place very soon.
The writer is an Assistant Professor at department of Strategic Studies, National Defense University. This paper was presented at the Round table organized at Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) titled “Nuclear Ban Treaty: Debating the missing link”.