This Week: Multilateral nuclear disarmament - it would be a nice idea

The conventional wisdom among nuclear-weapons powers is that their arsenals can only be dismantled multilaterally, step-by-step—yet the associated co-ordination dilemmas keep proving insuperable.

The nuclear-weapons states have been coming in for a beating at the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in session at the UN headquarters in New York. The Non-aligned Movement said these states had made no progress on disarmament and urged them to stop modernizing their arsenals. And a joint statement by 159 states called for the elimination of nuclear arms, with strong statements in support from Mexico, Kazakhstan and Brazil.

In response, the UK opening statement openly criticized those who would “force the speed” of disarmament—although article VI of the 1968 treaty committed it and the other nuclear-weapons powers to negotiate in “good faith” to that end. The NPT, cornerstone of global efforts to control nuclear proliferation, will not retain the confidence of the international community indefinitely if those states temporarily granted the largest privileges do not live up to their responsibilities, and continue to use their nuclear arsenals to maintain status in the international system.

A cynical lack of commitment to multilateral nuclear disarmament (MND) may be too crude an explanation. The fact that MND runs against historical experience—it has never yet been essayed—is a clue that it is actually really difficult. Advocates of MND as the only means to achieve nuclear disarmament could be more unrealistically idealistic than those advocating an international ban on such weapons.

We all believe in MND as a good thing—all except, that is, those diehards who genuinely think nuclear weapons make the world safer. If we are to achieve a world free from nuclear dangers then all states with nuclear weapons surely have to be involved and if that can be achieved through managed negotiation, that can’t be bad.

The expressed commitment to MND in New York is consistent with decades of such statements. The clearest actual commitment was the creation by the UK in 2008 of the poorly-named ‘P5 process’, involving the five recognized nuclear-weapons states taking baby steps (the first meeting was in 2009) towards a shared understanding and something akin to transparency. The five have reported on this to the Review Conference.

MND has been advanced by Labour and Conservative politicians during the UK general election because they consider it the only responsible approach (and because they believe they would be crucified in the polls were they to hint at anything different). Yet the only disarmament the UK has ever engaged in has been unilateral.

Advocates of exclusive MND argue that if states have built up their nuclear arsenals in a balance-of terror-situation, then the only practical way to escape the trap will be patient and incremental steps in the reverse, ensuring the balance is maintained. They argue that alternatives involve unstable exposure by one side or a single collective leap into the unknown, which could land us back in the world of great-power conflict or rapid nuclear blackmail.

The US and Russia engaged in bilateral talks in the past, credibly offering arms cuts which benefited the security of the other directly, because they existed in a mutual deterrent relationship largely unaffected by other states. But this bilateral principle is already under pressure. One of the key reasons why the Russians were not interested in follow-ons to the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) agreement—even before the further deepening of tensions over Ukraine—was because these did not take account of the other three recognized nuclear-weapons states, all of which have an impact on Russian calculations. Its tactical nuclear weapons are seen as a balance to the numerically superior Chinese conventional forces to its south, while UK and French nuclear weapons clearly add to NATO totals.

Stumbling blocks
Arms control involving numbers, difficult enough in a bilateral context because systems are hard to compare, becomes highly complex in any multilateral environment, in which states very different in size, power and inter-relationships, and when each attach a high military and political utility to nuclear weapons. No one quite knows how to go about it, and attempts at building the regime in pieces—test bans, fissile-material bans, controls on technology transfers, interdiction and the like—dance around the edges and yet still come up against big stumbling blocks.

Should MND negotiations be confined in the first instance to the five NPT-recognized states? Can they be expected to disarm if that leaves others like them but not so recognized with a comparative advantage? Can these latter states be expected to join later if they have had no part in determining the agenda?—note Israel’s objections after the 2010 Review Conference decided to hold a conference on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. Yet how can the international community include them when this would implicitly recognize their status and could confer privileges and weaken non-proliferation, when they do not accept the basic rules of the game?

As if this isn’t already complex enough, nuclear balances are deeply affected by non-nuclear capabilities. The Russians have long criticized the notion of ballistic missile defense (BMD), because they fear this could create an opportunity for the US to neutralize their second-strike capability (after an initial American attack) and so undermine deterrence. But their deeper concerns surround the development of long-range, conventional strike capabilities, which could (in sufficient numbers) overwhelm their nuclear arsenal without a nuclear weapon being used. They are already concerned at the extraordinary rapid development of US precision-strike capabilities, on show each time the Americans engage in military power projection.

Put simply, it is a stretch to imagine states being ready to engage seriously in successful MND unless they radically change their attitudes towards nuclear weapons and raise their sights to include other means to achieve reductions in parallel. History shows that negotiated reductions are but one means to move downwards—much progress has been achieved unilaterally. The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives declared by the US in 1991 and 1992 were perhaps the most ground-breaking but there were many other instances. The dismantling of warheads, systems and facilities by the UK and France have all been exclusively unilateral.

Whether negotiated or unilateral, none of these actions arose from an idealistic commitment to the global non-proliferation and disarmament system. Instead, they were the result of hard-nosed national-security assessments of the changing threat, meaning that it was no longer deemed ‘necessary’ to maintain such sizeable arsenals. To expect other states to follow by example or to be grateful for these reductions, when nuclear arsenals deemed ‘necessary’ to national security are retained, is unrealistic. To refer to such expectations, as diplomats from nuclear-weapons states have done in New York, is naïve.

Core problems
These changes in security assessment have led to significant reductions over the past quarter of a century. But there are two core problems.

Even in the extremely benign environment of the 1990s, after the cold war, there was no serious suggestion by any nuclear-weapons state of achieving full disarmament, and the NPT was extended indefinitely. Important progress was made in agreeing a comprehensive test-ban treaty but that has not come into force and other measures essential to the project have hit the buffers. The opportunity offered by conducive conditions was squandered and relationships are now deteriorating.

This points to the heart of the problem. Bilateral arms control is possible in situations of extreme distrust and when a high value is attached to nuclear weapons. But MND is not—and this is freely admitted. Advocates talk of developing the conditions essential for global nuclear disarmament, by which they mean the absence of strategic conflict over a long period. And that is distinctly idealistic and naïve.

Secondly, attachment to MND perversely incentivizes states to retain redundant nuclear-weapons systems, so that these can be traded at the negotiating table. That is certainly NATO’s attitude towards its forward-deployed B-61 nuclear bombs based in Europe. These have little if any deterrent value—other systems are far more relevant—but are seen as symbols of NATO’s resolve and unity. Russia does not intend to trade its tactical nuclear weapons, deployed for completely different reasons, for NATO weapons it fully realises have no military value.

There is a growing sense in the majority world that the commitments made by the nuclear-weapons states are little more than window-dressing, as the frustrations expressed at the Review Conference demonstrate. But it is too cynical to construct a conspiracy theory or blame devious duplicity. It would be more honest to reflect on the inevitable challenges behind MND and to understand just how difficult it is, however desirable it may be. But this is not to say that nuclear disarmament is simply too difficult to attempt—simply that it is naïve to depend upon MND alone.

The fundamental problem remains that deep-seated assumption that nuclear weapons bring influence and security to states that possess them. And if that assumption holds, it will not only indefinitely stymie disarmament—it will also inexorably drive proliferation. 

This article was originally featured on a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of