Syria: lessons for the nuclear debate


The threat of military intervention in Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons use by Bashar Al-Assad’s government was put on hold this past week as U.S. and Russian Foreign Ministers, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, negotiated a deal that would see Syria sign up to the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and hand their chemical weapons stockpile over to the international community. As we edge towards a decision, it may be valuable to reflect on the core arguments that have been driving the debate.

In his Address to the Nation on the 10th September, President Obama advocated military intervention in response to the “sickening” images from Syria which he said highlighted “in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons”. These images served as a reminder as to “why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared [chemical weapons] off-limits - a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war”; “because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them”. David Cameron spoke similarly of “appalling levels of suffering” caused by the “morally reprehensible” use of chemical weapons.

Despite this heavy focus on morality, respect for humanity and adherence to global norms, however, little connection had been drawn with the discussion over possession and use of weapons of mass destruction more broadly - and specifically, nuclear weapons, which would undoubtedly have far more significant and widespread consequences than chemical weapons, if used.

Perhaps it is simply too soon to have that debate; policy-makers’ sights remain on the short-term impacts of chemical weapons use in Syria and how to address them. The time for broader reflection is yet to come.

Some would argue that no connection has been drawn because the link between chemical and nuclear weapons does not exist. A distinction is often made within the security community between the two, largely based on the theory of deterrence: as distinct from chemical weapons, nuclear weapons are capable of “mutually assured destruction” on a level which makes their widespread use unthinkable. They are seen in essence as weapons of pure terror, striking such an extreme reaction in the mind of an adversary that they somehow simultaneously impress both that the costs of his actions will be simply too terrible to contemplate and that these weapons will never be used.

Proponents of this line of thinking believe that the mere existence of such weapons and the very threat of their use provides stability by deterring attacks on countries under the umbrella of the nuclear armed states. They often point to the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used in over 65 years - a similar claim cannot be made of chemical weapons. “Responsible” governments all agree that the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use would be devastating: but they argue that they would never actually use them.

For them, our focus has to be on preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons through the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (that is, reducing the risk that irresponsible governments would procure such weapons and throw the concept of stability provided by “mutually assured destruction” into question). Drawing the international community into a discussion over our humanitarian and moral responsibilities would be a distracting sideline.

However, the anti-nuclear lobby broadly maintains that this line of thinking ignores some critical points. First, they argue that traditional deterrence theory does not account for human error or folly: we have come frighteningly close to nuclear war in the past and, as long as nuclear weapons remain on high alert, the decision of whether or not we get there in the future will continue to sit with a handful of individuals. There will be no time for considered consultation with Parliament, Congress or the public.

Second, regardless of the NPT, states have continued to both commit acts of aggression, regardless of the existence of any nuclear deterrent, and to proliferate. India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran have all either developed or are thought to be pursuing nuclear weapons programmes, and Israel is believed to possess a sizable and sophisticated nuclear arsenal. And third - perhaps most importantly - we are at risk of muddying the water around our principles: we either care so deeply about morality, respect for humanity and adherence to global norms that we are willing to consider military action to uphold those principles, or we don’t. We cannot legitimately pick and choose where such considerations apply.

As it stands, recent events in Syria seem unlikely to inspire any dramatic acceleration of nuclear disarmament. But regardless of which side of the nuclear debate we fall, the use of chemical weapons in Damascus and our visceral response to them should at the very least give us pause to reflect on our nuclear weapons policies and the principles that are guiding us.

The NPT recognizes “the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples”. 189 states have signed up to the Treaty, and the five officially recognized nuclear armed states - the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France and China - are taking gradual steps towards reducing their nuclear arsenals, strongly attached to their belief in the fragile stability that exists so long as a belief in deterrence theory prevails.

In the sidelines, a discussion around the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use is taking place - albeit with less public and media fervour than the recent debate over chemical weapons. In March this year, 127 states, along with a number of U.N. organizations, the Red Cross and civil society groups, met in Oslo to talk about precisely this. A follow-up conference is due to take place in Mexico in February of next year.

The five officially recognized nuclear armed states chose collectively to opt out of the Oslo discussions, citing their belief that it would distract from the NPT process. Yet the two issues are inextricably linked. The humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use sit at the core of the NPT debate: they define why we are talking about nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in the first place.

The drive for a Chemical Weapons Convention was triggered largely by our understanding of the devastating and lasting impacts of widespread chemical weapons use during the First World War - though we turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s frequent use against Iran and his own citizens in the 1980s. It seems improbable that the international community wants to wait for such a large-scale catastrophe involving nuclear weapons to inspire us to move more quickly towards a world free of nuclear weapons, as President Obama set out in his Prague vision of 2010.

Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are undeniably a delicate balancing act. While belief in deterrence theory still exists, unilateral moves to disarm without alternative assurances could inspire proliferation among those states currently under the nuclear umbrella. But opportunities do exist for us to keep pushing forward in the right direction. First, there is a chance for all states to engage meaningfully in the next conference on humanitarian impacts that will take place in Mexico. This is an opportunity for the international community to find even more common ground over the principles behind the NPT’s vision of non-proliferation and disarmament. And, perhaps more critically, there is room for us to think creatively about replacing nuclear deterrence with more coherent and sustainable means to deliver international stability and governance.

This week, the future of the British nuclear weapons programme, Trident, will be discussed again during the Liberal Democratic Party Conference in the U.K. The coalition government released a review into the alternatives to like-for-like replacement of Trident just before the parliamentary summer recess, which will likely form the basis of the Liberal Democrats’ debate. The aim is to consider how the UK can take further steps down the disarmament ladder.

There are those who have voiced concern that the U.S. would feel left out in the cold by a U.K. decision to dial back its nuclear deterrent. But more sensible, perhaps, would be to look at the issue through a forward-looking prism of collective security objectives - including how the U.K. can play the most meaningful and comprehensive future role in both NATO and the U.K. and U.S. Mutual Defense Agreement, which is due for renewal in 2014. The U.S. arguably has more to gain from bringing the U.K. under its nuclear umbrella and ensuring that it has a partner able to stand by its side in more common conventional security scenarios, than pushing for the U.K. to remain an independent nuclear armed state.

The civil war in Syria has been raging for two years. And yet it was only by witnessing the effects of chemical weapons use first-hand, through the power of social media, that the international community was shocked into action, driven by a sense of moral outrage and humanitarian responsibility. While images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been imprinted on our memories, the humanitarian aspects of the nuclear weapons debate have somehow slipped out of mainstream policy discourse. Perhaps this is the right moment to bring them back in, to help us demonstrate the responsible, principled leadership we believe in, and to use them as a positive driver for change.


This article was originally featured in a regular column by Rebecca on openSecurity, a section of

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