Practical Steps to Abolish Nuclear Weapons:Addressing the Belief Systems

Manpreet Sethi, Research Officer, IDSA


Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed.

— UNESCO Constitution

Abolition of nuclear weapons, a cherished objective for some, has, nevertheless, been treated with much scepticism by many others who have doubted its feasibility and desirability. Arguments against universal nuclear disarmament have been made on several grounds. For instance, that it would not be possible to disinvent the weapon; that it would not be a technically feasible proposition given the difficulties involved in dismantling the weapons, arranging for their safe storage and the eventual dilution of the fissile material extracted therefrom; and that it might not even be a very desirable objective to aspire for in the first place because it might end up making the world more prone to war and instability.

Such traditional ways of thinking have been responsible for creating an atmosphere in which nuclear disarmament is still not believed to be a realistic goal. There are enough people who still argue that abolition is fine as a long-term aspiration—something to be kept in mind, but not yet to be taken in practical terms as a sensible policy goal. Not surprisingly, then, those arguing in favour of nuclear disarmament are impatiently suffered as wishful thinkers or utopian fools and summarily dismissed by the practitioners of realpolitik.

In order to counter such allegations and the concomitant belief systems, one can basically take two approaches: one, work on making abolition practically possible by delineating a clear pathway leading to the goal. This would entail an identification of some tangible milestones such as reducing nuclear weapons, de-alerting those that exist, dismantling those that have been removed, and doing so under a well monitored verification regime, etc. A second approach, however, could be one that is more intangible and abstract since it would attempt to target the mindset and beliefs of those against nuclear weapons abolition. While the first approach appears to be the more practical and essential one, the latter cannot afford to be ignored. In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive because the steps outlined by the first would only become possible when one's beliefs and attitudes towards nuclear weapons change. Therefore, the latter must be the starting point and this article attempts to be just that. It seeks to assess and address the belief systems that exist around nuclear weapons in the hope of finding ways to undercut the rationale and supplant them with others more amenable to the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free world (NWFW).

Mind Over Matter

The power of the mind cannot be underestimated. In the ultimate analysis, it is his beliefs and value systems that make a man act the way he does. We are what we believe. It has been stated several times over that technology by itself is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. It is the purpose to which it is put that makes all the difference. And, the purpose is decided by a "thinking" man whose values and beliefs determine his behaviour and actions. By the same logic, nuclear technology too can be used for peaceful generation of electricity or in medicine or food preservation. And yet, with equal, if not more ease, it could also be used to make nuclear weapons. Therefore, it is the man putting the technology to use who determines its purpose based on his beliefs and value systems. Since we have believed in the utility of harnessing nuclear energy to produce lethal weapons of mass destruction (WMD), so it has been. If we could change this belief in the utility of nuclear weapons, then their abolition might not seem so difficult a proposition. Therefore, the belief systems need to be strategically "attacked" or addressed to make them more favourable to nuclear abolition.

History testifies to the fact that institutions whose abolition was once thought to be unthinkable have broken down under the pressure of changed belief systems. One need only point to the case of slavery to further drive home this point. In fact, when a few had started demanding the abolition of slavery, there were several who argued against it on the grounds that the economic system and society would not be able to survive the drastic change!! At the time, on December 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, in his famous message to the US Congress, had said, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves."1

This advice has come in useful whenever radical transformations have taken place—the breakdown of apartheid, the gaining of Indian independence, etc. It is most relevant today in the case of nuclear weapons. We have to disenthrall ourselves from their hold and if anything can do that it is the force of new ideas. As Victor Hugo had once said, "Nothing else in the world…not all the armies…is so powerful as an idea whose time has come."

Traditional Beliefs Associated with Nuclear Weapons

At a very basic level, countries aspire for nuclear weapons for two reasons: security and status, and not necessarily in that order. With the possession of nuclear weapons, security is deemed to be enhanced because the use of these weapons threatens such horrendous consequences that the adversary is deterred against making any move that might invite their use. It is as if nuclear weapons provide an insurance cover against the worst possible development by ensuring a retaliatory strike capable of inflicting unacceptable damage. From this, it has been surmised that deterrence provides stability to the international order and during the Cold War was responsible for keeping a World War III at bay. By inverse logic then, it has been propagated that in the absence of the stabilising effect of nuclear weapons, countries would turn trigger-happy and provoke conventional wars. This belief has over the years contributed to the inertia against any move in favour of nuclear disarmament.

When subjected to close scrutiny, however, the belief reveals itself as as untested and non-testable hypothesis. It cannot be said for sure whether wars were actually deterred by the presence of nuclear weapons. Of course, nuclear weapons have deterred the use of nuclear weapons. But their presence did nothing to really stop conventional conflagrations. Conventional wars still did take place and it cannot be taken for granted that the presence of nuclear weapons deters the very act of aggression. Wars have been and will continue to be a means of engagement among nations. Man killed man even in the Stone Age and he will continue to do so into the future. However, what makes a difference are the tools that he employs in a war and the acceptability of the collateral damage caused thereby. With nuclear weapons, destruction of life would occur on a massive scale and with relative ease.2 In fact, the destruction so wrought cannot be measured only in terms of the number of casualties, but goes much further in time and space. The heat, storms, electro-magnetic pulse and radioactivity so generated would result in instantaneous death for several hundred thousands, besides immense pain and anguish to several others who might be lucky enough to survive death but sadly unfortunate in having to suffer its damages in mutations and congenital malformations. A nuclear war would also bring on ecological disasters of unimaginable magnitude, causing long-term devastation of life and matter.

All this remains a possibility, however remote, as long as nuclear weapons exist. The world till then is compelled to live in the fear of every war escalating into a nuclear one. And, therefore, the belief in the desirability of retaining nuclear weapons for the sake of maintaining international stability is more than a little misplaced. In fact, it is ironical that we seem to be counting upon our potential agents of extinction as a means of maintaining our security. It needs little reiteration then that an NWFW will definitely be a safer world and to that extent, it shall be a more desirable one.

The second major belief attached to nuclear weapons is that their possession enhances national status and international prestige. This is because these weapons are still the preserve of a select few and the technology involved in their production is deemed to be a frontier technology capable of being mastered by only the very scientifically advanced. Nuclear weapons are believed to confer an exalted position on the possessor state, ensuring that its policies and postures on national and international issues are taken more seriously. For the same reason, nuclear weapons are taken as great equalisers that can help even a small nation stand up to the might of a large one. The French position vis-à-vis the erstwhile USSR demonstrated this fact.

This role of nuclear weapons as status enhancers is responsible for the nuclear weapon states (NWS) not wishing to give them up, as also for the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) desiring to attain them. Related to this is the added benefit of being able to sustain an independent decision making, especially on matters of foreign policy. French Prime Minister Alain Juppe had himself admitted in September 1995, "By acquiring nuclear capability, France was able to play, on the world scene, a role well above that justified by its mere quantitative significance."3 Hence, they can serve as powerful political instruments of coercion.

This belief is no easier to crack than the above one related to security. However, it can be changed if one could begin to measure national status from a new perspective. At present, it is gauged in terms of military capacity and economic power. This belief needs to be supplanted by one that considers national status from the threshold of human security. Or, in terms of a quality of life index. It would imply the extent to which a state can guard its citizens against such seemingly mundane afflictions as sickness, hunger, persecution, ecological disasters, poverty, unemployment and other such basic human needs. In fact, in this regard, it might even be said that if people are released from the worries of everyday living, their levels of concern for global issues would proportionately rise, and in the bargain, support for nuclear disarmament would grow.

Making Abolition Possible

For the present, however, how does one address the kind of entrenched belief systems detailed above? The task, in fact, is further complicated by the presence of an extremely powerful military-industrial organisation in every nuclear weapon state whose very existence depends on obtaining huge amounts of public money to maintain and update nuclear arsenals. Political leaders who might be in favour of abolition get caught under the combined pressures from the military, industry, veteran organisations, and even journalists, and are left with little option but to continue to perpetuate the existing beliefs and attitudes.

These, nevertheless, do need to be changed if an NWFW is to be made possible. In the following paragraphs, this paper attempts to identify certain target areas, or in other words, prescribe a syndromic change that could promote the realisation of an environment in which nuclear disarmament would seem less undesirable and more feasible. It briefly sketches four possible scenarios in which the NWS could agree to renounce their nuclear weapons. The availability of these fortuitous circumstances would automatically mean a change in not only our nuclear belief systems but also in our concepts of security, thereby, making the attainment of a nuclear weapons-free world more plausible.

Firstly, common sense dictates that no NWS, nor any other state desirous of becoming one, would want to renounce its nuclear capability/ambitions, until it is convinced that some other more reliable means providing for its security are firmly in place. This sense of security, in turn, could be instilled in two ways: one, by effectuating an intrinsic change in the international security environment through the conclusion of a variety of confidence-building measures (CBMs); and secondly, by attaining a clear superiority with conventional weapons. At one level, these two prerequisites of a more secure international order might appear to be mutually exclusive because amassing conventional weapons could rather vitiate the international security environment. However, it needs to be remembered that in this case, the conventional weapons would actually be replacing WMD and the likely spurt in their accumulation might prove to be transitional, occurring only soon after the actual abolition of nuclear weapons and more to serve a psychological, rather than a military purpose.

The Gulf War demonstrated the potential effectiveness of smart conventional weapons when used in a strategic role just as much as it underlined the futility of nuclear weapons. Several analysts have been making the case for choosing strategic, high precision conventional weapons over their nuclear counterparts, especially because, "they are safer, cause less collateral damage, and pose less threat of escalation than do nuclear weapons."4 In fact, conventional weapons woud offer flexibility in a variety of situations where the use of nuclear weapons would be politically or militarily impractical. Moreover, their efficacy is enhanced by the fact that the enemy cannot discount the possibility of their use unlike in the case of the nuclear weapons. Once this belief is accepted, then as extrapolated by the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), "the active and conspicuous role given to nuclear weapons during the Cold War can be greatly reduced without significant adverse effect on the probability of major war…"5

As a second prerequisite, the states can be expected to renounce their nuclear option only when enough technical expertise is available to ensure adequate verification of the commitments undertaken by the states to abandon their nuclear arsenals. One of the major reasons why nuclear disarmament has been considered unfeasible until now is the lack of an adequate mechanism, both institutional as well as technological, to oversee the process of disarmament. The inability to decide on what to do with the dismantled warheads and how to ensure their safe and secure storage has proved to be a handicap.

History illustrates that often belief systems change only when it becomes technically possible to prove something. For centuries, man continued to believe that the sun revolves around the earth. Those who disputed this belief were ridiculed or persecuted. Copernicus in his lifetime could not find acceptance for his theory. The belief changed only after the invention of the telescope and other astronomical instruments that could technically prove that the sun was actually at the centre of the universe. Applying the same logic to the issue of nuclear disarmament, it may be said that advancements in the field of surveillance and monitoring technologies coupled with the ongoing research on how to deal with the nuclear materials obtained from dismantled warheads would help to change the belief systems surrounding the nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, movement towards an NWFW could be propelled if there is an accumulation of enough risks from the continued possession of these weapons. If the dangers surmount and keep on doing so, then states might see sense in doing away with these weapons. Some of these risks, in palpable proportions are already becoming evident. For instance, we are living in times when ethnic conflicts, religious fundamentalism, proliferation of a terrorist ethos, "loose nukes", illegal trafficking in nuclear weapons or materials, etc is on an upward swing. The reasons for conflict are also increasing as competition becomes as fierce for scarce renewable resources (water and fertile land) as for non-renewable resources (oil and minerals), even as the planet becomes dangerously overpopulated. At the same time, the modern international system is experiencing a technology push in which more and more and increasingly sophisticated technology is available from an ever growing number of suppliers. The collapse of the centralised Soviet control and the turmoil in Eastern Europe increased the opportunity for states or groups to acquire nuclear technology, weapons, components or expertise. This erodes the effectiveness of technology export controls and hightens the risk of nuclear proliferation. In fact, even more ominous than the flow of components and technology may prove to be the transformation of nuclear weapons experts (designers, engineers, etc.) from an elite core confined in space to an unemployed, floating population.6

In such an emerging scenario, holding onto their obsolete belief systems is placing the NWS in a Catch-22 situation. As new risks and challenges to international security emerge, they raise their reliance on nuclear weapons. But such moves make the other NNWS suspect their sincerity to eventually commit themselves to nuclear disarmament. This, in turn, makes them review their own security requirements factoring in the presence of nuclear weapons for times to come. These factors are sure to fuel further nuclear proliferation and the danger of such an eventually can be awesome considering the increasing tendency among states to view nuclear weapons not as weapons of last resort, but as "weapons of the weak against the strong, as the only weapons that can counter the conventional superiority of the West."7 However, as the risks mount, the NWS might see sense in renouncing nuclear weapons.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the prospects of nuclear disarmament would be brighter, if, based on the above three factors, enough pressure is mounted on the governments by the international intelligentsia. Fortunately, to some extent this is already happening. At the individual level, security analysts and even former military men have begun to question the rationale behind the continuance of nuclear weapons. Cold War theologists such as Paul Nitze and Fred Ikle have expressed themselves in favour of disarmament. Also of import is the volte face by the likes of General George Lee Butler who was once head of the US Strategic Air Command.8 He has questioned how the American nation has "put at the service of our national survival a weapon whose sheer destructiveness was antithetical to the very values upon which our society was based?"9 While such opinions have not yet filtered down into government policies, they do influence beliefs worldwide. In fact, nuclear beliefs, theologies and doctrines have largely emanated from the West and if they change at the source, it could trigger off a chain reaction elsewhere too.

At the national level too, one can point to the efforts by some of the smaller states to distance themselves from nuclearism. For instance, New Zealand and Greece have taken strong stands against allowing their ports to be used by naval vessels carrying nuclear warheads. While such national initiatives are still few and far between, at the multilateral level, such strains are more evident. For instance, in 1995, the Canberra Commission appointed by the Australian prime minister, proposed practical steps towards an NWFW. It also considered the related problem of maintaining stability and security during the transitional period and after the goal of complete disarmament had been achieved. The Commission enumerated several "immediate" and reinforcing steps in this direction. It called upon the NWS to commit themselves "unequivocally to the elimination of nuclear weapons" and advised the NNWS to support this commitment by "join(ing) in cooperative international action to implement it."10 It opined that this dual commitment, made at the highest political level, would change the tenor of the disarmament debate.

Another development at the global level took place when, in July 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in response to a request from the UN General Assembly, pronounced the use of nuclear weapons as unlawful and against the principles of humanitarian law except possibly in extreme circumstances of self-defence where the survival of a state is at stake.11 It concluded that "there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all aspects under strict international control."12 The judgement is not binding and its violation cannot be treated with any punitive action, but it does play a role in raising the consciousness of the informed public opinion. For nations that claim to uphold the rule of law and humanitarian principles, it imposes a moral, if not a legally enforceable imperative to abolish nuclear weapons.

A build-up of pressure in favour of disarmament is also evident from the fact that the Conference on Disarmament, meeting over three sessions spread between January to September 1999, concluded without conducting any business. So much so, that it could not even decide upon a programme of work because a number of countries insisted upon some tangible movement in the direction of nuclear disarmament, a demand that the Western nuclear powers, including Russia, were not willing to concede. A few months earlier, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee meeting had also witnessed a clear rift among the ranks of the member states over the issue of disarmament. All these development do point to a mounting pressure on those resisting the demand for universal nuclear disarmament.


Over a period of time, a cumulative effect of these pressures could contribute to breaking the traditional beliefs about nuclear weapons. In fact, nuclear weapons can be abolished only when the belief systems behind their use and utility change. Only later can these changes be institutionalised as norms and in legal regimes. Initially, it shall all have to begin in the mind and thereafter the possibilities would grow. Of course, one cannot set a date for the realisation of these latent possibilities. Every revolution in history has taken its leaders by surprise because as long as the old order exists, it tends to hide its fragility through elaborate measures. Its control then seems total and impregnable. But ideas can still sneak in and slowly snowball into a force capable of bringing about a profound change. Similarly, the present nuclear order can be broken down under the weight of more enlightened and humane beliefs and value systems.

In this context, a brief mention of the concept of no-first use as an alternative belief system needs to be made. In a recently put forth draft nuclear doctrine, India has upheld this principle, thereby opening up an alternative to the prevailing conventional wisdom of first use as espoused by the Western nuclear powers, and even Russia. Of the P-5, China is the only other nation that has adopted a similar commitment, though it has attached conditionalities to it over the years. In any case, a counter view to the traditional aggressive and arms race inducing doctrines is now available and it could engender a new belief system to slowly undercut the rationale of nuclear weapons. If all nuclear weapons states were to accept this precept, then none would ever initiate a nuclear strike. Naturally, therefore, over the years, the utility of nuclear weapons would decline, and so would the attachment to them as a means of security.

More such alternate belief systems will have to be put forth to replace the existing ones. But, of course, all this will have to start from the conviction that abolition of nuclear weapons is not only desirable and feasible, but also an imperative. Acceptance of this belief will create the necessary climate in which other, more tangible actions can become possible.



1. Jerome B. Wiesner, "A Militarised Soceity", in Len Ackland and Steve McGuire ed., Assessing the Nuclear Age (Chicago: Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, 1986), p. 227.

2. It can be argued that modern day conventional weapons can cause similar extent of destruction. But the difference lies in the fact that to do so would require a more intensive and extensive use of air power. Nuclear weapons, meanwhile, offer the temptation of easy use and, therefore, also invoke the fear of irresponsible use.

3. Speech delivered by French Prime Minister Alain Juppe at the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Defence Nationale, Paris, on September 7, 1995, and reproduced in Strategic Digest, April 1998.

4. Paul H. Nitze, "Is it Time to Junk our Nukes?", Washington Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3, Summer 1997, p. 97.

5. National Academy of Sciences, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, The Future of US Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1997), p. 3.

6. It is now common knowledge that after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a number of nuclear scientists and weapons experts were seeking placement in other countries, even as those employed at storage sites were caught smuggling fissile material for money.

7. Robert G. Joseph, "Nuclear Deterrence and Regional Proliferators", Washington Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3, Summer 1997, p. 168.

8. It is interesting to note how a number of people involved with nuclear weapons have reversed their support for these weapons after their retirement. Wisdom seems to surface only when they are released from institutional pressures. The pre-and post-retirement stances of Robert Oppenheimer, Admiral Rickover, Henry Stimson, President Eisenhower and General Butler all prove this point.

9. George Lee Butler, "The General's Bombshell: Phasing Out the US Nuclear Arsenal", Washington Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3, Summer 1997, p. 134.

10. Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Internet edition,

11. The judgement, expectedly, provoked much debate on its likely impact on nuclear disarmament given its ambiguity. The legal community and the academia seemed to be equally divided on the issue. For a legal point of view, see Richard Falk, "Nuclear Weapons, International Law and the World Court: A Historic Encounter", Indian Journal of International Law, vol. 37, no. 2, April-June 1997, pp. 149-166.

12. Legality of the Threat of the Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, Communique no. 96/23, July 8, 1996, ICJ, The Hague.