Towards Making Nuclear Disarmament A Practical Proposition

Manpreet Sethi ,Asstt. Editor ,IDSA


Unless some drastic decisions are taken worldwide, it appears more than likely that we shall be entering the next millenium without having achieved nuclear disarmament. The issue remains a long-term objective on the international agenda but for the time being, the five nuclear weapon states (NWS) are not inclined to renounce their nuclear arsenals and neither are the three potential NWS (India, Israel and Pakistan) ready to forgo their nuclear options. Rather, in May this year, India chose to exercise the option that it had long reserved and conducted a series of nuclear tests. In response, Pakistan too has threatened to follow suit.

Yet, two years short of entering the next century, one could concede that there has been an increase in the quantitative and qualitative argumentation in favour of nuclear disarmament. Some military officials and professional strategists all across the world, many of whom have been involved with the nuclear complexes and strategic thinking in their countries, and more particularly in the two largest nuclear weapon states (NWS), USA and Russia, have begun lobbying for the attainment of a nuclear weapon free world (NWFW). Of course, these articulations are yet to be incorporated into national policies, but they by themselves signify no small development considering that during the Cold War, the very concept of nuclear disarmament had been dismissed as unachievable and idealistic.

Changes in the contemporary political landscape have aided the blossoming of this new set of thinkers who have now begun to highlight the feasibility of nuclear disarmament. Of course, given the present fluidity and uncertainty in international relations and security, nobody is ready, as of now, to hazard a guess on the likely time frame in which an NWFW might be attainable. There is no escaping the fact that the process is going to be long one and would most likely proceed slowly since a consensual approach would have to be followed to ascertain its success.

The objective of this paper is to gauge the practicality of the concept by examining the various reasons that continue to justify the existence of nuclear arsenals and weighing them against the possible circumstances in which NWS would be agreeable to renouncing them. Having identified these factors, the article ventures to propose certain steps that can contribute towards making nuclear disarmament a practical proposition.

Why Do States Want Nuclear Weapons?

The rationale for the possession of nuclear weapons has largely been based on two major considerations: those of security and status. These were the motivating factors that drove nations to acquire nuclear weapons capability soon after the discovery of nuclear fission as a significant source of energy. These continue to be the compelling factors in justifying the presence of weapons even after end of the Cold War and other concomitant changes.

Security Considerations

Reasons of security are cited most often to justify the presence of nuclear arsenals. A large scale acceptance of nuclear deterrence prevalent during the Cold War is still quite in place. Nuclear weapons are seen to provide a last line of defense that no competitor can fight against. They provide an insurance cover against the worst possible development by ensuring a retaliatory strike capable of inflicting unacceptable damage. Military strategists have emphasised the retention of this capability to make the nation invincible to conventional attacks of any magnitude.

Getting to the specifics, in the case of Russia, nuclear weapons assure it of security from not only the USA or an eventuality of an unwelcome NATO expansion, but also a defense capability against potential local threats emanating from the states that have recently broken away from the Soviet empire. At the same time, the weapons also extend security to the newly independent nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). For instance, the May 1992 Tashkent Treaty on Collective Security as also some other bilateral agreements between Russia and other CIS constituents envisage a Russian nuclear umbrella.

For USA, the nuclear weapons provide a security hedge, "an insurance policy" against an adverse reversal in its relationship with Russia or China. It is to guard against the possibility of a resurgence of communism in Russia or a souring of relations with China over any of the several issues that yet remain contentious, that a section of American military planners have cautioned against squandering the nuclear advantage.1 This fear is further heightened by the fact that Russia is currently undergoing drastic changes in the domestic arena. These are understandably generating political discord and economic turmoil, thereby suggesting a lurking possibility, however remote, of a breakdown of the fledgling democracy.

Meanwhile, France, UK and China cite the compulsions of their own security to justify the possession of nuclear weapons. In this context, it would be appropriate to quote a statement made by the former French Prime Minister Alain Juppe in September 1995 because it subtly reflects the positions of the other two NWS as well. He has said, "As long as other countries have nuclear weapons, France will naturally retain its own. This position is inspired by caution, wisdom and experience."2 France and UK still consider themselves endangered by the capability of Russian nuclear warheads reaching European targets and therefore, continue to allocate an important role to their nuclear arsenals in their current defence policies. China, meanwhile, the last major bastion of communism and an aspirant for superpower status, harbouring a political system not exactly acceptable to the Western democracies and insisting upon an economic liberalization at its own pace derives security from its nuclear weaponry.

Concerns of threats to national security emanating from their regional surroundings have likewise been highlighted by the threshold states to continue to keep their nuclear options open. Israel feels threatened by its neighbours; India has to contend with an overtly nuclear China on the one hand, and the more loosely camouflaged nuclear intentions of Pakistan on the other; Pakistan, meanwhile, is unwilling to renounce its nuclear option unless India does so. Therefore, security considerations remain at the heart of issue of the possession of nuclear weapons.

A Matter of Status

The second major factor for the continuance of nuclear arsenals or aspirations concerns the widely perceived link between them and great power status. The nuclear factor is deemed a great equalizer that can help even a small nation to stand upto the might of a large one. The French position vis-a-vis the erstwhile USSR demonstrated this fact. Alain Juppe himself admitted to this when he stated that "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

This role of the nuclear weapons as status enhancers is responsible for the NWS not wishing to give them up, as also for the 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. Nuclear weapons are rightly or wrongly believed to confer an exalted position to the possessor state ensuring that its policies and postures on national and international issues are taken more seriously. For several nations, therefore, nuclear weapons help to redeem an actual or perceived sense of inferiority.

When and Why Would States Agree to Nuclear Disarmament?

Common sense dictates that no NWS or any other state desirous of possessing nuclear weapons would want to renounce its nuclear capabilities, however refined or primitive, until it is convinced that some other more reliable means providing for its security is firmly in place. This sense of security could then be infused in two ways: one, by effectuating an intrinsic change in the international security environment through the conclusion of several confidence building measures; and secondly, by attaining a clear superiority of conventional weapons.

The attainment of a secure and stable international environment calls for a large number of measures. A transparency in defence matters that might have implications on the security and sovereignty of others, more encompassing arms control efforts, a strict implementation of all treaties related to disarmament,the creation of nuclear weapon free zones, and a greater mutual trust underlying inter-state relations are some steps that can promote confidence and aid the realisation of an NWFW. Regional systems of collective security including practical measures of cooperation, partnership, interaction and communication could foster a more secure environment.

Besides an overall improvement in international relations, national security could be shored up through adequate conventional weapons to cater for any type of contingency. At one level, the two ideas might appear to be mutually exclusive because amassing conventional weapons could rather vitiate the international security environment. However, it is to be remembered that the conventional weapons would actually be replacing the weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Also, a spurt in their accumulation might prove to be transitional occurring soon after the actual destruction of nuclear weapons to serve more a psychological 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 the nuclear weapons. Several analysts have been highlighting 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, developing strategic conventional weapons offers flexibility in a variety of situations where the use of any sort of nuclear weapon 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 the case of the nuclear weapons.

Once this advantage of conventional weaponry over nuclear arms is accepted, it is possible that the former would be able to better perform their primary mission of deterrence and thereby relieve nuclear weapons of their role. Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) has concluded that "Given adequate conventional forces, 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, or on this country's [USA] ability to deal effectively with regional conflicts where its vital interests and those of its allies are at stake."5 The Committee believes that Russia and other NWS can also be persuaded to reach a similar conclusion and thereby made to give up their dependence on the nuclear deterrent.

As a second prerequisite, the states can be expected to renounce their nuclear option only when there is available enough technical expertise to ensure adequate verification that the commitments undertaken by the states to abandon their nuclear arsenals are actually being complied with. One of the major reasons why nuclear disarmament has been considered unfeasible until now has been because of the lack of an adequate mechanism, both institutional as well as technological, to oversee the process of disarmament and to monitor the actual physical destruction of the weapons. The inability to decide on what to do with the dismantled warheads and how to ensure their safe and secure storage proved to be another handicap. It cannot be claimed that modern technology has already resolved these problems, however, advancements in the field of surveillance and monitoring technologies coupled with the the ongoing research on what to do with the nuclear materials obtained from dismantled warheads has definitely brought the world closer to solutions. Also, given that by now START I is close to completing a decade, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are in place, it should not be an impossible task to formulate an alert and vigorous enforcement mechanism based on the past experiences. And once this hurdle is crossed, there would be little to justify the inertia enveloping nuclear disarmament.

A third factor that could propel movement towards an NWFW would be the accumulation of enough risks from the continued possession of nuclear weapons. Even though the world is believed to be safer with the end of superpower rivalry, yet it cannot be overlooked that a notable instability has also crept in with the weakening or breakdown of the once largely predictable Cold War equations. The present international security environment is troubled by a prominence of ethnic conflicts, the rise of sub-national and religious tendencies, as also violence in the wake of fallen empires or fragmenting states. Nuclear weapons add to this explosive mix a most undesirable dimension.

With the breakup of USSR, the number of states possessing nuclear weapons increased manifold leading to the danger of "loose nukes". This in turn heightened the fears of a possible criminal commerce in weapon-grade materials due to a decrease in internal control and a general rise in extended trade with a worldwide liberalisation of economies.

At the same time, the modern international system is experiencing a technology push in which more and more and increasingly sophisticated technology is becoming available from an ever growing number of suppliers. The collapse of the centralized Soviet control and the turmoil in Eastern Europe have increased the opportunity for states or groups to acquire nuclear technology, weapons, components and expertise. Given such a scenario, export controls imposed by supplier countries are bound to lose some of their effectiveness. Over time, a determined state with even modest resources will be more likely to succeed, given easy access to dual use technologies, the willingness of some supplier to provide sensitive equipment and expertise, the emergence of indigenous capabilities and the growth in illicit black market transfers. A spurt in these risks would necessitate an early movement towards an NWFW in order to neutralise such scenarios.

Yet another risk emanates from the possibility of a sudden spurt of nuclear proliferation to NNWS especially if they begin to doubt the sincerity of NWS on nuclear disarmament. Nations party to the NPT have periodically, and mostly at the five yearly review conferences been putting pressure on the NWS to honour their commitment made under Article VI of the treaty to pursue negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament. The NWS, meanwhile have been able to evade all such attempts. However, if the NNWS were to put up a joint front demanding an early and firm negotiation of disarmament efforts and threatening non-compliance to this demand with an en masse withdrawal from the NPT, the NWS would be jolted into action in the wake of the possibility of a widespread nuclear proliferation.

The danger from such an eventuality could be awesome considering the increasing tendency amongst some 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."6 When thus considered, there is every possibility of their being used to threaten, or even actually put to use, early in a conflict for political, psychological or military purposes. A steady increase in the possibility of nuclear proliferation if the NWS continue to possess them, makes it imperative to eliminate nuclear weapons at the earliest in order to remove the risks of an inadvertant nuclear war.

A fourth factor that could promote nuclear disarmament would be when there is enough pressure mounted by the international community, within NWS and outside to move ahead. To some extent this may already be happening. International security analysts have begun questioning the rationale for nuclear weapons and pressurising their governments to at least reconsider their roles in the changed circumstances and to eventually do away with them. George Lee Butler, a former head of the Strategic Air Command for instance, has built his argument in favour of nuclear disarmament on a moral imperative. 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?"7

At a more multilateral level, the Canberra Commission, an independent body constituted by the Australian government in November 1995, proposed practical steps towards an NWFW. At the time of its institution, the then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating had stated, " I believe that a world free of nuclear weapons is now feasible."8 Recognising that nuclear weapons constitute "an intolerable threat to all humanity and its habitat", this group comprising of experts called for their elimination in a phased and verified manner.

Another development that can be seen as putting moral pressure in favour of nuclear disarmament is the judgement rendered by the International Court of Justice in July 1996. It ruled the use of nuclear weapons as unlawful and against the principles and rules of humanitarian law. In an international comity of law abiding nations, the judgement contributes to creating an environment in which nuclear weapons are considered abhorrent and need to be abolished.

A cumulative effect of the four factors mentioned in the above paragraphs would create the circumstances essential for moving towards nuclear disarmament.

A Practical Approach to Nuclear Disarmament

Having examined the reasons or the circumstances in which nuclear disarmament would become acceptable, it becomes somewhat easier to specify some milestones on the path to its attainment. Some strategic analysts have argued that the time is not yet ripe enough to designate nuclear disarmament as a serious goal. For instance, Michael Quinlain has opined that nuclear disarmament still does not fall within the reach of a realistic agenda since it is not going to be either physically or politically possible for several decades to come. He has written that, "... abolition is fine as a long-term aspiration to be kept in mind ... but it is not in practical terms a sensible policy goal now...."9

However, it would be foolhardy to just continue waiting for conditions to become conducive enough for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Having identified the factors/circumstances that would foster nuclear disarmament, it would be only logical to make efforts towards their creation. It might be mentioned at this juncture that some agenda for nuclear change, however small, has already been tackled : the numbers of nuclear weapons have substantially decreased; almost all the CIS constituents have voluntarily given up their nuclear arsenals in favour of Russian control; Argentina and Brazil have renounced all ambiguity in their nuclear endeavours; South Africa has abandoned its nuclear capability; Iraq and North Korea have largely been stalled in their efforts; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has been concluded. All these developments do indicate a reduction in the salience of the nuclear weapons, and while a large number of issues are yet to be addressed, the contemporary conditions do exhibit the requisite strengths to be able to carry forward a realistic agenda for nuclear disarmament.

It would be too simplistic to believe that nuclear disarmament could be achieved in just one stroke. It is a complex issue. Given its implications for national security (in cases where nuclear weapons remain central to security policies), and national sovereignty (because disarmament would entail an acceptance of stringent and intrusive safeguards), it naturally tends to arouse fervent passions and ruffle patriotic sentiments. However, by following a phased approach to the issue, success is possible. The following paragraphs seek to enumerate some steps towards this end.

An Immediate Freeze of all Nuclear Weapon Related Activities

Based on the principle that nuclear weapons are no longer to be considered legitimate instruments of state policy, it is proposed that as a first step, there should be an immediate stop to all activities related to the acquisition, accumulation or refinement of nuclear weapons. This should then be followed by a politically binding declaration made by all the NWS and the potential NWS to commit themselves to nuclear disarmament. General Lee Butler had stated on this matter that, "A clear and unequivocal commitment to elimination, sustained by concrete policy and measurable milestones, is essential to give credibility and substance to this long-standing declaratory position."10 Moreover, the NWS must provide positive security assurances to NNWS that they would not use or threaten to use their nuclear arsenals against them. The weapons would exist only to deter nuclear threats from other NWS and even then, any first use would constitute a violation of international law inviting crippling universal sanctions, including joint military action if required. Such measures would ensure the eventual delegitimisation of nuclear weapons.

Further Arms Reductions and Confidence Building

A systematic reduction of nuclear weapons is crucial for several reasons. Smaller arsenals would not only be much easier to safeguard and protect from accident, theft or unauthorized use, but they would also place less burden on the institutional machinery that may be established to oversee the process of disarmament. Moreover, arms reduction by the NWS would help to shore up global support for the non proliferation regime and thereby contribute to a general international confidence building. In fact the importance of confidence building measures cannot be understated given that monitoring compliance to international agreements is not always possible. In such scenarios, CBMs promote greater understanding, make non compliance more difficult and sometimes, could even generate a will to comply.

Creation of an International Authority for Nuclear Disarmament

In an attempt to move the international community in a coordinated way and with some overall conscious supervision, it is proposed that an International Authority for Nuclear Disarmament (IAND) be constituted. It could possibly comprise of the NWS, the potential NWS and some of the major NNWS. The exact number and qualifications of the constituents could be worked out to ensure its universal acceptability. This would be of utmost importance considering that the safety and security of an NWFW would depend upon the efficacy and performance abilities of this Authority. It would essentially be responsible for carrying out and monitoring the functions being outlined in the following paragraphs, besides serving as a forum for consultation and cooperation amongst states. Funding for the authority could be by states in accordance with the UN "scale of assessment" as under the CWC.

Institution of a New Regime of International Controls and Verification

It would be the responsibility of the IAND to establish a universal regime of international controls based on openness and transparency. Out of sheer necessity these would have to be stringent, intrusive and exceptionless. All states possessing nuclear weapons or related capabilities would be required to declare their possessions and disclose their exact locations. They would also declare whether they have transferred or received, directly or indirectly, any such weapons. This second provision would enable a cross checking of state declarations, whereever applicable.

Of course, absolute verifiability is neither technically nor politically practical since it would envisage a continuous access to all parts of a country either by inspectors in person or through remote monitoring equipment. Also, it would involve enormous financial costs and an actual or at least "perceived" loss of sovereignty. But, drawing upon the experience of the IAEA and the CWC, some verifiable limits could be drawn up that are acceptable and effective at the same time. In order to cut down on the intrusiveness of the verification mechanism, the Authority could be made to request only for the information and data necessary and to undertake every precaution to protect the confidentiality of information.

It would also have to be mandated that all nuclear activity be declared to the already existing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that has accumulated sufficient experience in this regard during the nearly four decades of its existence. It would keep an account of all fissile material and place it under international control of the IAND. Both the IAND and the IAEA would have the right to conduct routine or challenge inspections (as in the case of the Chemical Weapons Convention) of a fairly intrusive nature and which cannot be refused at any site whether declared or suspect. While routine inspections would have to be limited to the verification of declared activities and sites, challenge inspections would be the primary mechanism for detecting possible non-compliance.

Formulation of an International Nuclear Deterrent Force

A universally acceptable minimal number of nuclear warheads and the attendant paraphernalia could be placed under the physical control of the IAND. The objective of this force would solely be to meet the fear of cheating and to deter any possible use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by a state violating the international norm. Therefore, the force would have only a retaliatory or a negative function. A decision on the use of the force under any and all circumstances would have to be taken by the United Nations General Assembly so that it may actually be a cooperative and joint global endeavour.

Physical Destruction of Nuclear Arsenals

The actual and final destruction of nuclear stockpiles is to be carried out by the individual states and open to monitoring and supervision of the IAND. Each state must undertake to destroy the nuclear weapons it owns or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control. It must also destroy any nuclear weapons or production facilities it owns or possesses anywhere else. As in the case of the CWC, each state could meet the costs of the destruction of its nuclear weapons as also bear the costs of verification of storage and destruction of weapons.


It is only to be expected that any nation would undertake to commit itself to nuclear disarmament only when it is convinced that it has more to gain than to lose by doing so. Logic and common sense state that every state individually and the whole world collectively, would be a safer place without nuclear weapons. And yet, there are some who still cling to nuclear weapons for reasons of security and status. The paper has attempted to examine some scenarios in which this belief could slowly be eroded to enhance the feasibility of nuclear disarmament. This would be posible: if international security is enhanced through more CBMs; if an effective and plausible verification mechanism is evolved to enforce disarmament and ensure compliance; if the risks of nuclear weapons outweigh the benefits they are supposed to render to a few; and, if enough moral pressure is mounted by the saner voices in the international community. All these conditions however, are not mutually exclusive. Neither are they implausible.

The paper has also ventured to suggest some practical measures to attain a goal that has eluded mankind for the last nearly half a century. Of course, the ideas put forth do still have several rough edges that will need to be cut and chiselled. Complications could arise in many forms ranging from the sequence of developments for the implementation of disarmament, the degree of verification that is effective and yet acceptable to all, national perspectives on challenge inspections, the dilemma between verification and confidentiality, the level of technological expertise available on physical monitoring of sites etc. However, these issues could steadily be sorted out when analysts put their heads together and hearts on the success of the process. It must be reiterated that an issue as complex as that of nuclear disarmament would have to be solved only through cumulative wisdom and joint action.



1. Robert G Joseph,"Deterring Regional Proliferators", Washington Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3, Summer 1997, p.172.

2. 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.

3. Ibid.

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, D C: National Academy Press, 1997), p.3.

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

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

8. As quoted in Jasjit Singh, "Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: Why and How", Asian Strategic Review 1996-97, p.11.

9. Michael Quinlain, "Thinking About Nuclear Weapons", RUSI Journal, December 1997, p.1.

10. George Lee Butler, "Time to End the Age of Nukes", The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March/April 1997, p.36.