Options for Nuclear Disarmament in a Climate of Deterrence

Jenny Nielsen and Nathalie Osztaskina

With geopolitics and deterrence doctrines back in the ascendant, the prospects for multilateral nuclear disarmament look worse than for a generation; many options are on the table but whether states will engage constructively and pursue any of these proposals remains an open question.

Following the failure of the states parties to the NPT to adopt a consensus Final Document at the 2015 RevCon due to significant divisions on key issues, the voting and statements at the UN General Assembly First Committee (which deals with disarmament and threats to peace) highlighted the ‘even stronger polarisation and hardening of positions’ between the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) and NWS given the latter’s refusal to make meaningful progress on their disarmament obligations.

As recently heard at the 2015 EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, ‘the First Committee has confirmed the polarisation and also the deep mistrust that is there between nuclear-weapon states and a considerable part of the non-nuclear weapon states’. To aggravate this, no state or group of states seemed to be capable of playing ‘a bridge-building role’. As a result, the world was left without a consensus on how to begin disentangling the tight knot of nuclear politics so that NWS could move towards their NPT commitment to disarmament.

The re-emergence of nuclear deterrence

Following Moscow’s aggressive actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the salience of nuclear weapons and the role of nuclear deterrence in security and defence doctrines is re-emerging in European political discussions, particularly regarding NATO’s posture.

At the 2015 EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, Russian analyst Alexei Arbatov stressed the regrettable paradox that despite the lower number of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, ‘the probability of their use is now higher’. Chillingly, Arbatov added ‘it is not only higher than 25 years ago, it is probably higher than at any time since the early 1980s’.


Guests at a roundtable organised by the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) on November 19, 2015. Image credit: Flickr

Based on ‘the resurgence of state-based threats’, Professor Wyn Bowen argues that the UK’s recently published 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has ‘brought deterrence back to the centre stage for the United Kingdom more than any other time since the end of the Cold War’.

At the same time, in the UK, the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn — a long-standing opponent of nuclear weapons and vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) — has stated that he would not condone the use of nuclear weapons if he were elected prime minister. Corbyn’s Trident statements have clearly ruffled feathers amongst some in the military and political establishment, with a parliamentary ‘Main Gate’ decision on renewing the UK’s nuclear weapons system confirmed for 2016.

Despite Corbyn’s recent statements, elite debates have largely remained limited to discussions of whether the UK should build four new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines in order to ensure continuous at sea deterrence (CASD).

Another key debate within NATO concerns how the alliance might re-articulate, refresh and clearly communicate its nuclear posture to reflect the current geo-strategic environment. NATO’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy and Director for Nuclear Policy, Guy Roberts, recently argued that ‘to be fully credible, NATO’s nuclear posture and policy needs to be firmly articulated and communicated to Russia and other would-be adversaries’.

Furthermore, it was recently argued at the 2015 EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference that ‘we no longer have a debate about the potential withdrawal of’ the 160-200 theatre nuclear weapons (TNW) still in Europe. The debate instead now focuses on the role of nuclear deterrence in the broader defence posture of the NATO alliance. Guy Roberts argues that ‘if Russia continues to use nuclear threats and intimidation tactics, then the West will need to plan deterrence, response, and escalation control options that are credible and particularly tailored to the mindset of the Russian leadership. Otherwise, Russia may see its own rhetoric as validated and NATO as weak’.

Possible ways forward

So, what are possible ways forward vis-à-vis multilateral nuclear disarmament goals as mandated by the NPT in the current security environment? Given the re-ascendance of perceptions of imminent state-based security threats, how can we move from increasing frustrations among NNWS and procrastination or obstruction by states towards constructive engagement? Technical, legal and normative proposals exist to further progress towards nuclear disarmament commitments by NPT member states.

Legal Approaches

Many NNWS that are supporting the evolving Humanitarian Initiative are pursuing a legal measure that would ultimately delegitimise nuclear weapons use and possession. Proposals exist for a group of NNWS to pursue such a legal ban on nuclear weapons even without the participation of the five NWS and the other four non-NPT nuclear possessors (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). Proponents argue that by concluding a legal ban, an international norm delegitimising nuclear weapons will be established, regardless of engagement by states with nuclear arsenals. The multilateral fora addressing nuclear disarmament have been subject to intense contention given the postures on this issue.

As voted for by 135 states at the 2015 session of the First Committee, the 2016 sessions of the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) could serve as a multilateral forum for discussions on nuclear disarmament. This is a measure specifically taken to avoid the polarisation that has characterised the Humanitarian Initiative and the refusal of the NWS to engage with it. Since 2009, the five NWS have been pursuing their own discussions on disarmament, known as the P5 Process, with limited results even before the NATO/Russia schisms over Ukraine. It is still unclear whether the five NWS and some NNWS under extended deterrence arrangements (i.e. the other 25 NATO members plus other allies) would participate in the OEWG.

In 2014, the Marshall Islands initiated a different legal approach towards demanding accountability vis-à-vis nuclear disarmament progress through the Global Zero lawsuits. Whether this approach through the lawsuits filed in the International Court of Justice will bring effective results – other than grabbing headlines and elevating the issue of nuclear disarmament on the international agenda – remains to be seen.

While a nuclear ban may be a key long-term normative and legal aim for some NNWS, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) (and its sophisticated International Monitoring System) is a realistic short-term objective. The CTBT is a developed and available legal and technical step towards nuclear disarmament. With the 20th anniversary of the CTBT due in 2016, its entry into force should be a policy priority for states looking to bolster the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

In democracies at least, civil society and disarmament advocacy groups could funnel their energy and passion to promoting the establishment of the CTBT, educating the electorate on this issue and lobbying parliamentarians. With broad declaratory support voiced by NPT states parties (and Israel) for the CTBT, further ratifications of this treaty by states with some nuclear capabilities (called ‘Annex II’, including signatories China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the US) would significantly strengthen the non-proliferation regime and states’ commitment to disarmament. Recent declaratory support by US officials (including Kerry, Gottemoeller and Moniz) and efforts to re-energise the CTBT debate in the United States are therefore a positive development.

Technical Approaches

Another approach to furthering progress vis-a-vis nuclear disarmament is the US-launched International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV). This initiative aims at addressing the technical challenges of disarmament verification, bridging NNWS’ and NWS’ understanding of the key measures and practical issues involved in verifying disarmament agreements. At a recent Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation event following the IPNDV’s November meeting in Oslo, US Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose, provided an overview of the IPNDV. The Partnership made progress in establishing three Working Groups and authorised them to move forward with their important technical assignments. Rose believes that, by concentrating on technical tasks, the Partnership ‘can make real and important progress’ in achieving multilateral cooperation and towards realising disarmament goals.

Several other pragmatic, technical proposals exist in support of reducing nuclear salience in security doctrines, including de-alerting arsenals and reducing stocks of delivery systems. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former Defense officials William J. Perry and Andy Weber argued against the implementation of a US nuclear-armed cruise missile system which could heighten the risk of miscalculation by an adversary.

From entrenched postures to dialogue

Given the current deep divides on how to move forward on nuclear disarmament goals amidst heightened strategic discontents, pragmatic and confidence-building measures, including dialogue and trust-building activities, which enjoy broad support by international actors should be pursued. Frustrations, ineffective criticism and outright obstructions need to be channelled into constructive efforts, at the core of which should be frank and respectful dialogue. This applies to both sides of the debate. Only through unpacking the core assumptions underlying the extreme postures and perspectives on the perceived value of nuclear weapons, can these social constructs begin to be appreciated.

Effective progress towards a secure world without nuclear weapons as the ultimate security guarantee and ultimate insurance policy remains a long and arduous journey that will require open minds, constructive dialogue and a mix of various technical and legal measures at the right time. The dislodging of deeply entrenched postures and institutional cultures won’t happen in the short-term, even if a normative and legal ban is attained by a group of NNWS.

Following the outcome of the 2015 NPT RevCon, the five NWS are faced with the challenge of soothing perceptions of their lack of commitment to their Article VI obligation to pursue “a treaty on general and complete [nuclear] disarmament”. Whether the current international tensions between Russia and the West will test the NWS’s solidarity within the NPT P5 Process, as well as bilateral arms control measures, remains to be seen.

Jenny Nielsen is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP). Previously she was a Visiting Scholar at the NATO Defence College (NDC), Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland (UQ), Research Analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and Programme Manager for the Defence & Security Programme at Wilton Park.

Nathalie Osztaskina is an Intern at the VCDNP. Her research focuses on disarmament efforts and the humanitarian movement, nuclear security, and promotion of CTBT’s entry into force. She worked previously at the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, doing research on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.