Why nuclear abolition should fail

The harsh reality is that the nuclear revolution is irreversible and makes major wars significantly less likely


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Is a world without nuclear weapons possible? Is it even desirable? A number of “abolitionist” movements, from the “Global Zero” initiative to ICAN (International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons), say yes and yes. 

They propose that humanity should eliminate nuclear arms, those that draw on nuclear reactions to concentrate vast levels of violence into a single missile. So apocalyptic, immoral and wasteful are they, advocates of disarmament claim, that no one should deploy them in any capacity, even if their main purpose is to prevent wars by deterring others’ aggression via the threat of retaliatory punishment. 

As well as moving towards elimination, abolitionists often advocate intermediate steps, including taking nukes off alert, establishing no first use agreements, and “sole purpose” declarations. But their ultimate goal is a phased, multilateral reduction to zero and the delegitimising of the very idea. 

Today’s nuclear abolitionists can boast success, if success is measured by attention, acclaim and the agreement of non-nuclear states. Global Zero has U.S. national security grandees amongst its supporters, from George Schultz to Henry Kissinger. In 2017, ICAN won the Nobel Prize for Peace. It helped galvanise the signing of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But getting nuclear powers to disarm has proven elusive. 

What about smaller states in the crosshairs of larger nuclear ones?

China has undertaken a large nuclear build-up, the United States is modernising its arsenal, Britain is enlarging its, Iran is enriching uranium and North Korea is testing intercontinental missiles. Russia issues nuclear threats, with its suite of tactical as well as strategic-scale weapons, as it savages Ukraine. Not a single nuclear state has even considered signing on to the treaty. Every NATO state living under the extended deterrence of the US abstained, except for one that voted against it. Treaty allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia also voted against it.

Why the difficulty in persuasion? One clue lies in the words of Beatrice Fihn, head of ICAN, who once proclaimed “We’re coming for your weapons!”

It is a strong, simple claim. And it raises difficult questions. Our weapons? And others’ too? Are you sure? Given others’ intentions are inherently uncertain and their future intentions unknowable, how can we reasonably take this risk? What plausible assurances could good-faith disarmers have that more ruthless regimes will not dissemble and prepare for clandestine rearmament, maybe taking the world from zero to a volatile condition where one state could acquire a nuclear monopoly? 

How can those with nukes be confident that abolitionists will verify disarmament and stop disarming states from regenerating? Will they undertake this inspection and policing without a supreme international authority that does not yet exist? Or will they somehow invent such a global Leviathan, which must be so powerful that it would incentivise nuclear proliferation against it? As political scientist Kenneth Waltz noted, given the size and concealability of the bombs:

there’s nothing short of an unimaginably competent and despotic international regime, if you could imagine it, that would be capable of controlling and moving toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. And who wants that? Who wants that kind of world tyranny? 

Some people do desire world tyranny, benign or otherwise, which in itself is an argument against disarmament.

If the alternative answer is to trust in changing global norms, was there not also international opprobrium on the eve of World War Two towards submarine warfare and strategic bombing? When they feel the heat, do not some powers tend to relax their taboos? 

What about smaller states in the crosshairs of larger nuclear ones? How readily will Pakistan, say, or North Korea cooperate, when they must reckon with large adversaries who have fought them intensely before, such as India and the United States? What about nuclear states that must survive in an often hostile neighbourhood, such as Israel? 

Above all, disarmers rarely interrogate just how benign a “zero” world would be. Homicide on an industrial scale preceded the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Getting rid of nukes would add further mischief to a world historically prone to atrocity. A denuclearised world would still contain the materials and expertise to make them again. Intellectually, the nuclear revolution is a bell that cannot be unrung.

Therefore, as political scientist David Blagden argues, would not every international crisis be aggravated by an awareness of potential proliferation, adding further time pressure to insecurity? Given the problem that “other minds” might wish to race for the bomb and seize an advantage, would not states have a strong incentive to prepare the ability to regenerate nuclear arms? 

Abolitionists’ responses have not been entirely coherent

Even if we could magically guarantee the elimination of all nukes forever, would such a change not restore the hopes of aggressors that they could attack and win at acceptable cost, and perhaps annihilate others while shielding their own population? And without the weapon that uniquely serves as a great equaliser, would the elimination of nukes not empower the strong at the expense of the weak, using their size and wealth to lock in their conventional advantages? 

In sum, would a post-nuclear world, if such a thing emerged, not be more frequently unstable, violent and genocidal? 

These are elementary questions. The failure thus far to address them satisfactorily is not due to a lack of talent or gravitas in abolitionist ranks. To the contrary, their capacity to mobilise civil society suggests they are no fools. Rather, the solutions are simply not available. 

Not all the prizes, celebrity endorsements and treaties in the world will erase the harsh reality, that the nuclear revolution that was consummated with the detonation of atomic bombs on Imperial Japan in 1945 is irreversible and permanent, and makes major war significantly less likely. International politics will forever exist in an atomic shadow. 

Nuclear weapons are unique and different because they make victory impossible. That is, they make meaningful success, the achievement of goals at an acceptable price, impossible between nuclear-armed adversaries. Swift, mass, indiscriminate destruction is an ancient practice, achievable with clubs and machetes. Nukes are distinctive not simply because of their sheer violence, but the impossibility of defending against them. Because it is almost impossible to stop one bomb getting through, they break the link between military victory and the threat of annihilation: you don’t have to prevail on the battlefield to threaten an adversary’s vitals. 

Nuclear-armed Russia’s barbaric invasion of non-nuclear armed Ukraine gives fresh urgency to the “absolute weapon” and its consequences. Abolitionists’ responses have not been entirely coherent. They argued for decades that nuclear weapons, while genocidal, are not reliable means of deterrence, and that cases of apparently successful deterrence, such as the Cold War, are mere coincidences. The main reason, they repeat, that no one has fired a nuke in anger since 1945 is luck. 

With Putin’s invasion, deterrence demonstrably can work after all

Yet now, leading abolitionists discover that nuclear deterrence demonstrably works, after all. The very force that enables Vladimir Putin’s predation in Ukraine, they observe, is his possession of an evil arsenal and the blackmailing power it confers. “Don’t like being held hostage by a nuclear-armed thug, forced to watch while he invades a sovereign nation and kills a bunch of civilians?” asks Derek Johnson, “Young Leader” at the Munich Security Conference: “Cool, congrats, you’re now a disarmament activist.” 

For her part, Beatrice Fihn once argued that “It’s hard to say if deterrence works or not; the absence of something doesn’t prove it.” Yet with Putin’s invasion, deterrence demonstrably can work after all: “We cannot let countries do this to other countries anymore, [just] because they have nuclear weapons.” 

So if it is true that Putin’s overt threats of nuclear use are exerting a unilateral deterrent effect — and it clearly is, as the fear of nuclear escalation is explicit in Western policy debate — then it follows that nuclear deterrence is possible, and that we can know it intuitively beyond speculation. And the same logic that shields Moscow’s atrocities in Ukraine, namely nuclear weapons matched with a credible threat of retaliation, will also make it hesitant to attack NATO. Indeed, NATO states would be less likely to arm Ukraine’s resistance if they had already disarmed. 

It is cavalier, therefore, to dismiss the possibility of nuclear deterrence with the wised-up line that correlation does not equal causation. Indeed, it suggests incuriosity, given we have historical evidence to draw upon. Nuclear-armed states really have hesitated to attack other nuclear-armed states, given the prospect of suffering unacceptable return fire. India and Pakistan since proliferating have not ceased competing. But both have been more mutually cautious than during the pre-nuclear era, when they fought three conventional wars. 

Every postwar generation entertains the dream of global disarmament

Since then, they have engaged in brinkmanship they have taken care to control, such as the 1990 Kashmir confrontation, and fought a brief and highly constrained peripheral war in 1999. Nuclear proliferation in its early, “nascent” phase can trigger threats and instability. But there is an unignorable pattern of limitation followed by de-escalation efforts between states with nuclear forces, as when India and China squared off in border skirmishes recently. 

Indeed, evidence of the real force of nuclear deterrence lies precisely in the United States’ determined efforts to prevent proliferation by others. Wanting a free hand, it knows proliferation would constrain its power. Even the slight risk of nuclear escalation either precludes options to attack, or takes them quickly off the table. In crises, even the superpower was deterred. 

Washington’s cautious, calibrated steps in the 1958 Berlin crisis drew partly on President Dwight Eisenhower’s increasing risk-aversion, his well-founded belief that the coming of the Soviet Union’s thermonuclear capability would mean, in the event of escalation, tens of millions of immediate fatalities. Likewise, in most hypothetical wargames, including on the Soviet side, possessors were reluctant to engage in massive nuclear strikes. 

In recent time, hawks in the Trump presidency advocated a “bloody nose” limited pre-emptive strike on North Korea, only for the executive branch to conclude “no attack plan could confidently preclude escalation or collateral damage”. Now compare the reluctance to attack North Korea, which successfully advanced its nuclear programme, with the fates of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who abandoned theirs.

So nukes really do inhibit wars between nuclear “pairs”, if only we care to look. And like most things, nukes have mixed effects and varying outcomes. Nuclear deterrence doesn’t always work in warding off attacks. It just works a hell of a lot. 

Disarmers regularly raise two cases of deterrence failure, from which they try to generalise: the Yom Kippur attack on Israel in 1973, and Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Argentina miscalculated that Britain would not defend the Falklands at all. And in 1973, Syria and Egypt attacked Israel despite its nukes, but confined their attack to disputed, not core, territories. Israel’s nuclear weapons helped convince Arab states afterwards that they could not wipe out Israel. 

Nuclear deterrence does not deter aggression in all its forms. It does not prevent other kinds of problems, just as car insurance does not provide cover against burglary. It does address one existential problem directly, and it structures the calculations of most states, making the deliberate recourse to major war more unattractive. As the cases of 1973 and 1982 show, deterrence is not an intrinsic property of nukes. It requires believability that the possessor might use them if threatened. 

There are other limits. Nukes do not remove security competition between rivals. When deployed astutely, they dissuade rivals from all-out conflict at the highest level, but they sometimes embolden possessors in lower-intensity skirmishes. Nuclear weapons also carry risks of human fallibility, from accidents to miscalculation. We have little choice but to live with and mitigate them, through robust command and control systems and safety precautions. 

The real choice, ultimately, is not between our world and a fictitious world in which nuclear risks are absent. It is between our dangerous one, and a yet more volatile condition still defined by the temptation of nuclear power. 

Every postwar generation entertains the dream of global disarmament, and confidently claims that abolitionists are coming to take our weapons. And each time, possessors have reason to refuse, choosing to survive in the world as it is. 

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