Nuclear weapons a hard habit to break?

1 June, 2011

Dr Mark Smith, Programme Director writes:

In Tallinn recently for a conference on adapting NATOs nuclear posture, I was struck once again by a question for which I have no answer (although Im interested in answers and/or speculation on it by others) but which is likely to loom larger as policymakers attempt to further reduce the prominence and role of nuclear weapons in international security.  The question, put simply, is this: which is the harder habit to break that of having nuclear weapons of your own, or that of having your security guaranteed by another states nuclear weapons?  The resilience of the former is shown by the regular statements by the de jure nuclear-armed states that they plan to have nuclear weapons for as long as there are such weapons elsewhere in the world.  Proponents of disarmament will point out the dangerous circularity of that argument; to which its supporters will respond that it merely states that disarmament will have to be a multilateral process.  Barring something extraordinary, such a process will be a long hard road, as shown in President Obamas stirring Prague speech on nuclear elimination in which he nonetheless obliged to acknowledge that he might not live to see the goal realised.  But we can visualise how such a multilateral process might work, albeit with some unavoidable overlooking of intractable political difficulties: the experience of nuclear reductions between the US and Russia demonstrates how nuclear numbers can be driven down in verifiable manner, and the groundbreaking work carried out by the UK-Norway-VERTIC project on verified disarmament (to name only two examples), show us a glimpse of what the process might look like.


But what of the other habit, that of non-nuclear states whose territorial and political integrity is guaranteed by another, nuclear-armed, state (aka extended nuclear deterrence)?  There may be good reasons for regarding this as equally difficult, and perhaps the more so for being under-analysed.  A state whose security is under-written by another and/or by an alliance is quite likely to want for sound reasons the very strongest security it can obtain, and the view that nuclear weapons provide the ultimate guarantee remains entrenched.  For many living under the nuclear umbrella, and very attached to it, conventional deterrence means that if war should come it will be resolved on terms favourable to your security; nuclear deterrence, on the other hand, means the war will not be fought at all.  Again, those pressing the case for nuclear elimination will vigorously contest that, but the assumption remains deeply embedded.


The debates that took place during the formulation of the US Nuclear Posture Review underlined this, as several non-nuclear allies of the US are reportedly expressing grave concerns at the implications of further reductions in nuclear numbers.  If such states feel those reductions will compromise their security, then this will act as a brake on President Obamas Prague ambitions, by restricting the possibilities for deep reductions.  It will not be enough to simply insist that these states get over it; their concerns will have to be taken into account.  In this sense a multilateral disarmament process will need to include more than nuclear-armed states if it is to be successful.  Perhaps the UK-Norway-VERTIC project, which is about how to reconcile nuclear-armed states desire to protect weapons information and non-nuclear states desire to be sure that weapons are really being destroyed, may be a model for another project one that attempts to find out how non-nuclear states under the nuclear umbrella, and states providing that guarantee, can maintain consensus and mutual security as the nuclear numbers head downwards.  If we do not find a way to make this happen, what are the real prospects for nuclear zero?

Mark Smith is chairing Wilton Park’s dialogue on multilateral verification 1 – 3 June 2011


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