Relaunching nuclear disarmament: a matter of intense political, legal and moral significance
Nuclear weapons are designed for the indiscriminate destruction of entire cities and their inhabitants, therefore using them raises serious moral objections. It is vital to make progress in their gradual elimination by general agreement.
Most of the thousands of Russian, American, British and French nuclear warheads stationed in Europe are far more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Dropping just one of them would be catastrophic on humanitarian, economic and ecological levels, and the fallout would impact a huge area of the planet.
Nuclear weapons are therefore highly specific in nature. Using them would go completely contrary to those principles of a “just war” that underpin the morality governing the use of force, according to a widely held view, extending well beyond the Christian tradition. In such circumstances it would not be possible to talk about proportionality of retaliation, or of just cause (what cause could justify the mass crime of detonating a nuclear weapon?) or about legitimate authority (is it legitimate for a single person, whether president or prime minister, to decide on the life or death of millions of people?) The use of nuclear weapons would also violate international humanitarian law, especially the prohibition of deliberate strikes on civilian populations.
Even the use of low-power weapons could not escape condemnation. Just one step over the nuclear threshold would bring about catastrophic consequences because every single scenario regarding the use of nuclear weapons predicts an “escalation to extremes”, meaning nuclear attacks and ripostes of ever increasing devastation.
The advocates of dissuasion point out that nuclear weapons are weapons designed never to be used, and they exist “only” so that the nations possessing them may prevent any aggressive act by threatening the aggressor with unimaginable devastation. But can an international order based on nuclear dissuasion be considered as entirely moral? Since it presupposes maintaining significant arsenals on alert, dissuasion entails a permanent risk of triggering a nuclear attack by accident or error. Nuclear weapons make humankind a slave to its own technological creation by imposing a rationale of mutual threats. The surrounding secrecy removes fundamental political choices from democratic control. In forcing international order to place reliance upon a reciprocal threat of mutual annihilation, it undermines the trust without which no cooperation, no stable system of peaceful relations would be possible. Far from establishing peace, the best it can do is to establish a non-war situation, which is a mockery of peace.
Finally, nuclear weapons set in stone the inequality between the nations possessing nuclear weapons and those that do not. This will not, however, prevent nuclear knowhow from spreading around the world. There are always new candidates for the nuclear industry (Indonesia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and others.) Under these circumstances there is a huge risk that the new countries will also try to acquire their own warheads regarded by those who possess them as the supreme guarantor of their security.
The principal international guarantee against the proliferation of nuclear powers is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). But the treaty itself is based upon a compromise: the renunciation of military nuclear capability by virtually all nations; the acceptance of the nuclear status of five of them (United States of America, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China) provided that they undertake progressively to reduce their nuclear arsenals; and recognition of the “inalienable right” of all to develop nuclear energy for exclusively peaceful purposes. To ensure the legitimacy and permanent nature of this regime, and to impose its observance upon the de facto nuclear states (Israel, India, Pakistan, possibly North Korea too), it is essential that the officially recognised nuclear governments should follow through their commitment to disarm. Will export controls and (as a last resort) the use of force be sufficient to prevent the emergence of new nuclear powers?
Admittedly, as long as nuclear armaments exist in the world, the nuclear powers will be forced to maintain the lesser evil of minimal dissuasion in order to guarantee their security, whatever happens. If the current international disorder persists, we cannot rule out a scenario where, at some time in the future, hostile nuclear powers will use these weapons for blackmail to reinforce their policies of aggression.
The powers in possession of nuclear weapons do not have a lesser obligation to review the volume and composition of their nuclear arsenal and bring it down to the minimum required for their defence. These powers should also de-escalate, or even suspend, the state of alert of their nuclear forces. The current wave of modernisation and expansion is not only in conflict with the provisions of the non-proliferation treaty, but unjustifiable in terms of real security needs for the powers concerned.
The powers with nuclear arsenals are also under the political, legal and moral obligation to participate in good faith in nuclear disarmament negotiations. They must remove the current blockages hampering these negotiations (in particular we need a total ban on nuclear testing, a halt in the production of fissile material for military use and the creation of new zones free from weapons of mass destruction, especially in the Middle East).
Nuclear disarmament will only work if the States turn away from one-sided gains in power and if they consider security and peace as a common good belonging to all humanity. Besides, this cooperative approach in international relations is not only needed in the single domain of disarmament (nuclear or conventional weapons). It is just as necessary every time that the future of mankind is at stake, on matters affecting the environment or climate, development, financial stability or controlling the globalisation of trade.
Researcher with Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI), and member of Justice and Peace, France
Translated from the original text in French