Discussion summary: nuclear proliferation and non-state actors

Peace, Security & Defence

This is a summary of the recently concluded discussion on the seventh edition of Debating Security Plus (DS+). DS+ is a global online brainstorm that brings together a community of global security experts throughout the year to discuss the changing nature of warfare and its implication for global thinking on peace, security and defence.


Today’s nuclear environment is the most volatile since the height of the Cold War. The Russian Federation and the United States have both pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. On top of this, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a framework intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, has collapsed, and tensions have escalated between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, over Kashmir. In light of a deteriorating international consensus over non-proliferation, what role do non-state actors have to play in an unpredictable new environment?

Whilst a large-scale nuclear attack has yet to be carried out by non-state actors, Elena K. Sokova, Executive Director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), argued that terrorists may not need actual materials. Rather, they merely need to trick the opposition into believing they have nuclear weapons to could provoke a very real response from their adversary.

William Potter, Director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, argued that the terrorists’ “best ally” is “complacency”. That is to say, a lack of concern about the security of nuclear test sites and materials could pose a real danger.

So how exactly should governments respond to the threat of WMD attacks from non-state actors?

Many participants highlighted the importance of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). William Alberque the Director of the Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre at NATO, argues that existing conventions on non-proliferation need to go further. NATO could play a constructive role in promoting non-proliferation.

However, Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, warned of a collapsing consensus around nuclear non-proliferation and called for innovative new solutions to ensure compliance. She explained that existing UN conventions on the issue “must be constantly attended to and kept fit for purpose in a rapidly changing context.”

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center recommended the creation of a dedicated capability, under UN purview, focused on preventing WMD terrorism. He also called on states to pool intelligence and law enforcement efforts. The Russian Permanent Representation to NATO added to this, by arguing in favour of reviving the NATO-Russia Council to deal with the issue.

Others, however, claim that the problem is more structural and systematic. Activist and Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Beatrice Fihn insisted that as long as nuclear weapons are considered desirable and valuable as security assets by states and disarmament is not prioritised, non-proliferation efforts will not be successful.

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