Putting the nuclear genie back into the bottle


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Over the past few weeks the closing stages of the US election campaign and new COVID-19 related lockdowns in Europe have dominated the news cycle,  causing some significant stories to go almost unnoticed.  One is the recent ratification by Honduras of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 

Honduras is a small country not often covered in the international media. It does not have nuclear weapons, yet its adherence to the treaty is noteworthy because it is the 50th country to do so and thereby brings it into effect next January.

The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, welcomed this step as “the culmination of a worldwide movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”. Coming soon after the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the first and only targeted use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the new treaty represents an interesting combination of grassroots activism and state sponsorship. 

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an NGO, launched the initiative and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. Yet the fact that the treaty has received the baseline 50 ratifications within just 3 years – lightning speed by the usual standards of international diplomacy – shows that it has gained real traction within the UN General Assembly.

For the time being, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will have a greater moral than material impact. The nuclear weapons states – whether formally recognised like the five permanent members of the UN Security Council or more implicit such as India, Pakistan, Israel or North Korea – have predictably stayed silent or demonstrated their opposition to a legally binding global ban.

The world has become used to living under the nuclear Sword of Damocles

The US State Department called this endeavour ‘dangerous and naïve’. There has even been speculation in Washington that if Donald Trump was to be re-elected, he would put pressure on those countries that have signed up to the treaty to rescind their signatures. Obviously, if the countries that actually produce and deploy the nuclear weapons or facilitate their proliferation continue as outliers, not much will change when it comes to the salience in global geopolitics of these ultimate instruments of mass destruction. Un-inventing something is even harder than inventing it.

The world has become used to living under the nuclear Sword of Damocles. Indeed, throughout the debate on the ICAN campaign, the Western nuclear weapons states have stressed three arguments against an immediate, blanket ban.

In first place, they have emphasised the role of nuclear weapons as instruments of deterrence and conflict prevention. The fact that there has been no major war between two nuclear-armed states or opposing alliances possessing nuclear weapons capabilities is offered as proof of the effectiveness of deterrence. Of course, there were moments during the Cold War when we came perilously close to nuclear war, for instance, over Korea, Berlin, Cuba and the Middle East.

Nuclear-armed states have also been periodically involved in clashes, such as India and Pakistan in Kashmir or just recently India and China in the Himalayas. Yet the possession of nuclear weapons is seen as a safeguard preventing these clashes and frictions from escalating into all-out conflict. It also provides an added incentive for outside powers to intervene quickly to calm the crisis. Some may question, however, if deterrence will still work in a world with several nuclear weapons states whose appetite for risk and ability to manage crises through hotlines and confidence measures are very different from US-Soviet understandings during the Cold War.

A second argument is that if a nuclear weapons state adheres to the treaty and gives up its nuclear weapons, there is no guarantee that other such states will follow suit. So, it is a matter of everybody or nobody; how could we verify that a former nuclear weapons state had not hidden away certain technologies or production capabilities to be suddenly brought out of the cupboard in a crisis? We have seen in the case of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Iran how difficult and time-consuming it is to verify the absence of nuclear weapons capabilities in states that have a history of nuclear enrichment and research activities.

Trump has significantly added to the momentum by withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran

Moreover, China and Russia have recently devoted enormous sums to modernising their nuclear arsenals and developing new technologies such as hypersonic missiles, underwater cruise missiles and nuclear-powered rockets. In response, the United States has embarked on a $1.2 trillion nuclear modernisation programme of its own, beginning with new warhead designs and the testing of new intermediate-range missiles. These major investments suggest a greater reliance on nuclear weapons in the future and less willingness to be constrained by arms control agreements. In fact, China has already ruled out joining Russia and the US in a new multilateral framework to reduce strategic missiles, launch vehicles and warheads.

And finally, the nuclear powers point out that they are already committed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 (which has almost universal adherence) to eliminate their nuclear weapons.  This makes in their eyes a second nuclear ban treaty redundant. The virtue of the NPT is that it provides for a stage-by-stage approach based on balanced and verifiable arms control and reduction agreements without an unrealistic timetable. This approach, they argue, has already led to the US and Russia limiting their deployed warheads to 1,550 on each side, the removal of over 90% of nuclear weapons assigned to NATO in Europe, and the overall reduction in warheads from 60,000 during the Cold War to around 11,000 today. The phased approach works better, according to this view, not only because it provides for verification but also because the specific negotiations and agreements help to dispel the mistrust and hostility that fuelled the nuclear arms race in the first place.

Yet these three arguments are all based on the condition that nuclear weapons will be restrained and that their role in national security strategies will become progressively less important.  In short, that the commitment to a nuclear-free world that President Obama proclaimed in Prague in 2009 and which NATO inserted into its Strategic Concept in 2010 is something that they take seriously and do not mean as a token gesture to placate public opinion. It is here that the problem lies, because over the past four years the restraints have been quickly disappearing.

Not all of this can be laid at the door of the Trump administration. It was George W. Bush who gave the first push by abrogating the ABM Treaty constraining missile defences back in 2003. Yet Trump has significantly added to the momentum by withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA), abrogating the US-Russia treaty eliminating intermediate-range missiles (INF), and dragging his feet over the extension of the New START Treaty which limits the US and Russian strategic missiles, launch vehicles and warheads. As these two countries currently possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, the example they set is key if the rest of the world is to take non-proliferation obligations seriously.

At the time of writing, the Trump Administration has only proposed a one-year extension to the New START Treaty, with conditions on a freeze on the production of new warheads and on verification that Russia may find difficult to accept. To his credit, Trump has tried to engage North Korea on denuclearisation but without success, as North Korea’s rollout of a new intercontinental missile during its recent national day military parade has underscored.

As always, it is far easier to demolish than to build

To be fair to the Trump Administration, the treaties that it has opposed were far from perfect (which agreements that two adversaries are willing to sign up to ever were?) and other powers have hardly deserved trust from the US.  Iran has a well-documented history of obfuscation and deception regarding its nuclear enrichment and research activities and Russia is a serial violator of treaties. Its illegal deployment in Europe of a  new intermediate-range missile (the 9M729) and refusal to own up to this violation and return into compliance with the INF Treaty -despite being given numerous opportunities to do so – led to all NATO members supporting the US stance on this issue.

China also has a history of lack of transparency regarding its nuclear doctrine and weapons programmes and, according to US intelligence briefings, is now increasing its warheads from around 250 to 500. So the US has a valid point that China must become part of the major power nuclear weapons dialogue and regime of restraints and transparency, even if Beijing continues to argue that it is a modest player in comparison.

Notwithstanding these obstacles, the fact of the matter is that the Trump administration has reversed the trend towards reducing nuclear weapons and placing additional constraints on the precise circumstances (admittedly limited and extreme) in which their use could conceivably be contemplated or even justified. Trump’s US Nuclear Posture Review makes the case for a major modernisation of the US arsenal, portraying a world in which nuclear weapons can again become instruments of coercion and even war-fighting. Trump has repeatedly promised to replace imperfect agreements with something ‘far better’,  but the perfect is often the enemy of the good, and so far these better agreements are nowhere to be seen. As always, it is far easier to demolish than to build and we have gone backwards rather than forwards.

So it would be a mistake for the nuclear weapons states to blithely disregard the new UN treaty or the prohibition campaign more generally. Public and political support for nuclear deterrence has always relied on its tolerance as a necessary evil, but one which the nuclear weapons states will attempt in good faith to make as risk-free and as short-term as they can. If they are not seriously engaged in meaningful arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, and willing to stick to their commitments once negotiated, the political consensus around nuclear deterrence will start to fray again in Western democracies as it did in the late 50s, 60s and early 80s, at the time of NATO’s twin track decision on Cruise and Pershing 2 missile deployments in Europe. This will once again make modernisation strategies controversial and politically difficult.

In this respect Joe Biden offers hope that the next four years can be more productive than the last. He has pledged to try to resurrect the nuclear deal with Iran, provided that the Iranians also come back into compliance by constraining their enrichment activities and mothballing nuclear facilities such as Natanz, where the IAEA has suspected Iran of building an underground centrifuge plant.  He has also indicated that he is ready to extend the New START treaty for the full five-year period, which will leave time for a new multilateral reductions framework to be worked out.

In addition, there are some other steps that a Biden administration could take to halt the current wave of nuclear deregulation. One would be to commit not to resume nuclear tests. There were media reports that the Trump administration had discussed resuming tests. Although the US senate has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the US has adhered to a non-testing regime for decades, which gives it leverage to act when India, Pakistan and North Korea have conducted tests. Indeed, if the Democrats regain control of the Senate the prospects of a US ratification of the CTBT and future arms control treaties will increase significantly.

A Biden-led US Nuclear Posture Review can put emphasis back on reducing nuclear risks

Another step could be to seek a global ban on intermediate-range missiles and tighten rules on the transfer of missile-related technologies. Renewing efforts at the UN for a fissile material cut-off treaty to limit warhead production is also urgent, as is a ban on anti-satellite weapons that target early warning and control systems.

Above all, a Biden-led US Nuclear Posture Review can put emphasis back on reducing nuclear risks and the role nuclear weapons play in national strategy, while committing the US to minimal levels of weapons and modernisation required for deterrence –  provided that other nuclear weapons states respond in kind. There is a rich menu of initiatives here which can allow the US and its allies to regain the moral high ground on disarmament without endangering their security or feeling pressured to sign up to a global nuclear ban.

In an age when the security debate has moved on to new technologies such as cyber, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing and bio-engineering, talking about nuclear weapons may seem somewhat ‘retro’ and old fashioned, bringing back memories of distant Cold War crises. Yet contrary to all these other disruptive technologies, nuclear weapons remain the one thing that can end civilisation, and much of the human race, in a short afternoon. They are not just part of our past but, whether we like it or not, very much part of our future.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo