Five years ago, President Obama committed America ‘to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons’. This goal would not be reached overnight – ‘perhaps not in my lifetime’. But the whole speech was imbued with a sense of urgency.
This increased emphasis on nuclear disarmament, which followed a similar shift by the UK two years earlier, was driven by a belief that these weapons posed a grave threat to humanity, and that even the use of a single weapon could lead to massive consequences ‘for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.’
This Barack Obama would have been a natural participant at the recent international conferences on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, held in Norway and Mexico . Indeed he – like Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK – would have seen the initiative as an opportunity for mobilising world opinion in support of the Prague agenda, and for isolating those countries that resisted reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies.
The Obama administration never believed that nuclear disarmament could be achieved without resolving international political conflicts. But the end of the Cold War did encourage the belief that a shared sense of nuclear danger could itself be a factor in encouraging conflict resolution. For, if nuclear weapons made war unthinkable, it was thought, then states would have to find new, ‘21st century’, ways to resolve their differences.
Exhibit One for this approach was the ‘reset’ with Russia. The New START treaty was sold as one of its key achievements. But it also included a range of other initiatives, including US support for Russian membership of the World Trade Organisation. Even if other intractable, and nuclearised, conflicts – such as India / Pakistan – showed no signs of resolution, the reset seemed to open up the possibility of deep cuts in the world’s largest arsenals.
If Russia had been willing, the Obama administration would have supported cutting the two countries’ strategic arsenals to well below the 1,550 deployed warheads permitted under New START. If Russia had also been ready to make deep cuts in its non-strategic arsenal, NATO European states would have been ready to reciprocate, perhaps even agreeing to the withdrawal of B-61s from Europe altogether.
It was not to be. It may be tempting to see the disappointments of the last five years as deriving from the particular personality and policy of Vladimir Putin. But, in reality, they reflect a broader truth. Serious steps towards nuclear disarmament cannot take place in a political vacuum. If the world were moving into a period in which inter-state war was becoming obsolete, then the role of nuclear weapons would be much reduced. Even before the events in Crimea and Ukraine, however, inter-state conflicts have rarely been far from the imagination of military planners. The US and its allies have intervened repeatedly to overthrow the regimes of weaker powers – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – or to deprive them of their territory – as over Kosovo. The threat of war between India and Pakistan, or between India and China, remains a very real one. China’s rapid economic development, far from moderating its nationalism, has increased its readiness to flex its military muscles against its neighbours.
The continuing possibility of inter-state war poses a particular problem for states that are not US allies. All of these states would be at a severe disadvantage if they were ever to face the prospect of an American attack. Most would be in a similar situation if threatened by the dominant power in their own region. Even if there is at present no reason to suppose that the US is planning to attack them, intentions can change overnight – as the Libyan regime found out to its cost in 2011. The Saudis look at how quickly the US abandoned President Mubarak in Egypt. Pakistan is all too aware of how the US – or, even more so, India – views its continuing role as a haven for international jihadists. Given the chance, the US and its East Asian allies would be delighted to see the end of the Kim dynasty in North Korea.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that some of the world’s weakest and most isolated states believe that the only way to avoid Gaddafi’s fate is to have nuclear weapons, and to persuade their enemies that they just might be crazy enough to use them.
A similar dynamic is at the heart of Russian doctrine, which sees nuclear weapons as having a central role in deterring NATO from using its superior conventional forces to intervene against territory that Russia considers its own. In this scenario, brought closer to reality in recent weeks, Russia would use its greater willingness to take nuclear risk – itself a function of its greater stake in its neighbourhood – to neuter NATO’s capability for conventional escalation. The US’s refusal to get involved in Ukraine, even in the event of a large-scale invasion, can only have strengthened Russia’s belief that nuclear deterrence works.
So is the cause now lost? Not in the long term. Reliance on nuclear weapons for purposes beyond deterrence of nuclear blackmail is increasingly the preserve of the weakest and least dynamic powers. Yet these are precisely the regimes that are also most at risk from the waves of revolutions – democratic or otherwise – that are such a strong feature of today’s turbulent world. Such revolts can sometimes be nudged along by American support, military or otherwise. But the drivers for change come most of all from within societies. The tide of history does not favour autocracy.
As long as Mr Putin, or a similarly-inclined successor, is in power, no fundamental change in Russia’s nuclear posture is likely. Even if a post-Putin Russia were to become part of an integrated European security community, the main axis of nuclear competition could well move eastwards. It is all too easy to imagine a future in which China’s rise precipitates an intensified arms race with the US, with both powers manoeuvring for advantage across the whole gamut of space, cyber, conventional and – yes – nuclear weapons. And, even if this pessimistic scenario does not materialise, the existential concerns of smaller nuclear states will need to be addressed. There is little sign that Pakistan or North Korea or Israel will be willing to put their trust in international nuclear treaties and inadequately-enforced norms any time soon.
None of this means that the US and its allies should not continue to try. The credibility of the NPT Grand Bargain still relies on the NWS demonstrating their commitment to the ultimate objective of nuclear disarmament. Both the US and UK should have trusted their better instincts and taken part in the recent Humanitarian Impacts conferences, even at the cost of isolating Russia, China and – yes – France. A US decision to ratify the CTBT –as the UK, France and Russia have already done – would send a powerful signal to the rest of the world, while having no practical effect on US nuclear readiness. These and other steps could usefully contribute to keeping the battered NPT process on the road. As long as Russia remains stuck in a nationalist time warp, however, it is not realistic to expect much progress towards achieving Obama’s dream. Perhaps in the lifetime of his two —-daughters?
 For further discussion, see Andrea Berger, “A Mexican Standoff: The P5 and the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Initiative”, ELN, April 2013; and Heather Williams, “Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons: Where is this Going?”, ELN, April 2013
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.