Report part one

Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

The Nuclear Weapon Debate

The Canberra Commission is persuaded that immediate and determined efforts need to be made to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to it. The Commission acknowledges that the debate between those for and against the elimination of nuclear weapons is not new. Both sides claim that their positions are rational and moral. But the circumstances that created and sustained the nuclear arms race of the Cold War have all but disappeared, and an uncertain global strategic future lies ahead. This uniquely favourable moment should be seized to eliminate the class of weapons which, alone, can destroy all life on earth.

The Commission believes that to be compelling, the case for a nuclear weapon free world must be convincingly argued from two sides of the issue: why these weapons should be eliminated; and a rebuttal of the rationale most commonly cited for retaining them. Simultaneously the security concerns of the present day including, in particular, nuclear proliferation must be addressed.

The Case for a Nuclear Weapon Free World

The case for elimination of nuclear weapons is based on three major arguments:

  • The destructiveness of nuclear weapons is so great they have no military utility against a comparably equipped opponent, other than the belief that they deter that opponent from using nuclear weapons. Use of the weapons against a non-nuclear weapon opponent is politically and morally indefensible.

  • The indefinite deployment of the weapons carries a high risk of their ultimate use through accident or inadvertence.

  • The possession of the weapons by some states stimulates other nations to acquire them, reducing the security of all.

The destructive power of nuclear weapons dwarfs that of any conventional weapon or non-nuclear weapon of mass destruction. More energy can be released in one micro-second from a single nuclear weapon than all the energy released by conventional weapons used in all wars throughout history. The atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, while by today's standards of relatively low yield, in a matter of seconds erased both cities. In 1945 nuclear weapons became a new part of the international context and the world had to cope as best it could with a radically changed calculus of national and international security.

No theoretical calculation of the damage can give a true picture of the consequences of nuclear warfare. The explosion of a nuclear weapon causes damage through intense thermal radiation, a blast wave and nuclear radiation from the fireball and radioactive fallout. The effects of a major exchange of nuclear weapons, or even a more limited exchange, would not be confined to those states directly involved in a nuclear conflict. On the contrary, the consequences of nuclear war would stretch beyond the immediate destruction, and into non-belligerent states and the lives of future generations, through fallout, widespread contamination of the environment and possible genetic damage.

The survivors of a major nuclear war would face extraordinary difficulties, especially in reconstruction, and the restoration of domestic and international order. In the case of the two world wars the most powerful states were engaged in prolonged combat, but the international system survived, though at a terrible cost, and the resulting physical damage was repaired relatively quickly. A major nuclear war or exchange would make this sort of recovery immensely difficult and for some perhaps impossible.

The world has lived under the shadow of the mushroom cloud continuously since 1945, and the cumulative psychological impact has been overwhelmingly negative. The threat that the existence of nuclear weapons poses to the future of the human species and the global environment remains undiminished. It must not be ignored or forgotten by the international community.

The initial development and proliferation of nuclear weapons meant that, for the first time in history, the fate of humankind was delivered into the hands of a small group of leaders and decision makers. An unprecedented responsibility was placed on those controlling the deployment, use and maintenance of nuclear weapons. That is still the case. With the end of the Cold War, the risk that nuclear weapons might be used deliberately by a major power in a global war has lessened, but other dangers must also be considered. Foremost among these are the risks that nuclear weapons can be detonated accidentally, used as a result of strategic miscalculation during a crisis or used in an unauthorised way by those with access to the weapons, leading to further escalation and the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons. The complexity of the command, control, communication and early warning systems associated with nuclear weapons, coupled with the speed with which nuclear weapons can be delivered, creates a broad environment for such accidental or miscalculated use.

In the 1960s, the world looked at the prospect of dozens of nuclear weapon states, recoiled and rejected it. The result was the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1968 with its promise of a world free of these weapons. The overall success of the NPT and other nuclear non-proliferation regimes has been gratifying, but it has been hard won, and is by no means guaranteed. The prospects of a renewal of horizontal proliferation have become real.

In parallel with the risks associated with the nuclear arsenals in the five declared nuclear weapon states, there are the dangers of undeclared nuclear arsenals. The states concerned have neither articulated the doctrines supporting their nuclear forces, nor is anything known of the arrangements they have in place to ensure the non-use of these weapons. These states must be urged strongly to adhere to the NPT or other equivalent non-proliferation obligations as non-nuclear weapon states. Equally the acquisition of nuclear weapons or material by terrorists or other sub-national groups is a matter of grave concern.

During the Cold War, American and Soviet strategic nuclear forces were designed to cope with sudden attack, not least by keeping large portions of their forces on alert and ready to strike on the shortest notice. Although the forces were structured to be able to ride out a first nuclear strike, they also had 'launch-on-warning' or 'launch-under-attack' options, choices that would have to be exercised after no more than a few minutes of deliberation. The need for such a prompt response had grave drawbacks: information on the scale and nature of the attack might be unclear and difficult to verify in the minutes available. The recommended response might compound the disaster or, worse, the early warning systems might be wrong. False alarms have occurred, although never in the midst of a severe crisis.

The profound anxiety and uncertainties imposed on advisers and decision makers under this scenario, faced as they would be with the imminent destruction of their society and the loss of a significant fraction of their retaliatory forces, invoke a powerful predisposition toward the option to 'launch-on-warning' or 'launch-under-attack'. The acute urgency of the circumstances, and the logic of inflicting severe retaliatory damage, posed the real likelihood that a nuclear first strike of any significant size would trigger a massive response, despite the availability of an array of graduated response options. Elaborate theories of escalation control and 'intra-war bargaining' notwithstanding, the fatal flaw of strategic nuclear deterrence is that if it fails, it will do so with catastrophic consequences.

The continuing practice of maintaining nuclear weapons systems on high states of alert also increases the danger of accidental detonation, if only from the handling of nuclear weapons and their components which such postures entail. Servicing complex systems on alert 24 hours a day, year in and year out, requires elaborate planning and organisation. It demands tight discipline and continuous judgements at the margin between the requirements of safety and responsiveness. Certainly, elaborate technologies were developed to try to preclude the accidental or unauthorised launch of a delivery vehicle or the detonation of the warheads it carried. The success of these measures over five decades is a credit to those who managed and maintained the weapons systems. But accidents did occur. During the period from 1945 to 1980, about 100 accidents were reported which damaged nuclear weapons and could have caused unintended detonation. A number of serious accidents involving United States airborne alert forces prompted the termination of this practice, although plans permit its reinstatement in a period of acute crisis.

The US decision in 1991 to terminate entirely the 30 year practice of maintaining a portion of its strategic bomber force on peacetime alert further reduced the exposure of these unsheltered forces to the likelihood of accident or deliberate damage. However salutary these steps to reduce alert levels, and despite the transformation of relations between the United States and Russia, the fact remains that both of these states, and other nuclear weapon states, maintain thousands of nuclear warheads on continuous alert. This perpetuation of the most overtly hostile and risky aspects of the Cold War defies logic. It needlessly prolongs an atmosphere of mistrust and the potential for accidents. It is entirely out of keeping with the urgent interest of fully integrating Russia into the institutions and norms of a global community moving rapidly toward democratic government and free and open markets.

The end of the bipolar confrontation has by no means removed the danger of nuclear catastrophe. In some respects the risk of use by accident or miscalculation has actually increased. Political upheaval or the weakening of state authority in a nuclear weapon state could cripple existing systems for ensuring the safe handling and control of nuclear weapons and weapons material, increasing the odds of a calamity. The same fate could befall other states or sub-state groups with a less developed nuclear weapon capability or those that seek to develop such a capability in the future.

The proposition that large numbers of nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used, accidentally or by decision, defies credibility. The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 is a great relief but provides little comfort. The United States and the former Soviet Union came perilously close to outright nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. It is highly doubtful that a full accounting has been made of accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons since their introduction over 50 years ago. And present and prospective nuclear weapon states have yet to resolve the inherent contradiction of nuclear deterrence: that forces should be postured to convey a credible capability of use, but they should not at the same time provoke countervailing reactions that lead to expanded arsenals, crisis instability and mounting consequences should deterrence fail.

Limited Military Utility

Nuclear weapons have long been understood to be too destructive and non-discriminatory to secure discrete objectives on the battlefield. They came increasingly to be regarded as weapons to be employed only in extremis, and then with the dismaying knowledge that the ensuing consequences would obviate whatever military or political objective prompted their use. As early as the 1970s, under the provisions of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) and subsequently according to the obligations of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START), the United States and Russia began to constrain and reduce the capabilities and size of their strategic forces. In addition, they began to reduce the dangers of tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons have been largely withdrawn from overseas deployment and removed from ships and sea-based aircraft to stockpiles on their own territory.

Even at the height of the Cold War, the ostensible use of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons to prevail against a conventional attack; the 'flexible response' strategy, never satisfied the conflicting concerns of NATO allies nor was perceived as guaranteeing either a controllable nuclear exchange or ensuring an automatic link to United States strategic nuclear forces. Indeed, whether nuclear weapons were the decisive factor in or superfluous to the deterring of Warsaw Pact aggression against Western Europe has been a matter of contention for some time. What is clear, however, is that possession of nuclear weapons has not prevented wars, in various regions, which directly or indirectly involve the major powers. They were deemed unsuitable for use even when those powers suffered humiliating military setbacks (as in Korea) and, ultimately, defeat (as in Vietnam and Afghanistan).

The asserted necessity, much less the utility of nuclear weapons, of whatever yield, to deter use of such terror-inspiring devices as chemical or biological weapons, is also greatly overstated. Moreover, the advisability of such use is profoundly suspect. To the first point, the nuclear weapon states have such an overwhelming strength in military and civilian technology that a combination of defensive measures and advanced conventional forces can deter or powerfully retaliate against chemical or biological weapon threats. States with less conventional capability than the nuclear weapon states would likely find nuclear weapons highly impractical to deter attacks or threats from their neighbours, from many standpoints. But the cost of developing even a rudimentary capability would be extremely high and selecting an appropriate target for retaliation would be difficult. The consequences of nuclear retaliation are so disproportionate and uncertain as to render this option at best implausible and at worst self-defeating. The most appropriate course for dealing with chemical or biological weapon threats is for the world community, and most especially the nuclear weapon states, to press ahead with chemical and biological disarmament.

The nuclear weapon states, through negative security assurances and other multilateral commitments, have already placed sharp limits on the utility of their nuclear weapons in respect to the non-nuclear weapon states. Further, these weapons have no feasible role in deterring terrorists or sub-state groups armed with nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Most importantly, apart from their highly constrained military utility, the use of any type of nuclear weapon, of any yield, would irretrievably diminish, if not destroy, the vitally important threshold or firebreak between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons that has been so carefully sustained by all states since 1945. It would thereby raise the grim prospect of a world of enmities, of states armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and of wide acceptance of the consequences of their employment.

Over the period of the Cold War, deterrence proved to be an open-ended, highly risky and very expensive strategy for dealing with the reality of nuclear weapons in a world of nation states with enduring, deep-seated animosities. Conversely, given the origins and peculiar ideological character of the East-West conflict, the extreme alienation of the principal antagonists, the vast infrastructures put in place and the sense of imminent, mortal danger on both sides, deterrence may have served to at least introduce a critical caution in superpower relationships. Whatever the final judgement may be with respect to this era of unprecedented threats and risks, in the post-Cold War environment, the argument for deterrence is largely circular. Its utility implies and indeed flows from an assumption of the continued existence of nuclear weapons, but in a world of dramatically reduced global tensions. The only military utility that remains for nuclear weapons is in deterring their use by others. That utility implies the continued existence of nuclear weapons. It would disappear if nuclear weapons were eliminated.

Reversing Nuclear Proliferation

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is amongst the most immediate security challenges facing the international community. It is a palpable threat to the security of both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. The inherent risks attending the possession of nuclear weapons as recounted above can only multiply should the possession of nuclear weapons expand.

There is as much cause for alarm as there is for satisfaction regarding the record to date. Despite the impact of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, the disconcerting reality is that several states have made, and some continue to make, clandestine efforts to develop nuclear arsenals. Indeed, the world may well find itself at a crucial juncture with respect to the future course of proliferation. Should the ranks of declared or undeclared states grow by even one beyond the present roster of known or widely presumed members, the risk of a new chain reaction of proliferation is substantial. Some argue that it is precisely because of this possibility that major powers such as the United States must retain nuclear weapons in perpetuity. Such logic turns the singular role of the major nuclear powers in the arms control arena on its head. The undeniable truth is that these powers collectively, and the United States in particular, govern the pace, possibilities and prospects for nuclear arms limitations, reductions and elimination. Should they elect to preserve their arsenals, over time other states will acquire nuclear capabilities. But, should they make an unequivocal and demonstrated commitment to shrink and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arsenals, over time they will establish a global norm for honouring this obligation.

It is false to claim that the world has traversed successfully the most dangerous phase of the nuclear era and is now on the path to modest, passively deployed nuclear forces that will deliver the asserted benefits of deterrence at much reduced risk, the so-called 'low-salience nuclear world'. Such confidence is out of keeping with the unhappy reality that even if START II is fully implemented, the United States and Russia in 2003 will still have a large stock of tactical nuclear warheads and a combined strategic nuclear arsenal of around 7000 operational warheads. Beyond even this enormous residual capability, they will likely retain a substantial reserve not accountable under the agreement. And, of course, the forces of the other three nuclear weapon states remain outside of any reduction agreement, and thus will remain unconstrained. Under these circumstances, there is no assurance whatever that a low-salience nuclear world can ever be achieved or sustained, especially as the number of actors multiplies. Nuclear forces by their mere existence will have high salience.

The possible acquisition by terrorist groups of nuclear weapons or material is a growing threat to the international community. It adds a disturbing new dimension to the more well established concern about proliferation among states. During the Cold War, the most probable targets of nuclear attack were the nuclear weapon states themselves who targeted each others' military installations and even cities. Today, the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons or material, including by terrorist and sub-state groups, has become a serious threat to the international community. Even the most powerful country in the world, the United States, is now vulnerable to such threats.

In the absence of extremely tight controls, the development of an already significant illegal trade in fissile material, particularly from sites in the former Soviet Union, will make it easier for terrorist or sub-state groups to obtain enough nuclear material for a nuclear device. The perpetuation of a nuclear weapons culture and its supporting infrastructure, and the increasing availability of relevant expertise from scientists and technicians formerly employed in nuclear weapons establishments, will also make it feasible for terrorist or sub-state groups to assemble a workable nuclear device able to threaten large population groups. While this does not imply that illicit nuclear weapons will become widely available or the weapon of choice for terrorists, it cannot be excluded that some extreme act of terror might in the future be carried out with a nuclear device. The most recent Harvard study on the subject makes a telling point:

It does not require a large step to get from terrorist acts like Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center to the first act of nuclear terrorism. Suppose that instead of mini-vans filled with hundreds of pounds of the crude explosives used in Oklahoma City and New York, terrorists had acquired a suitcase carrying one hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU), roughly the size of a grapefruit. Using a simple, well-known design to build a weapon from this material, terrorists could have produced a nuclear blast, equivalent to 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. Under normal conditions, this would devastate a three-square-mile urban area. 1

In this context it cannot be excluded that one possible future source of fissile material is plutonium, in vitrified form, in former underground nuclear weapon test sites. Accordingly, these sites must be declared and safeguarded to prevent the illicit retrieval of this material.

It is unlikely that terrorist threats involving a nuclear device or material can be eliminated by state-to-state cooperation, even where a terrorist group has the backing of another state. The logic of deterrence fails when one side does not have an easily identifiable or vital asset at which the other can aim. In addition, terrorists are likely to employ unconventional means of delivery for their nuclear devices, making it even more difficult for target states to predict, prevent or limit the successful use or threat of use of these devices.

The nuclear weapon states, as part of the decision taken in 1995 at the NPT Review and Extension Conference (NPTREC) to extend the NPT indefinitely, reaffirmed their commitment to Article VI of the Treaty and agreed to a specific program of action which includes the determined pursuit of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of elimination. The NPT rests on this promise and it must be kept. In the long run, the nuclear weapon states cannot realistically expect to dampen proliferation pressures by retaining their own, albeit modest, passively deployed forces. To deal effectively with proliferation therefore means also tackling head on the problem of nuclear disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time.

As to the issue of legality, the Canberra Commission notes with satisfaction that, in response to a request from the UN General Assembly for an advisory opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in July 1996, stated unanimously that "a threat or use of force by means of nuclear weapons that is contrary to Article 2, paragraph 4, of the UN Charter and that fails to meet all the requirements of Article 51, is unlawful", and that "a threat or use of nuclear weapons should also be compatible with the requirements of the international law applicable in armed conflict, particularly those of the principles and rules of international humanitarian law, as well as with specific obligations under treaties and other undertakings which expressly deal with nuclear weapons".2

By majority vote the ICJ also stated: "It follows from above-mentioned requirements that the threat or use of nuclear weapons will generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law; However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake." Moreover, in its advisory opinion the Court unanimously stated that there existed "an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control".3 It is precisely this obligation the Canberra Commission wishes to see implemented.

Security Without Nuclear Weapons

For all the reasons outlined above, the world would be a much more secure place for everyone if there were no nuclear weapons. For forty years the two superpowers made herculean efforts, at great cost, to integrate nuclear weapons into their respective national security postures - bigger warheads, smaller warheads, a greater diversity of delivery systems and launch platforms, and all manner of innovations in deterrence doctrine and declaratory postures. But nothing could alter the reality that each depended for its very existence on the rationality as well as the technical and organisational competence of its most bitter foe.

True, during the Cold War nuclear weapons may have played a role in reinforcing awareness of the futility of war between the major powers, and in helping establish a framework of confidence in the West in its own security vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Some still believe that 'existential deterrence', a general caution engendered in state behaviour by the prospect of escalation to nuclear conflict, continues to have relevance in the international system by engendering caution in state behaviour in the face of the prospect of escalation to nuclear conflict. But the world has moved beyond the Cold War. The risks of retaining nuclear arsenals in perpetuity far outweigh any possible benefit imputed to deterrence. The possession of nuclear weapons increases the possibility of a nuclear response in a crisis, encourages others to develop nuclear arsenals and provokes the rapid development of nuclear weapons by adversaries. The presence of nuclear weapons in regions of chronic tension does more to increase than alleviate the chances of misunderstanding and conflict. It increases the risk that low intensity regional conflicts could escalate into a wider nuclear confrontation.

Nuclear weapons are either powerless to address or in some cases simply exacerbate the most prevalent threats to national security in today's world, including terrorism, ethnic conflicts, state disintegration, humanitarian disasters and economic crises. To help counter these security threats, states are crafting new cooperative strategies, institutions and mechanisms, both at the global and regional levels. Several states, most notably Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Sweden, have revised their earlier assessment that a nuclear option provided a route to enhanced national security and international influence. Meanwhile, the vast majority of states have voluntarily rejected the nuclear weapon option while maintaining and enhancing their national security.

Nuclear weapons to some degree influence the security outlook of a wide range of states, not just the nuclear weapon states and other states with a nuclear weapon capability. The elimination of nuclear weapons will contribute to and facilitate important changes in the international security environment. Individual states can be reassured that their security is not undermined by the process of elimination. Practical steps to achieve a nuclear weapon free world can be agreed and verified. In sum, the safe and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons would make a major contribution to prospects for a more secure global community in the century to come.

A New Opportunity

The end of the Cold War has created a new climate for international action to eliminate nuclear weapons, a new opportunity. It must be exploited quickly or it will be lost. There has been no better opportunity since the beginning of the nuclear age. Permanent arsenals and proliferating nuclear powers will be the fate of the world if this opportunity is ignored.

Nuclear weapons have not been used for 50 years but the risk is likely to become greater as time goes on. Nuclear weapons should not be nor should they be seen to be a natural or inevitable feature of the human society. If, on the other hand, nuclear weapons are accepted as a permanent feature of the international system, then states will inevitably develop new nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems.

The whole global community has a direct and fundamental interest in the elimination of nuclear weapons, and the regime which manages that process and its outcome. The key responsibility lies with the nuclear weapon states themselves and in particular with the United States and Russia. The invigoration of the elimination process will depend on decisions which they alone can make.

Rebutting the Case for Retaining Nuclear Weapons

The case for retaining nuclear weapons as instruments of national power continues to be very influential; people of great experience and authority remain unconvinced about the wisdom of elimination. Accordingly, the following rebuttal deals at some length with the arguments for retention.

"Nuclear Weapons Have Prevented and Will Continue to be Needed to Prevent War Between the Major Powers"

Perhaps the most important role claimed for nuclear weapons - beyond deterring the use of other nuclear weapons, is that they discourage recourse to war among the major powers and are thus a force for stability. The empirical evidence appears strong. The period 1870-1945 saw two world wars and several more brief, confined but full-scale clashes between major states such as France and Germany in 1870, China and Japan in 1894-95, and Japan and Russia in 1904-5. Since 1945 there has been no direct clash between the recognised major powers (although China and the Soviet Union fought a brief border war in 1969). Many therefore contend that, for better or worse, it has taken the unique sobering capacity of nuclear weapons to break the entrenched cycle of war between the world's most powerful states. This broad historical correlation between nuclear weapons and the absence of war between the major powers is seen as being decisively reinforced by the belief of some that nuclear weapons played a vital part in deterring the Soviet Union from pushing the Iron Curtain in Europe further to the West. The experience in Europe in 1945-90 in fact lies at the heart of the view that nuclear weapons have, on balance, played a positive role.

While it must be accepted the beliefs were deeply held that the Soviet Union aspired to invade and occupy Western Europe, and that nuclear weapons deterred it from doing so, the evidence for those beliefs is now unclear.

First, it is not clear that the Soviet Union, even in the company of its Warsaw Pact allies, had the capacity to do so, nor more particularly, that it believed its national or wider political and strategic interests would be advanced by doing so. The Soviet Union, at that time, was a powerful, ruthless totalitarian state and these facts were a source of gravest concern. But, as American records from the immediate post World War II period are declassified and, even more important, as the end of the Cold War permits the first authoritative investigations into the assessments and judgements made by the Soviet leadership at the relevant times, it is clear that the view that Soviet policy rested on a systemic urge to aggression and that its actions were driven by this rather than by a concrete calculation of its capabilities and interests, is open to question.

Second, the idea that only the threat of suffering its own Hiroshimas and Nagasakis deterred the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe is contrary to the unfolding historical record. That record, rather than suggesting that the Soviet Union was uniquely different in the way it framed its interests and assessed its options to advance them, instead suggests that World War II had reaffirmed for the Soviet Union, as for other powers, that major war between them was not a rational instrument of policy and should be avoided at almost any cost. The new danger of escalation to nuclear war merely underlined this central point.

Whatever conclusions may eventually be drawn from the historical record, Europe's experience of nuclear deterrence after World War II should not be extended into a general principle. A number of relevant aspects do, however, emerge from that experience.

It was in Europe that the strategic utility of nuclear weapons was most thoroughly explored and their limitations most clearly displayed. The first authoritative endeavour in the United States to accommodate nuclear weapons in a national security strategy; the policy memorandum NSC-68 of 1950 &shyp; recommended that the United States make the fullest use of its advantage in atomic weaponry. In the NATO context, facing very strong Soviet conventional forces, the decision was taken to enlist nuclear weapons as a substitute for conventional forces. Declaratory statements stressed that, if attacked, NATO intended to respond promptly with nuclear weapons "by means and at places of our own choosing". This strategy, known as 'massive retaliation', was the beginning of a determined search to extract utility from nuclear weapons as a balance against superior conventional forces, namely deterring major aggression against any member of the Atlantic alliance.

This policy of extended nuclear deterrence, as it came to be known, proved to be a most demanding one. It is noteworthy that doubts about the credibility of nuclear threats were apparent from the outset: NSC-68 also recommended that the post-war rundown of conventional forces be reversed to create the largest possible firebreak between conventional war and nuclear war. The United States and its allies had as a common interest a threat to resort to nuclear weapons that was, if not utterly credible, at least not blatantly incredible. But the United States, for all the sincerity of its political undertakings, had a compelling interest in not being drawn automatically into full-scale intercontinental nuclear war as a result of any instance of aggression against its European allies.

The European allies, seeking the strongest possible deterrent to war, spoke publicly as though they wanted to see a direct linkage between Soviet conventional attack and a response by US strategic nuclear forces. Privately, however, many Europeans thought otherwise. And in the 1970s and 1980s scepticism about the military utility of nuclear weapons began to be expressed publicly by former service leaders and officials on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • In 1978 General Johannes Steinhoff, the former Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, wrote: "I am in favour of retaining nuclear weapons as potential tools, but not permitting them to become battlefield weapons. I am not opposed to the strategic employment of these weapons; however, I am firmly opposed to their tactical use on our soil."4
  • By 1982, some retired Chiefs of the British Defence Staff, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, reportedly expressed their belief that initiating the use of nuclear weapons, in accordance with NATO policy, would lead to disaster. Field Marshal Lord Carver, Chief of the Defence Staff from 1973 to 1976 and a member of the Canberra Commission, wrote in the London Sunday Times:

At the theatre or tactical level any nuclear exchange, however limited it might be, is bound to leave NATO worse off in comparison to the Warsaw Pact, in terms both of military and civilian casualties and destruction...The only exception would be if the Soviet Union were to respond to NATO's use of nuclear weapons either with a much more limited response or none at all. To initiate use of nuclear weapons on that assumption seems to me to be criminally irresponsible.5

  • Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, speaking in Brussels in 1979, made quite clear he believed the United States would never initiate a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union to protect its allies, no matter what the provocation. "Our European allies," he said, "should not keep asking us to multiply strategic assurances that we cannot possibly mean or, if we do mean, we should not execute because if we execute we risk the destruction of civilisation."6
  • Admiral Noel Gayler, former commander in chief of US air, ground and sea forces in the Pacific, remarked in 1981: "There is no sensible military use of any of our nuclear forces. The only reasonable use is to deter our opponent from using his nuclear forces."7
  • Melvin Laird, President Nixon's first Secretary of Defense, was reported in April 1982 as saying: "A worldwide zero nuclear option with adequate verification should now be our goal....These weapons...are useless for military purposes."8
  • In 1983, Robert S. McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense, and another member of the Canberra Commission, wrote that in the early 1960s he had recommended, first to President Kennedy and then to President Johnson, that they should never, under any circumstance, initiate the use of nuclear weapons. He believed they accepted his recommendations.
  • Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt stated in a 1987 BBC interview: "Flexible response is nonsense. Not out of date, but nonsense.....The Western idea, which was created in the 1950s, that we should be willing to use nuclear weapons first, in order to make up for our so-called conventional deficiency, has never convinced me."9

The history of extended deterrence, which included the progressive acquisition by the Soviet Union of a comparably large and diversified nuclear arsenal, is an anguished one. For Europe the concern was sometimes that developments in Soviet nuclear capabilities had weakened Washington's commitment to its defence, or else that Washington might convince itself that any conflict could be confined to Europe and for that reason be rather more adventurous than Europeans might wish. Concern mounted in the early 1960s when the United States, confronted with a rapidly developing Soviet nuclear force both strategic and tactical, proposed to abandon 'massive retaliation' in favour of a more cautious and nuanced strategy, 'flexible response', which pushed the nuclear threshold up behind a new resolve to strengthen NATO's conventional defence capabilities. Flexible response and extended deterrence both came under challenge in the late 1970s when the Soviet Union deployed new generations of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles (notably the SS-20) and was thus seen to be acquiring the ability to wage strategic nuclear war against Western Europe with a weapon that was sub-strategic in the superpower context. Some believed that to negate or respond to the use or threat of use of these weapons the United States would have had to leapfrog from its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to its US-based strategic nuclear forces. There was thought to be a missing rung in the ladder of escalation which was seen as further 'de-coupling' the United States from the defence of Europe, that is, putting at risk the direct linkage between aggression against NATO and the threat of US strategic nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union. The British and French nuclear forces were deemed, as always, to be essentially irrelevant to this gap in the escalatory ladder. The solution adopted by NATO was to deploy new American missiles capable of posing from European soil the same risk to Soviet targets that the SS-20 posed to Western Europe, and accompany this with an offer to negotiate mutual reductions in this class of weapon.

In all of this there was little discussion, even in broad terms, of how the strategic weapons in the United States and the broad array of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe would actually be used. Deterrence, after all, requires that threats be credible to the opponent: this, in turn, requires evidence that using nuclear weapons could produce outcomes preferable to non-use. But it has proven impossible to conceive of 'war plans' for the use of nuclear forces against a comparably equipped foe which did not leave the initiator worse off as a result of the action. Discussion of this problem was muted for two main reasons.

First, the extraordinary destructiveness even of tactical nuclear weapons in the relatively confined spaces of northern Europe came graphically to the fore. Occasional references deriving from exercises, based on favourable assumptions such as the constrained use of tactical nuclear weapons against military targets, invariably involved casualty figures which provoked public alarm. Adding to the alarm of casualty figures in the millions was nervousness relating to the decision to cross the nuclear threshold as a crisis unfolded, including the prospect that authority to release nuclear weapons might be delegated down the chain of command.

The second constraint on discussion is perhaps even more important. As the Soviet nuclear arsenal grew and diversified, broadly matching that of the United States in terms of flexibility, survivability and destructiveness &shyp; the crucial feature of flexible response, namely the presumption of a more credible capacity to threaten to move up the escalatory ladder, became untenable. In effect NATO was trying to build a credible deterrent based on an incredible action.

A degree of 'existential deterrence' existed. But the prospect of the damage which would surely have been incurred in a conventional war must have weighed heavily in the minds of leaders on both sides. Notwithstanding doctrine and declaratory positions, the absolute imperative for the United States and its NATO partners was considered to be the non-use of nuclear weapons.

The foregoing is a brief account of the attempts by the West, and essentially the United States, to exploit nuclear weapons to enhance security. This bias is appropriate because the United States was unique in overtly tasking its nuclear forces to do more than deter nuclear attack against itself. The Soviet Union, of course, also took nuclear weapons very seriously and invested heavily in them. Although there is no evidence that NATO ever entertained the possibility of dislodging the Soviet Union from Central Europe by force, the Soviet Union undoubtedly felt that its nuclear forces deterred, particularly perhaps at times of popular uprisings (1953, 1956 and 1968) when it would have appeared that NATO was under considerable pressure to intervene.

"Nuclear Weapons Protect the Credibility of Security Assurances to Allies"

It is argued that the credibility of security assurances extended to third parties requires the continued existence of nuclear weapons. Extended deterrence was formulated in the first instance to address circumstances in Western Europe, as a means of transposing United States power and negating the proximity and ready reinforcement capability of the Soviet Union's larger conventional forces. The gravity of the United States' political commitment to defend its allies in Europe and also in Asia and the Pacific lay in its declared preparedness to expose its own territory to nuclear attack. One consideration, never formally declared but not disguised with any vigour, was to dampen incentives in Germany and Japan to become nuclear weapon states themselves.

Extended deterrence has always encompassed tensions. On the one hand, the United States has had to balance the credibility of its security commitments to allies against its natural instinct to build firebreaks between those commitments and nuclear attack against its own home territory. On the other, allies who craved that commitment have also dreaded becoming a superpower nuclear battleground. More importantly, the circumstances in Europe which originally gave rise to extended deterrence no longer obtain. Partly through the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), but more emphatically as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the dramatic diminution in the military capability of its constituent parts, including Russia, the prospect of an overwhelming conventional threat against US allies on the periphery of the former Soviet Union has simply vanished. Nor is there any prospect of a new threat arising comparable in magnitude to that posed by the Soviet Union in the past now that Russian forces have been withdrawn from Germany and the rest of Central Europe.

The Canberra Commission does not propose that any nuclear weapon state should eliminate its nuclear forces unilaterally. Moreover, extended deterrence assurances in the form of collective defence arrangements will remain as part of stable security arrangements. Extended nuclear deterrence, however, cannot be used as a justification for maintaining nuclear arsenals in perpetuity, and the security and non-proliferation function of extended nuclear deterrence in any case will no longer apply in a nuclear weapon free world. Allies of the United States have lent their strong support to the NPT's stated objective of nuclear disarmament. Their interest in collective security arrangements based on conventional forces is sure to continue after nuclear weapons have been eliminated.

"Nuclear Weapons Deter the Use of Other Weapons of Mass Destruction"

Weapons of mass destruction embrace chemical and biological as well as nuclear weapons. The claim is still sometimes made that nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent against them all and constitute the only guarantee of national security against threats posed by such weapons.

All the nuclear weapon states have formulated negative security assurances, statements that set out the circumstances in which they would not use nuclear weapons. The United States declared in 1982 that it would "not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state ... except in the case of an attack on the United States, its territories or armed forces, or its allies, by such a state allied to or associated with a nuclear weapon state in carrying out or sustaining the attack". The clear inference that can be drawn from this statement, which, together with that of the United Kingdom, is the most conditional negative assurance offered by a nuclear weapon state, is that a non-aligned non-nuclear weapon state acting on its own but using biological weapons or chemical weapons against the United States should not fear retaliation with nuclear weapons. In other words, the US and the other nuclear weapon states signalled through these security assurances that the only circumstances in which it would be appropriate to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons was when nuclear weapons were present, directly or indirectly, on the opposing side.

The United States has not failed to capitalise on the fact that it has nuclear weapons and that a non-nuclear adversary might doubt its ordinances of self-denial. In 1990 the United States did not discourage Iraq from the view that it might be subject to nuclear retaliation if it used chemical weapons to protect its occupation of Kuwait. Iraq's Foreign Minister subsequently asserted that the nuclear capability of the coalition forces cast a shadow over the means the regime determined it could sensibly employ to resist eviction from Kuwait. But the United States had means other than veiled nuclear retaliation to deter Iraq from using weapons of mass destruction, for example, the prospect of Iraq's utter devastation through massive conventional bombings or changing the main objective of the war from liberating Kuwait to toppling the Iraqi Government. Furthermore, the United States would have been aware that, if Iraq had raised the stakes and used chemical weapons, the consequences of nuclear retaliation by the United States might have been even more far reaching than the threat it was seeking to deter.

No nuclear weapon state has been or is prepared to declare as a matter of national policy that it would respond to the use of biological or chemical weapons with nuclear weapons. Whatever incidental contribution they might consider nuclear weapons to make in deterring the use of biological and chemical weapons (and it is not difficult to find high-level statements short of formal policy declarations seeking to establish this connection), the nuclear weapon states have not specifically included this in rationales for the maintenance of nuclear forces. They have evidently also taken full account of the fact that use of nuclear weapons in response to use or threat of use of other weapons of mass destruction would cross an important psychological as well as military threshold, making the management of future conflicts even more uncertain. The remarkable advances in the capabilities of conventional armaments, both already achieved and in prospect, can be expected on the whole to confirm this self-imposed limitation on the utility of nuclear weapons.

An increasing number of states have in recent years come to be concerned at the threat of chemical and biological weapons. The issue has become enmeshed with policy responses to proposals for nuclear weapon free zones. The 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba provided an opportunity for nuclear weapon states to reaffirm to African states the assurances they have previously given. As argued in the case for the elimination of nuclear weapons, the solution to these concerns lies in the strengthening and effective implementation of and universal adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, with particular emphasis on early detection of untoward developments. The response to any violation should be a multilateral one.

"Nuclear Weapons Confer Political Status and Influence"

It is said of nuclear weapons, with some justification, that their possession delivers important benefits in the form of status, influence and autonomy in world affairs. All of these are strong motives for states as well as individuals. Pressures to retain or acquire nuclear weapons for these reasons must be taken seriously. Yet the growth in influence of several non-nuclear weapon states tends to refute this proposition.

The example most frequently cited of the correlation between nuclear weapons and status is the fact that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the only members with the power of veto, are also the nuclear weapon states. None of the five, however, secured this status because of nuclear weapons. Not even the United States was a confirmed nuclear power when the Charter of the United Nations was signed on 26 June 1945. And today, it is beyond doubt that any expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council will not be on the basis of preserving the nexus between such membership and the possession of nuclear weapons.

The view that nuclear weapons deliver status and influence to their owners is due in part to the fact that nuclear weapons were in the early aftermath of World War II the supreme embodiment of economic strength and technological excellence. As the world slipped deeper into Cold War, and Washington and Moscow gathered ever more of the reins of global management into their hands, the United Kingdom, France and then China saw themselves as potential targets of superpower arsenals. Subsequently they were attracted also to nuclear capability as a means to secure a place at the top table. Nuclear weapons undeniably helped sustain the significant international standing of both the United Kingdom and France, who, importantly, both took the decision to acquire them when nuclear weapons were still fresh and novel. Equally, however, their alliance with and importance to the United States during the Cold War almost certainly contributed far more to their continued prominence in world affairs.

In retrospect, the United Kingdom and France in particular may question whether their decision to secure a nuclear weapon capability has been worthwhile. Very large economic costs, both direct and cumulative, are inevitably involved and these need to be set against any possible enhanced independence in foreign and defence policy. The direct costs of developing atomic and thermonuclear weapons and an array of specialised delivery vehicles, providing an elaborate security apparatus for warheads and their delivery systems, and keeping all of these up to date are themselves formidable. Moreover the entire complex must be operated continuously at extreme standards of excellence.

Nuclear weapons cannot exclusively be relied on for defence, especially if potential adversaries also have them. So the cost of the nuclear forces, including their continued modernisation, must essentially be added to conventional means of defence. In the cases of the United Kingdom, France and China, the need to support extensive nuclear programs has taken resources and skilled personnel away from conventional forces. The diversion to military purposes of a disproportionately large share of a country's research and development capability is a significant factor in explaining differences in the rate of economic growth that states can sustain over the medium and longer term. In part it explains the pronounced shifts that have occurred over the post-war period in the relative economic weight of the major states, and how Japan and Germany, in particular, have improved their position markedly relative to all the nuclear weapon states. The pressures to refine and update delivery systems have eased although missiles, aircraft and ballistic missile submarines will require expensive maintenance and replacement from time to time. On the other hand the outlook for the medium and longer term is less optimistic. In the absence of a commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons more countries are likely to acquire them, prompting costly competition for at least a qualitative edge. And even a modest increase in the membership of the nuclear club must sharply diminish whatever benefits these weapons are felt to deliver in terms of status.

"Nuclear Weapons Provide Effective Defence at Lower Cost"

It is sometimes argued that nuclear weapons are cost-effective and make possible a more economical defence posture. This view was briefly entertained in the early years of the nuclear era when the United States had a nuclear monopoly or a huge preponderance in deliverable nuclear weapons and when there was a temptation to discount the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and regard nuclear weapons as an important but basically evolutionary development &shyp; just a bigger bomb.

While the US/NATO strategy of 'massive retaliation' was an echo of this view, it is important to note that the United States simultaneously decided to reverse the drastic demobilisation that occurred after World War II and to maintain indefinitely large standing conventional forces. The Korean War strongly reinforced this policy position. Much the same happened in the other nuclear weapon states. It was quickly recognised that the circumstances in which nuclear weapons could beneficially be employed were extremely narrow if, indeed, they existed at all. Rather than nuclear weapons being regarded as a substitute for conventional forces, the overwhelmingly dominant line of reasoning has been to maintain the strongest practicable conventional capabilities and thereby maximise the firebreak between conventional war, should it break out, and nuclear war.

No accurate data exists on the recurring or cumulative cost of the nuclear posture for any of the nuclear weapon states, though without doubt a realistic full costing would yield staggering figures. Such a costing would embrace the production of fissile material; the fabrication of nuclear weapons; environmental clean-up; testing; the design, development, production and operation of delivery systems; the command, control and communications architecture; and the panoply of early warning systems.

All the nuclear weapon states continuously face difficult decisions on nuclear/conventional trade-offs at the margin. But such trade-offs are governed primarily by the need to keep total military expenditure within acceptable bounds. There has been essentially no realistic possibility of achieving savings through assigning to nuclear weapons missions and functions previously performed by conventional forces. If anything, the reverse is true. Recent experience suggests that modern conventional capabilities can reliably perform tasks that were considered earlier to require nuclear weapons. Even here the issue is not cost-effectiveness but the fact that such conventional capabilities constitute a realistic deterrent. In contrast to nuclear weapons, they can be used.

"Nuclear Weapons Deter and if Necessary Can Defeat Large Scale Conventional Aggression by Regional Powers"

The view is held that in a prospective multipolar world with a significant diffusion of economic, technological and military power, nuclear weapons could prove valuable in deterring and if necessary defeating large scale conventional aggression by regional powers, perhaps occurring in more than one theatre at the same time. This presupposes that a nuclear weapon state would find it morally and politically acceptable to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear foe.

This contention is unrealistic. Even in the most favourable circumstances, where there has been no prospect of retaliation, political, moral and military inhibitions have excluded the use of nuclear weapons. Twice during the Korean War, when US forces were in desperate straits and when North Korea and China had no nuclear capability and the Soviet Union only a relatively small one, the US President recoiled from the moral and political costs of resorting to nuclear weapons. When French forces were besieged at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, serious consideration was given in the United States to providing assistance through use of low-yield nuclear weapons. But in these and other instances, including in the later American involvement in Vietnam, self-deterrence proved as effective as mutual deterrence.

The nuclear weapon states have concluded that it is in their interests to formulate negative security assurances that formally proclaim the inadmissibility of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in circumstances where the aggressor is not a nuclear weapon state and is not being actively supported by a nuclear weapon state.

It is also plain that any attempt to unshackle nuclear weapons through contemplating a role for them in conventional regional conflicts would be short-sighted in the extreme. This would inevitably and significantly intensify proliferation pressures.

"Deep-Seated Regional Disputes Will Always Frustrate Universal Agreement on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons"

It is sometimes contended that even if the nuclear weapon states saw net advantage in the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, the necessary universal commitment to this goal would be frustrated by the states involved in the most intractable regional disputes. The two key examples given are the disputes between Israel and the Arab states, and between India and Pakistan. But, without question, the overt nuclearisation of these disputes would complicate them further and make any genuine reconciliation vastly more difficult. The states concerned would be locked into very expensive and dangerous nuclear deterrent relationships, with the familiar incessant pressures to increase and diversify the nuclear arsenals. The actual use of nuclear weapons, whether by design or by accident, would exacerbate these disputes beyond measure and make more likely the direct involvement of the major powers.

It is clearly in the interests of the nuclear weapon states, and substantially within their capacity and that of the international community, to address the concerns of the few states who may believe that a nuclear capability is indispensable to their security. Strengthening conflict mediation procedures and providing additional security assurances will be in the interests of both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states.

The striking development, post-Cold War, of increasing global interdependence has led most states to appreciate the potential of seeking security in cooperation with rather than in confrontation against their neighbours. Though cautiously in some cases, many states are now exploring the potential for dialogue, transparency and other trust and confidence building measures with their neighbours as a more reliable and effective means of providing for their security than confrontation or deterrence. Furthermore, the commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world should reinforce the determination of states to strengthen collective and cooperative means of addressing their security concerns.

"The Elimination of Nuclear Weapons is Unverifiable: Cheating and Breakout Will Occur"

The elimination of nuclear weapons will not be possible without the development of adequate verification. A political judgement will be needed on whether the levels of assurance possible from the verification regime are sufficient. All existing arms control and disarmament agreements have required political judgements of this nature because no verification system provides absolute certainty. This situation has not prevented the international community acting in the area of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction first with the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards system, then the CWC and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The nature of nuclear weapons, the secrecy that has surrounded their development and uncertainties about total amounts of nuclear material produced for weapons, will make it very difficult, or in the view of some impossible, to be confident that states which have operated large scale military nuclear programs have made full declarations of their holdings of nuclear weapons and fissile material. The possession by a state of a number of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them in an otherwise nuclear weapon free world would present the state concerned with a powerful coercive instrument. While such a development is considered a significant risk it is hard to envisage the nuclear weapon states totally eliminating their arsenals. Confidence in the verification arrangements will have to apply to the nuclear programs of the declared nuclear weapon states and the undeclared and threshold nuclear weapon states. Verification arrangements are also discussed in Part Two and in more detail in Annex A.

Nuclear disarmament will be achieved in stages, and the decision point on whether verification is adequate for complete elimination is unlikely to be reached for some time. The potential uncertainty about whether a verification regime can be developed to provide sufficient confidence for final elimination should not be allowed to divert attention from the benefits of making an early start on practical steps toward a nuclear weapon free world. Development and implementation of the verification arrangements needed for each step toward elimination will provide immediate benefit through reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear proliferation including nuclear terrorism. If it were to take a long time for the verification system to deliver the levels of confidence needed for total elimination, a world of small residual arsenals would, in the meantime, be a safer place than at present although the dangers of nuclear proliferation and a renewed arms race would remain. Movement to this penultimate stage of nuclear disarmament would establish circumstances in which states could conclude, with increasing conviction over time, that nuclear weapons are not relevant to their security, thereby eliminating any remaining incentive to cheat.

It should be recognised that a verification regime is composed of both its material and technical features, which should be of the highest order attainable, and the common political and legal commitments which support it. This creates the climate of confidence essential to any verification regime. An inclusive approach to verification can increase levels of assurance. In the case of verification for a nuclear weapon free world, technical verification can be supplemented by measures such as transparency in nuclear activity, relevant national intelligence information passed to verification bodies, an enhanced role for individuals in verification and application of effective export controls.

A number of factors can be identified which will act in favour of development of adequate verification arrangements for a nuclear weapon free world. First, because the nuclear weapon scientific industrial complex is a tightly regulated governmental enterprise, there is an increased probability that extensive records of nuclear weapons and weapons fissile material production will be available. This is not to diminish the magnitude of the task of verifying the completeness of states' declarations of holdings of weapons and weapons nuclear material, and records can of course be destroyed or falsified.

A second consideration is the nearly thirty years of experience accumulated in verifying compliance with the NPT. The IAEA safeguards system offers a proven and evolving system for delivering a high degree of assurance that safeguarded nuclear material remains in peaceful use. Action necessary to improve the IAEA's capacity to detect undeclared nuclear activity is being taken and the Agency has expertise in verifying declarations of previously unsafeguarded nuclear programs, including its work in Iraq, the DPRK (North Korea) and South Africa after that country renounced nuclear weapons.

Third, there is the experience of the SALT, START, INF, CFE and CWC agreements that individually and collectively demonstrate the powerful influence that political will can exert over what is desirable and possible in terms of verification. In the 1980s, the arms control agenda was transformed by the negotiation, in particular, of the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) and the CFE agreements. Prior to these treaties, the scope of arms control was, with the major exception of IAEA safeguards inspections, basically limited to arrangements that could be verified by so-called 'national technical means', that is, by the information that each side could extract without the cooperation of the other. Once it had been determined politically that both sides really wanted the outcomes in question, the realm of verification expanded beyond recognition to include on-site inspections and voluntary transparency and cooperative measures. In a similar vein the verification regime supporting the CWC broke significant new ground in response to the scale and complexity of the challenge, the harnessing of new technologies for verification purposes and the forging of a partnership, worldwide, between governments and the chemical industry. These agreements show that verification capabilities can grow to support the objective when that objective is determined unequivocally to be in the political and security interests of all concerned.

The temptation should be resisted to demand a perfect verification regime and total assurance of effective collective action against any cheating state (in effect, a world government) as the only circumstance in which it would make sense to eliminate nuclear weapons. Inevitably, some risk will have to be accepted if the wider benefits of a nuclear weapon free world are to be realised. Some argue that, in a nuclear weapon free world, any state that cheats successfully and emerges with a meaningful nuclear force, warheads and credible delivery systems, would derive tremendous advantage. This seems intuitively obvious but it should be examined. The history of the nuclear era to date indicates that the threat of use of nuclear force is in practice extremely difficult to translate into political gains. This would be at least as true in the world that had succeeded in crossing the threshold to zero nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in an era in which the accuracy, penetrating power and destructive force of conventional weapons are increasing rapidly and economic interdependence is growing, the development of an illegal nuclear force would, in all probability, be self-defeating.

It is important to be clear on what constitutes a 'meaningful nuclear force' and on what force might be secretly acquired. Much would depend on the sort of country that did the cheating and the scale of the geopolitical threat that it could subsequently pose before its nuclear capability was countered and negated. The risk of a single state emerging with a meaningful nuclear force is perhaps greatest in the case of a nuclear power or threshold state that succeeded in hiding away a portion of its arsenal while otherwise appearing to participate in the elimination process. This is a clear challenge for the accounting and verification regime. If states with a known nuclear weapon capability fail to create high and unblemished levels of reciprocal confidence in the course of the preparatory process, this will inevitably prejudice the elimination process.

It is already practically impossible for a government to develop nuclear weapons without at least arousing strong suspicions. The instruments and procedures that would come into effect as part of the process of eliminating nuclear weapons can be expected to increase confidence in this regard very substantially. Any state that generated doubts about its commitment to nuclear disarmament or had done so in the past would be subject to particularly close scrutiny. The credibility of the new verification regime should not rest wholly on detection of just one bomb: it should rather be based on the ability to provide due warning that someone was preparing a meaningful nuclear force.

Major powers with very substantial conventional forces do not require nuclear weapons to deal with threats from small states which might acquire some nuclear weapons capability. The advanced conventional weapons of the major powers would be enough to discourage or retaliate against any small state which threatens to use nuclear weapons.

In the light of these considerations, the rational requirement is to evaluate comparative risks. In considering the desirability of moving to a nuclear weapon free world, some compare its hazards not with yesterday's massive nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert holding apart nervous and deeply antagonistic states but with the prospect of relatively modest arsenals possessed only by a few states experienced in their management. But, as already argued, it is much more likely that the nuclear club will expand and the nuclear arms race re-ignite. A more telling comparison is therefore the risk of a failure of deterrence in an environment of thousands of warheads on reliable delivery vehicles, against the risks associated with whatever nuclear force a cheating state could assemble before it was exposed. It is beyond question that, of those two, the former is the vastly greater risk.


The world community has had 50 years of experience with nuclear weapons. In this period much of its effort, including of those members of the community which have owned nuclear weapons, has been directed towards protecting itself from their destructive power. Vertical proliferation, the urge of nuclear weapon states to add to and perfect their arsenals, has been a major cause of the problem of living with nuclear weapons. Horizontal proliferation, the urge of other states to acquire this perceived means of enhancing their security, has also been and remains of great concern.

It has been argued that nuclear weapons have reinforced caution in the conduct of relationships between the major powers. But their existence carries the inherent risk of their use, which would inevitably have catastrophic results. The only complete defence against such catastrophe is the elimination of nuclear weapons and the assurance that they will never be produced again. Inertia and complacency should not be permitted to prevent the international community from reaching this goal.


1 Graham T. Allison, Owen R. Coté Jr., Richard A. Falkenrath and Steven E. Miller, Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1996), p. 1 of the Introduction.

2 ICJ Advisory Opinion, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,
8 July 1996, General List No. 95, p. 36

3 Ibid.

4 Hans Gunther Brauch, "The Enhanced Radiation Warhead : A West German Perspective," Arms Control Today, (June 1978), p.3.

5 Solly Zuckerman, Nuclear Illusions and Reality (New York: Viking, 1982), p.70; Sunday Times (London), February 21, 1982.

6 Henry Kissinger, "NATO Defense and the Soviet Threat," Survival,
(November-December 1979), p. 266.

7 The Congressional Record (US), 1 July, 1981.

8 The Washington Post, 12 April, 1982.

9 BBC Radio interview with Stuart Simon, 16 July, 1987.

Last Updated: 1 October 2014