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 - 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."

* 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.

* 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."

* 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."

* 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."

* 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." 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 - 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.

Canberra Commission Report Continued

Proposition One