Nuclear Weapons: Can They Be Made Strategically Obsolete?

12 Feb, 2013    ·   3810

Debak Das reflects on whether nuclear disarmament can be pursued given the large asymmetries in conventional arms

Debak Das
Debak Das
Research Officer

With U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term in office and the possible appointment of Chuck Hagel as his Secretary of Defence, there is a widespread belief in the possibility of the movement for nuclear disarmament receiving a fillip. The President’s commitment to the cause notwithstanding, there are numerous issues that plague the issue of nuclear disarmament.

Can nuclear disarmament be pursued given the large asymmetries in conventional arms of nuclear states? Can nuclear weapons be made strategically obsolete?

Asymmetric Forces:  Is Simultaneous Global Conventional Arms De-escalation Possible?
Until all countries multilaterally agree upon removing nuclear weapons from their arsenal, the goal towards nuclear zero is unattainable. However, why would a country like the US be in favour of such an agreement?

A world bereft of nuclear weapons leaves the US with a conventional superiority that would take conventionally strong China decades to catch up with. This conventional asymmetry, while a strong incentive for the US to disarm, is a strong deterrent for the possibility of disarmament in countries with small nuclear arsenals. Especially outliers to the international norm, such as Iran and North Korea, would never give up this option; both Tehran and Pyongyang consider nuclear weapons as political weapons that stand between them and a possible western military intervention.

In South Asia, it is unlikely that Pakistan would give up nuclear weapons (that provide a parity in military strength), even if India decides to move towards a tangible manifestation for global nuclear disarmament. India and the US thus have the most to gain from nuclear disarmament owing to their strong conventional capabilities.

Given the conventional asymmetries, nuclear disarmament is not possible without a large scale de-escalation of conventional arms. These two processes of disarmament cannot be divorced from each other as they are not mutually exclusive and remain intrinsically interrelated. However, this may diminish the ‘great power status’ of nuclear states, which would be an unacceptable proposition even to the strongest proponent of nuclear disarmament. A call for the ‘global parity of conventional forces’ would not only deal a deathblow to the global military industrial complex machinery but also be counterintuitive to the global trend of arms acquisition, that has its biggest market  in South Asia.

Can Nuclear Weapons Be Made Strategically Obsolete?
The normative imperative for states to disarm is obvious. However, even if the outliers to the international community can be brought back into the mainstream, strategic obsolescence (both imaginative and doctrinal) of nuclear forces is difficult to achieve.

Fears of humanitarian disaster, nuclear winter, failure of deterrence and nuclear accidents do not provide a tangible enough cause for the nuclear strategic community, or even atomic publics at large, to transform what are now traditional notions of strength and power. Nuclear weapons are a currency of hard power. Can the strategic community in countries possessing nuclear weapons be disincentivised to stop placing the premium they currently place on nuclear arms?

Nuclear arms are likely to pass out of strategic discourse only by obsolescence. For some, the creation of a ‘taboo’ through ‘discrediting and delegitimizing’ the use of nuclear weapons can go a long way in achieving this objective (Rebecca Johnson: Preventing Nuclear Use: The Humanitarian Imperative to Disarm, 2013). There is a perception that nuclear weapons have already been stigmatised as unacceptable weapons and that there already exists a powerful taboo against the use of nuclear weapons (Nina Tannenwald: The Nuclear Taboo: the United States and the non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945, 2007). However, as Johnson points out, “The use of nuclear weapons is legitimised by the presence of nuclear weapons in military doctrines.” Even a doctrine of ‘no first use’ advocates and legitimises the use of nuclear weapons with devastating effect. The taboo that came about on chemical and biological weapons was primarily because of the number of times that these weapons have been used. As the same is unlikely to be true of nuclear weapons, its role in the strategic imperatives of nuclear states is likely to remain the same.

Even if there is a nuclear taboo followed by a global ban on the use of nuclear weapons, verification would still remain near impossible. Even an exhaustive verification regime of the Chemical Weapons Convention could not prevent Syria from possessing a stockpile of chemical weapons. The political and strategic fall-out of such a scenario in the case of nuclear weapons would indeed be devastating. If Iran, North Korea or Pakistan keeps a secret stockpile stashed away, it could possibly lead to a nuclear re-armament race, which would be more dangerous than the system of nuclear status quo that exists today.

To conclude, a sense of parity – in both conventional and economic power (both the currencies of hard power) is the only effective normative disposition that could make nuclear weapons obsolete. Without a commitment to conventional disarmament, neither can this parity nor nuclear disarmament be achieved. Obama, other ‘horsemen’ committed to the cause, and campaigns like the Global Zero movement, must take note and adopt a more holistic roadmap to nuclear disarmament.