Rationalizing the Nuclear Weapons Have and Have-Nots Regime

A nuclear warhead. (Photo: Steve Jurveston / Wikimedia Commons)

A nuclear warhead. (Photo: Steve Jurveston / Wikimedia Commons)

Occasionally, I like to surf JStor, the resource for scholaars, for articles about nuclear weapons and disarmament. I found a piece in the May 2007 issue of International Affairs by William Walker titled “Nuclear enlightenment and counter-enlightenment.” Since it’s not germane to the post, we’ll skip explaining what that means. Instead we’ll go straight to this quote: “A highly dangerous absence of political and instrumental mastery accompanied the rapid development and accumulation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems in the early Cold War.” In other words, our technological achievements outstrip our ability to make moral choices about them. Or, perhaps, we just suffer from a blind faith that if we’re able to develop advanced technologies — from nuclear weapons to artificial intelligence — we should certainly be able to develop the ability to manage them. On the face of it, that would seem light years less difficult.

Walker then points out that “the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the enormous dangers of the unregulated strategic competition that had developed between the US and the USSR.” He writes that this, among other things

… led to the replacement of the hitherto non-negotiable demand for complete nuclear disarmament by a pragmatic demand for a halt to nuclear proliferation and the arms race prior to elimination of the weapons. The shift was expressed in the ‘Irish Resolution’ of 1961.” In effect, it proposed the elevation of non-proliferation to a universal norm. … The initiative gained impetus from the understanding shared by Moscow and Washington that they had to accommodate one another and engage in meaningful arms control, and that they possessed a common interest in the development of a non-proliferation regime.

The 1960s and 1970s therefore brought concerted efforts to construct an international nuclear order meriting that title. … recognition was given to the [nonproliferation] project’s intrinsic universalism..

But, writes Walker, “For this pretension to universalism to attain credibility,”

How could assertions that the possession of nuclear weapons by certain states served the avoidance of war be reconciled with assertions that their possession by others increased the likelihood of war? … How could states that renounced nuclear weapons be confident that a non-proliferation regime would not simply entrench the advantages and privileges of states that had already armed themselves ‘legally’?

In other words, how could states without nuclear weapons be expected to trust states with nuclear weapons? After all, isn’t that the farthest thing from a level playing field imaginable. According to Walker, the justification to that question is twofold.

One was that nuclear proliferation, according to the Irish Resolution, ‘threatens to extend and intensify the arms race and to increase the difficulties of avoiding war’.

Obviously. The second:

… was that the possession of nuclear weapons by the acknowledged nuclear weapon states was a temporary trust, and a trust which could not be extended to other states. Nuclear disarmament remained the eternal norm, which would eventually displace the provisional norm of non-proliferation. Although the injunction to engage in arms control and disarmament in the NPT’s Article VI was vaguely expressed, the expectation attached to it was unambiguous.

You could understand why, however intrinsically unfair it sounds, it “could not be extended to other states.” But what happened with “temporary”? That nuclear-weapon legacy states continue to keep them in their arsenals decades later is, in part, a function of how notoriously “vaguely expressed” the commitment to arms control and disarmament is in the NPT.

FYI, Article VI reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Vague enough for you?

In fact, the imperative to trust has been violated by the halting progress the West has made toward nuclear disarmament. The United States especially, using the pretense of keeping its arsenal safe and secure, has committed $355 billion over the next decade and one trillion over 30 years to nuclear weapons

“Temporary” seems to have become “indefinite,” or even worse, “in perpetuity.”