Abolishing Nuclear Weapons – Useful and Not-So-Useful First Steps


Milan Rai - TeleSur

| Photo: Archive

| Photo: Archive

The most urgently-required negative security assurance (NSA) is a promise by all the declared nuclear weapon states never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state.

5 Jan 2015 – Last month saw a cascade of news on the nuclear weapons front. The Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was attended by 157 countries including the US and UK. After the conference, the third in a series, host nation Austria issued a historic pledge to work ‘to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons’,” and to cooperate with all relevant parties ‘to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks’. At least 42 countries will now begin the political process of drawing up a treaty to ban nuclear weapons (joining the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention  of 1993).

Also in December, the Marshall Islands, subjected to 67 nuclear tests by the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, put forward written arguments in the World Court, taking the eight declared nuclear weapon states – and Israel – to task. The Pacific state (with a population of less than 70,000) wants the World Court to order the nuclear weapon state signatories to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to live up to their promise in the NPT to end the arms race ‘at an early date’ and to negotiate a treaty on ‘complete disarmament’.

In December, India marked two major developments in its ground-based nuclear weapons capability, with the first successful test of the 2,500-mile-range Agni-IV, the first Indian ballistic missile able to deliver nuclear warheads deep inside China; and testing of the delivery platform for the Agni-V, with its range of up to 3,400 miles, bringing the whole of China within range. (In 2016, as well as deploying the Agni-V, India plans to bring its first nuclear missile-carrying submarines into service, completing its nuclear air-land-sea ‘triad’.)

As is well-known, India has fought several wars with its neighbours (Pakistan and China) since its birth as an independent nation in 1947, and war with Pakistan remains an ever-present threat.

Less well-known is the fact that a ‘limited’ nuclear war between Pakistan and India would create a massive injection of ‘black carbon aerosol particles’ (soot) into the atmosphere that would reduce rainfall and temperatures across the world – for a decade – with a devastating impact on global agriculture. Studies assembled by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility in 2013 indicate that: ‘In addition to the one billion people in the developing world who would face possible starvation, 1.3 billion people in China would confront severe food insecurity.’

Other nuclear weapons news in December included the threat by Russia to place nuclear weapons in Crimea, the province of Ukraine that it illegally annexed in March 2014; a UN General Assembly vote calling on Israel to renounce its nuclear weapons, sign the NPT, and place its nuclear facilities under an international inspection regime; and reports of China’s deployment of long-range ballistic missiles on its Jin-class submarines.

Each situation is different, and each nuclear weapon state faces different forces driving it to take part in the nuclear arms race. Thus, while several Western media outlets tried to whip up fears of Chinese submarine-launched nuclear strikes on the USA, it was pointed out several years ago that the Jin-class submarine is noisier than Russian submarines built in the 1970s, making them highly vulnerable to US anti-submarine warfare if they ventured past Hawaii to bring the continental USA into range. Hans M Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists observed in 2009 that this vulnerability probably meant that the Jin ballistic missile capability was being developed because of regional ‘scenarios involving India or Russia that have less capable anti-submarine forces’.

By the logic of the arms race, the development of the Jin submarine-launched ballistic missile capability is one factor driving India’s push for its own submarine-launched ballistic missile force. Given these many complex dynamics, it is impossible to find a single measure that would reduce the threat of nuclear war across the world.

However, there is one measure that would make a significant difference, which ought perhaps to be the immediate focus of disarmament efforts.

There have been many suggestions for short-term priorities. In the run-up to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, some thoughts were offered on this score from an establishment perspective by Łukasz Kulesa, Research Director of the European Leadership Network, a London-based foreign policy think tank. Kulesa scorned the idea that ‘total elimination of nuclear weapons can be achieved by adopting treaties without the presence of the main nuclear protagonists’, describing such a treaty text as a ‘sand castle’. He argued that ‘we need ideas that do not accept the division of the world among idealist disarmers and nuclear realists but rather fashion an agenda that realist disarmers can get behind’.

Kulesa put forward three priorities. Firstly, he noted that ‘the attractiveness of nuclear weapons seems to be on the rise, and it can be significantly decreased only if the stability of the international system as such is re-established’. Secondly, he observed:

‘Equally worrisome, some states have been developing both the nuclear weaponry and the doctrine for nuclear weapon use on the battlefield, to strike particularly valuable targets or to stop a conventional attack by an opponent…. Exposing the dangerous delusion of “battlefield-only” nuclear weapons should be a priority, especially since even a single low-yield detonation would have disastrous political, humanitarian and environmental consequences.’

Finally, Kulesa pointed to the danger that the NPT Review Conference meeting in April 2015 could lead to some members being tempted to withdraw  from the Treaty as a way to demonstrate their frustration with the glacial  pace of fulfilling nuclear disarmament obligations’.

There is one measure that would help to address all three of Kulesa’s concerns, which would be for all declared nuclear weapon states to sign up to a legally-binding and comprehensive nuclear ‘negative security assurance’. A positive security assurance is a promise to take action to support another state’s security if it is endangered. A negative security assurance is a commitment not to engage in (specified) actions that could endanger the security of another state. In relation to nuclear weapons, the most urgently-required negative security assurance (NSA) is a promise by all the declared nuclear weapon states never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state.

This simple measure has been impossible to obtain. The United States has gradually been forced to remove loopholes from its NSA, with the result that in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review the text had been simplified to this point: ‘the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in  compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations’. The US takes it upon itself to  decide whether a non-nuclear weapon state is in compliance with its NPT  obligations. It also explicitly gave itself the option of using nuclear  weapons to deter ‘a conventional or CBW attack against the United States  or its allies and partners’ by a nuclear weapon state, or a non-nuclear weapon state not in compliance with its NPT obligations (in the view of the US).

The British 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review also removed some loopholes in its previous NSAs: ‘the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT…. this assurance would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations’. The UK then made a wider reservation than the US in relation to other WMD: ‘We also note that while there is currently no direct threat to the UK or its vital interests from states developing capabilities in other weapons of mass destruction, for example chemical and biological, we reserve the right to review this assurance if the future threat, development and proliferation of these weapons make it necessary.’

So the UK included chemical weapons as well as biological weapons in this exception; appeared to threaten non-nuclear weapon states in compliance with their NPT obligations who developed CBW; and explicitly mentioned CBW  threats against Britain’s ‘vital interests’ (not just British territory) as a justification for the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons.

In contrast, China has from the outset offered an unconditional NSA to all non-nuclear weapon states, whether party to the NPT or not (as well as a no-first-use pledge towards nuclear weapon states), and has expressed willingness to sign a legally-binding NSA treaty.

The importance of a legally-binding no-loophole NSA treaty is that it restricts the ability of nuclear weapon states to engage in nuclear coercion or intimidation – what I called in an earlier essay nuclear terrorism.

This is an example of what in another context has been called ‘non-reformist reform’. Promising not to use nuclear weapons against countries that don’t possess nuclear weapons appears completely straightforward and simple to most folk. And yet Britain, France, Russia and the US have been adamantly opposed to making a legally-binding commitment to this effect.

If the no-loophole NSA treaty were signed, it would reduce the attractiveness of nuclear weapons and contribute to the stabilisation of the international system; it would remove an important justification for the US development of low-yield nuclear warheads; and it would give new strength to the NPT (especially if the NSA were restricted to non-nuclear weapon state members of the NPT – though in that case it should be made clear that it would be the International Atomic Energy Agency that would decide who was in compliance with their nuclear obligations, not the US or UK unilaterally).

It is possible that the NSA treaty could become part of what Austria calls ‘fill[ing] the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons’. It’s also possible that a no-loophole, legally-binding NSA treaty could be the most useful short-term outcome of the pressure exerted by the countries pursuing a nuclear abolition treaty. What is certain is that if the world community cannot force the declared nuclear weapon states to sign a legally-binding no-loophole NSA treaty, it will never be able to force them to disarm. That is nuclear realism.


Milan Rai, the anti-war activist, author and editor based in Hastings, England, first became politically active in the campaign against Pershing II and Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles – nuclear weapons scheduled to be deployed in Western Europe in the late 1980s. A Peace News seller at his school, he’s now become co-editor of the monthly magazine. Milan is the author of Chomsky’s Politics (Verso, 1995), War Plan Iraq (Verso, 2002), Regime Unchanged (Pluto, 2003) and 7/7: The London Bombings and the Iraq War (Pluto, 2006), as well as a host of pamphlets including Tactical Trident (1995) and Britain, Maastricht and the Bomb (1993). For the first six months of 1991, he wrote and produced Gulf Crisis Weekly. He is currently on the advisory board of The Journal of Chomskyan Studies (Seoul).

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