Cooperative Security: A New Paradigm For A World Without Nuclear Weapons?

Editorial Note: This paper was presented at the international conference “Opportunities and Challenges for the 21st Century – Need for a New Paradigm”, which was organised by the United Nations Office and the World Academy of Art and Science and held at the United Nations Office in Geneva on June 3, 2013.

If there is a loose consensus on aiming at a world free of nuclear weapons in the future, there are clear oppositions as to the timeframe as well as the means for achieving this goal. The approach to nuclear disarmament followed to date has only yielded limited success because it has been conceived in isolation from global and regional security environments and threat perceptions. A new paradigm should thus be sought in order to reconcile nuclear powers’ security doctrines with global aspirations for a safer world, and ensure that nuclear powers derive their security less from others’ insecurity but from mutually beneficial cooperative security. This should not become a pretext for preserving nuclear weapons for ever. It will on the contrary require parallel tracks addressing the initial motivations for acquiring nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), in particular in the context of regional conflicts, as well as dealing with the current issues necessarily related to nuclear disarmament (missile defence, weaponization of space, conventional imbalances and future weapon systems). Ultimately, in a globalised nuclear-weapon free world, state security will not require nuclear weapons because it will be inserted into a broader network encompass­ing all aspects of security addressed in cooperative and multilateral approaches.

1. Disagreements on the Best Route to Nuclear Disarmament
The ultimate goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, expressed in the very first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, is regularly reaffirmed by all states, including the nuclear powers. It is at the heart of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the commitments adopted at its Review Conferences in 1995, 2000 and 2010. It was solemn­­ly proclaimed by President Obama in his 2009 Prague speech. However, 68 years after Hiro­shima and Nagasaki and two decades after the end of the Cold War, the world’snuclear arsenals are still estimated to total more than 17,000 warheads, nearly 94% of which are in the hands of the United States and Russia. This is a real improvement compared to the 65,000 weapons active in 1985, but the fact that all nuclear powers keep modernizing their arsenals and some increase theirs shows how much progress is still needed to achieve the common goal of nuclear disarmament. The firepower of the sole US and Russian deployed nuclear weapons still equals 700 times the explosive firepower of all the bombs exploded during World War II (expressed in tons of TNT).

Because of the primary responsibility of the two main nuclear powers, their bilateral negotiations and agreements have until now remained the principal channel for both preventing further “vertical” proliferation, i.e. ceilings on numbers of delivery vehicles and warheads, and reducing actual stockpiles by dismantlement of delivery vehicles or non-deployment of warheads. This process, started in the early 1970s, did yield the above-mentioned reductions. However, since 1949, in parallel, the number of states having manufactured and exploded nuclear weapons increased from two to eight (with the addition of UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) or nine counting Israel (which has not exploded a nuclear device). While the US and the Soviet Union followed by Russia had begun reducing their stockpiles, some new nuclear weapon-states increased their stockpiles. However, the UK and France also carried out reductions in their smaller arsenals after the end of the Cold War (France is actually the only nuclear power to have cut its total stockpile by half, reduced by one third the number of its active nuclear submarines and airborne weapons, missiles and aircraft, scrapped its land-based component, and dismantled both its testing site and fissile material production site).1

Between the main protagonists of the Cold War, the process of nuclear disarmament, albeit limited, was closely related to an evolution of the global security environment. The relaxation of tensions during the 1970s, followed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact facilitated unilateral and bilateral disarmament initiatives. The most effective approach was an incremental building of mutual confidence through direct communication lines, data exchange centres, reciprocal verification of ceilings and dismantlement. The same approach was followed in the conventional domain, with confidence – and security-building measures gradually allowing actual elimination of the most destabilizing heavy armaments in huge quantities in Europe.

If the general political environment and the reduction in the level of potential military confrontation have favoured a sense of strengthened security among the former Cold War enemies, those countries have not felt secure enough to move faster and closer to the goal of nuclear abolition. At the same time, new nuclear powers have emerged and developed their capabilities and stockpiles for reasons of their own. In both categories, if the process of nuclear disarmament has to proceed further or to be initiated, considering the current failures, a new security paradigm will need to be elaborated.

2. Addressing Motives and Threat Perceptions: Fear and Power
In order to build this new security doctrine, one will need to review the motives which have led governments to join the nuclear club. Basically, those motives can be boiled down to two: fear and power. Even former Cold War protagonists have not drawn all the consequences of the disappearance of their former enemies. Their reliance on nuclear weapons to protect their vital interests is still predicated on a zero-sum game security concept: their security will be preserved only if their potential enemies (even currently undefined) feel insecure and thus dissuaded§ to launch any aggression against them. Nuclear deterrence is based on nuclear powers’ fear of potential enemies and on the latter’s fear of potential damage that should outweigh the benefits of aggression. But, even when the actual risk of aggression from any potential enemy tends to disappear, nuclear-weapon states find in the power conferred upon them by nuclear weapons a new reason for maintaining them. This nostalgia of nineteenth and twentieth-century power politics by a small number of potent states is still prevalent in the minds of leaders who are considering what their countries would become without nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the world has changed: power comes less from the traditional instruments of state power such as nuclear weapons and more from economic and/or demographic dynamism, capacity for technological innovation, digital transformation, and intellectual influence, qualified by Joseph Nye as soft power.2

In regions of protracted conflict, nuclear weapons have appeared as an attractive means of guaranteeing security in the same zero-sum game approach and combination of fear and power, even if they have played the role of an equalizer of conventional imbalances (like in the case of Israel versus the Arab world and now a potentially nuclear Iran, or Pakistan versus India) and, as for Cold War protagonists, their possession has so far prevented a nuclear war but not direct or proxy conventional wars. While military might has ceased to be the sole criterion of power for western states, emerging countries like India or China cannot conceive asserting themselves without strengthening their military capabilities, including nuclear power. When North Korea and Iran crave for recognition, drawing inspiration from the most powerful country, the US, they develop their nuclear programmes. They cannot ignore the precedents of Iraq and Libya, which became subject to military intervention after they had renounced, voluntarily or not, their WMD programmes.

For both categories of states, reducing the benefits conferred by nuclear weapons in terms of power will thus need to be pursued along with mitigating the justified fears or perceived threats that now justify resorting to nuclear weapons. Of course, this is easier said than done. The UN Security Council has identified the key objective in its historic resolution 1887 which was unanimously adopted at the level of heads of state or government on 24 September 2009: “to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, in accordance with the goals of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), in a way that promotes international stability, and based on the principle of undiminished security for all.” Several tracks could be pursued simultaneously in that direction.

* In the author’s previous career as a French diplomat, he was involved in several arms control and disarmament negotiations. He only expresses here his
personal views. He wishes to thank Jonathan Granoff and Gustav Lindström for their contribution to this paper, which was presented at the meeting of the
Berlin Framework Forum on 21 February 2013.
* Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces”, Nov. 2012 (
† See
‡ In French, deterrence is translated to dissuasion which carries less connotation of terror and relies more on a rational decision to abstain from aggression.
1. French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “France and Nuclear Disarmament”, 2010
2. Pierre Buhler, La puissance au XXIe siècle (Paris : CNRS Éditions, 2011)

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