Grouping nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC),
weapons under the heading of "Weapons of Mass Destruction"
obscures the crucial difference between the nature and scale of
the danger presented by these very different systems.
2. There were good reasons in the 1950s
for grouping these weapons under the category of "NBC",
because the focus was on the operating environment in the event
of global war. Whether it involved biological and chemical agents
or radioactive fall-out, the requirement was the same, on land
or sea. Personnel had to be protected from airborne particles
and be able to cleanse weapons and fixed installations that had
been exposed to such contamination.
3. The term "Weapons of Mass Destruction"
became common currency in the 1990s. There was no longer any danger
of war with the Soviet Union and the only real threat to the US
projection of conventional force in distant parts of the globe
were chemical and biological weapons in the hands of the target
state. Both were relatively inexpensive and easy to produce, and
both could be seen as the poor man's deterrent. By classifying
these weapons as WMD, we paved the way for legitimising nuclear
strikes against states that used chemical or biological weapons
to resist Western military intervention.
4. In the main, these legal semantics do
no great harm, since it is well understood by relevant officials
and interested members of the public that nuclear systems belong
to a qualitatively different category to biological and chemical
weaponsbe it the ease of manufacture, the difficulty of
efficient delivery, the possibility of counter-measures, or the
availability of remedies for the after effectswhile nuclear
weapons have a unique capacity for enduring death and destruction.
5. What is less generally admitted is that
the particular nature of nuclear-missile weapons, which combine
overwhelming devastation with minimum warning time and necessitate
complex and tightly coupled command and control structures, introduces
the very real danger of an accidental nuclear exchange through
malfunction and/or misunderstanding. Detailed studies published
in 1989-93, based on well-informed empirical analysis of US experience
during the cold war, concluded that the risk of accidental nuclear
war had been even higher than contemporary critics had claimed.
This particular danger just does not apply to chemical and biological
6. Not only is this enduring danger insufficiently
acknowledged, but the Cold War mantra that "nuclear deterrence
kept the peace" obscured the quite separate danger during
that period of inadvertent nuclear war, resulting from a combination
of background circumstances, mutual misunderstanding, and an unforseen
chain of events. By definition, such a war can not be deterred.
Drawing on authoritative analyses, Robert McNamara (then US Secretary
of Defence), has described how close they came to inadvertent
war at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.
7. Because it engendered a false sense of
confidence and favoured large and varied weapons inventories,
deterrence doctrine became (in the words of Air Force General
Lee Butler, former commander of US strategic forces),
a "formula for unmitigated catastrophe." The nuclear
arms race had a dynamic of its own, combining the crude logic
of conventional advantage with the sophistries of deterrence theory.
For example, the requirement for an assured second strike, added
to traditional targeting criteria, justified an ever-increasing
number of warheads and diversity of delivery systems.
8. Retrospective analysis shows that we
were very lucky to avoid inadvertent or accidental war during
the East-West confrontation. Given the size of the respective
arsenals and the necessary automaticity in command and control
procedures, such a war would have destroyed civilisation as we
know it and perhaps the human race.
THE ENDURING DANGER OF WAR
9. The fact we managed to avoid such a catastrophe
in the past is no reason for assuming we will do so in the future.
Besides the laws of probability, the circumstances of the last
fifty years were relatively benign in the sense that the Cold
War was bipolar and the opposing sides had common historical and
cultural roots and were used to dealing with each other. Today's
low-salience nuclear (LSN) world is a transient phenomenon, a
consequence of the Soviet Union's disintegration. When new centres
of countervailing power emerge in the next 10 to 20 years, the
logic of nuclear deterrence ensures that we will revert to the
high-salience nuclear (HSN) world we knew in the past. But it
will be a multi-cultural and multi-polar nuclear world. The likelihood
of misunderstanding will be significantly greater and experience
of essential command and control mechanisms and procedures will
be very uneven. The danger of inadvertent and/or accidental nuclear
war will increase exponentially.
10. The terms of reference of the Foreign
Affairs Committee's inquiry on Weapons of Mass Destruction focuses
on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and does not refer to
the danger described above. However, the source of that dangerthe
arsenals of the five "designated" nuclear weapons states
(NWS)are directly relevant to three of the five agenda
items and indirectly relevant to the other two.
11. There are several ways in which the
existence of the NWS' arsenals works against the continuing effectiveness
of the nuclear non-proliferation regimes and ancillary agreements.
As concrete evidence of the NWS' continuing unwillingness to meet
their 1970 treaty obligations to "pursue negotiations . .
. on effective means relating to . . . nuclear disarmament",
these arsenals strengthen the claim by sceptics in the non-aligned
movement (India in particular) that the NPT was designed to perpetuate
the NWS' nuclear monopoly. At the same time, the arsenals serve
to advertise the perceived advantages that derive from the possession
of nuclear weapons, be it military security, political autonomy,
or enhanced status.
THE PROBLEM OF PROLIFERATION
12. There is a strong argument that, failing
some major initiative, the difficulty of preventing nuclear proliferation
will steadily increase over the next 10 to 20 years. There are
now seven declared nuclear states (plus Israel) and, while the
treaty was unexectedly successful in the past, its two-tier structure
and the selective approach by the five "nuclear weapon states"
to the spirit and the letter of the original treaty and to its
extension in 1995 is the cause of growing dissatisfaction. On
the physical front, the technological and material barriers to
entry have been steadily coming down. On the political front it
seems likely we are entering a new phase.
13. An effective non-proliferation treaty
requires that virtually all non-nuclear states believe that the
regime serves their long term interests and that a large majority
see the terms of the treaty as fair. For the time being, these
requirements would seem to be met in the western and southern
hemispheres (excluding Indonesia), in Europe and the constituent
states of the former Soviet Union, and most of Africa. The situation
in the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and the northern tier of
Africa is more problematic.
14. There is no need to rehearse the problems
associated with Iran, Iraq and North Korea, except to note that
the difficulties stemming from Israel's nuclear capability will
not go away; that China is said to have provided some assistance
to Pakistan's weapons programme and to have helped with Iran's
civilian reactor; and that the reunification of Korea remains
a possibility. More generally, China has indicated that it intends
to challenge what it sees as America's hegemonic tendencies, and
the consequential military build up will have implications for
other states throughout East and South-east Asia. Can Taiwan and
Japan continue to rely on US extended deterrence,
or will they decide to develope their own capability? Will others
(such as Indonesia) follow suit, if only to preserve their relative
status? If the sense of Muslim identity develops a stronger political
vector, might Pakistan choose to share its know-how with other
Islamic states? What of Vietnam? And so on . . .
15. As non-signatories of the NPT, India
and Pakistan were fully entitled to develop nuclear weapons and
are still not bound by its terms. Signatories of the treaty have
the right to withdraw, and while bribes may have a role, we can
not expect to prevent proliferation by threat of sanctions, let
alone military force. Failing some major new initiative, we face
the prospect of recurrent crises and the steady spread of nuclear
A MAJOR NEW INITIATIVE
16. This deteriorating situation would be
fundamentally transformed if the NWS were to adopt the "firm
and serious" policy-goal of a nuclear-weapons-free (NWF)
Dissatisfaction over the imbalance between the respective obligations
and responsibilities of nuclear and non-nuclear states would be
assuaged. And because halting proliferation would be essential
to the lengthy process of achieving an NWF world, enforcing the
NPT would become a matter of universal concern, rather than being
seen by many non-nuclear states as a dispute between the haves
and the have-nots.
17. Why should the NWS choose to adopt such
a goal? The answer lies in a sort of syllogism coined by Robert
McNamara in the early 1990s:
18. These facts argue that governments should
take early action to initiate the elimination of nuclear weapons,
a process that could take 20-30 years to complete. The aims of
such a policy would be:
19. The elimination of nuclear weapons is
a "good" in its own right. However, if the goal were
adopted, significant benefits would accrue to the international
system. For example:
20. These benefits flow from the goal of
an NWF world and begin to take effect from the moment of its adoption.
The logic is that of the "functionalist" approach to
conflict prevention and international security, demonstrated so
powerfully in the genesis of the European Union.
21. This is not the place to review the
debate on this subject and attention is directed to the substantial
body of literature discussing the question of whether an NWF world
is (1) desirable and (2) feasible.
It is noteworthy that since 1991, the balance of this debate has
been progressively changing, with a steadily growing number of
senior military and defence officials and of governments allied
with the United States openly advocating the elimination of nuclear
Meanwhile, the possibility of nuclear "breakout" from
an NWF world must be addressed.
THE DANGER OF BREAKOUT
22. It is often argued that an NWF world
would create the new danger of "nuclear breakout", which
would allow one state to hold the rest to ransom. That objection
is best answered by a comparative assessment of risk.
23. Risk is the product of the consequences
of a calamity and the likelihood of its occurrence. In a nuclear
world (of the kind we have known the last half century), the worst
case is a full-scale nuclear exchange, which would destroy civilisation
as we know it. In an NWF world, the risk involves nuclear breakout,
leading in the very worst case to the limited use of nuclear weapons.
24. Opinions will differ on how the likelihood
of breakout from an NWF world compares with the likelihood of
accidental or inadvertent war in ahigh-, or even a low-salience
nuclear world. But in terms of risk, we can be certain that if
there were to be a significant difference between the probabilities,
the disparity would not be large enough to balance the imcomparable
calamity of a nuclear exchange.
25. In practical terms, how likely is breakout
from a properly verified NWF world? Postulated treaty evaders
fall into three categories: two of them (the rogue and the high-tech
state) secretly develop new nuclear devices; the third category
secretly holds back a significant arsenal from the weapons dismantling
process. Given sufficient ingenuity and resources, evasion is
at least theoretically possiblebut to what purpose?
26. A comparison of costs and benefits argues
that there would be little political-military incentive to break
out from an NWF world. This is partly because it has yet to be
discovered how to translate the notional power of a nuclear monopoly
into practical gains, but also because the certain costs are so
The possible exception is the irrational rogue state, but while
the probability may be somewhat higher, the calamity factor of
such a breakout is by far the smallest and comparable to a natural
ALTERNATIVE COURSES OF ACTION
27. Breakout from an NWF world is just a
special category of the more general problem of preventing the
proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, reminding us that the
comparative assessment of risk has two parts. One compares the
end pointsan NWF world vs an HSN world. The other compares
exposure to risk in the intervening period. Both parts must be
entered in the account.
28. In other words, the proper comparison
of risk is not between two situations (the current post-cold-war
hiatus and some hypothetical NWF world), but between two unfolding
processes. The question at issue is which course of action is
protentially the least dangerous and most likely to bring the
greatest benefits in the foreseeable future: continue with our
existing policy? or adopt the goals of an NWF world?
29. Earlier in this paper (paragraphs 12-15)
it was argued that if we persist with the present policies, the
difficulty of preventing nuclear proliferation can only increase,
and beyond the probability of individual breakout from the NPT
lies the possibility of treaty erosion or even breakdown. As soon
as we adopt the goal of an NWF world, that danger will level out
and then steadily diminish over time, both for political reasons
and as the heavy investment in verification bears fruit.
30. When comparing the risks associated
with the alternative courses of action, to the gross disparity
of risk once the NWF threshold has been crossed must be added
the steadily growing disparity in the intervening period. Current
policies fare badly in both parts of the account and the policy
goal of an NWF world is clearly preferable.
31. Continuation of past policies will inevitably
increase the possibility of accidental or inadvertent war in the
foreseeable future, leading ultimately to a major nuclear exchange.
Adopting the goal of an NWF world would progressively reduce and
finally eliminate that danger, achieving the first of our two
aims. There would remain the possibility of nuclear breakout.
This would diminish over time, achieving our second aim.
32. There would also be ancillary benefits
(paras 16, 19) including a quite unusual coincidence of interests
among all parties, which would favour universal compliance with
the various conventions and encourage effective counter-terrorist
measures. It would be a brave man who claimed that present Western
policies are likely to yield comparable benefits, given the NATO
split over bombing Iraq, the Security Council split over bombing
Belgrade, and the US intention to deploy anti-missile defences.
33. By the same token, it would take a rare
optimist to expect the US to adopt such a goal in the near future
and, obviously, America is the lynch-pin of the process. But we
should not forget that it was in Washington that a serious debate
emerged in the wake of the Gulf War on whether nuclear weapons
continued to serve US interests. Although the "traditionalists"
prevailed in that particular argument, in part due to vested interests
and the inertia of existing policies, the question of eliminating
nuclear weapons entered the mainstream of political agenda. Although
now less prominent, the question has remained there ever since,
attracting significant support from well-respected members of
the US national security community, including very senior former
34. In theory, the present government espouses
the goal of an NWF world, as did its predecessor. Lip service
is paid to the commitment, but there is no evidence that the concept
is taken seriously in practice and it gathers dust in the bottom
drawer, along with the commitment to general and complete disarmament.
But that is another category errorin terms of feasibility
and of the ultimate consequences of failing to address this question.
35. Britain treats the goal of an NWF world
as pie-in-the-sky which is the same, in effect, as answering NO
to the question "is an NWF world desirable?" But there
is now another (and growing) body of well-argued and well-informed
international opinion which, while supportive in general, disagrees
with Washington on this issue. It is well past time for Britain
to address this question head on and to analyse thoroughly whether
or not an NWF world is desirable. And if the answer were yes,
we would be in a position to join with other countries and interested
bodies to address the question of feasibilityie how that
goal could be achieved.
36. Failing some such initiative, Britain's
approach to the question of nuclear weapons will continue to reflect
the inertia of policies shaped in the cold war, bolstered by a
concern to distance the present government from Labour's unilateralist
past. In an area where so much is at stake, that would seem to
be an unacceptable basis for policy-making.
See MccGwire, "The Elimination of Nuclear Weapons" in
John Baylis and Robert O'Neill eds Alternative Nuclear Futures:
the role of nuclear weapons in the post-cold war world (Oxford
University Press, 1999), p 146, note 6. Back
This was the conclusion of a series of research conferences which
brought together former officials who had personally participated
in the decision-making processes of the three countries directly
involved in the Cuban missile crisis and had the benefit of archival
research. See McNamara, "Reflecting on War in the Twenty-first
Century: The Context for Nuclear Abolition", in Alternative
Nuclear Futures, pp 175-78. Back
Lee Butler, "At the end of a journey: The risks of cold-war
thinking in a new era," Alternative Nuclear Futures, pp
187-88. Butler was CinC Strategic Air Command (1991-92) and CinC
Strategic Command [both navy and air] (1992-94), and was closely
involved in the development of US nuclear doctrine. The chapter
cited comprises the bulk of General Butler's remarks at the National
Press Club, Washington, DC, 2 February 1998. Back
MccGwire, "Elimination of Nuclear Weapons", p 149. Note
24 itemises the buildup of nuclear arsenals after 1970, which
was driven by US diversification. Back
Robert O'Neill stresses the importance of status, arguing that
"there can be no denying that nuclear-weapon states have
more clout in the international system just because they have
nuclear weapons". See "Weapons of the Underdog"
in Alternative Nuclear Futures, p 204. Back
Between 1979 and 1985, Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntingdon, and
Robert McNamara all went on record to the effect that the USA
would not have initiated the use of nuclear weapons in defence
of NATO if such action had threatened nuclear strikes on the USA. Back
Robert O'Neill postulates a situation where cost considerations
persuade the lesser NWS to reduce the size of their arsenals,
lowering the barrier to entry to the club. This could tempt other
middle powers to "go nuclear" on the grounds that "without
nuclear weapons they just do not rate in the international scale."
"Weapons of the Underdog", p 206. Back
The qualifiers "firm and serious" are needed to distinguish
this course of action from Western pronouncements during the last
30 years. Back
The transformative effect of adopting a "firm and serious
policy goal" was demonstrated by Mikhail Gorbachev's "new
political thinking about international relations", which
he publicised with increasing vigour throughout 1985. Within two
years, the adoption by a super power of that clearly articulated
policy, reflecting as it did the principles underlying the UN
Charter and the conclusions of the Palme Commission Report, had
been largely instrumental in bringing about a relaxation of international
tension from the heights it reached in the first half of the 1980s.
This relaxation was achieved without noticeably softening Soviet
policy towards America (that shift took place in Spring 1987);
before the first concrete evidence of the change in Soviet military
doctrine (the asymmetrical INF treaty signed in December 1987);
and despite Gorbachev's "new political thinking" being
dismissed in Washington and London as utopian propaganda. Back
For a select bibliography of recent sources, see Alternative
Nuclear Futures, pp 255-56, to which should be added: Joseph
Rotblat ed Nuclear Weapons: the road to zero, (Westview
Press, 1998); and Frank Blackaby, Tom Milne eds A Nuclear-Free-World;
steps along the way (Macmillan, forthcoming). See also the
biannual INESAP Information Bulletin (International Network
of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation), Darmstadt,
Germany; the 24 Background Papers for the Canberra Commission;
and the series of Reports published by the Henry L Stimson
Centre, Washington DC (note 314-38). Back
John Baylis and Robert O'Neill, "Introduction", Alternative
Nuclear Futures, p 2. Back
For a discussion, see: Andrew Mack, "Nuclear Breakout: Risks
and Possible Responses" in Background Papers for the Canberra
Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (Australian
Government, August 1996): Tom Milne and Joseph Rotblat "Breakout
from a Nuclear Weapons Convention" in J Rotblat ed Nuclear
Weapons: the Road to Zero (Boulder, CO; Westview Press, 1998). Back
In evaluating alternative nuclear futures, the Mountbatten Centre
at Southampton University concludes that an HSN world would present
the most serious threat to international and UK security, and
that the arguments favouring an NWF world over an LSN world are
convincing. There remains the problem of how to achieve an NWF
world. These are among the findings of the report (October 1999)
on the Centre's four-year "Nuclear Weapon's Project",
to be published by Chatham House (RIIA) London. Back
The Henry L. Stimsons Center's "Project on Eliminating Nuclear
Weapons" is a good example. See the Second Report of the
Steering Committee (Chair General A. J. Goodpaster), Report
No 19, December 1995, and subsequent reports on specific issues. Back