Global Risk

FAS at Vienna Conference on Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

12.05.14 | 3 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Hans M. Kristensen

For the next week I’ll be in Vienna for the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.

This is the third in a series of conferences organized and attended by a growing number of countries and humanitarian organizations to discuss the unique risks nuclear weapons pose to humanity and life on this planet. According to the Austrian government: “With this conference, Austria wishes to strengthen the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime and to contribute to the growing momentum to firmly anchor the humanitarian imperative in all global efforts dealing with nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament.”

The nuclear-armed states have so far boycotted the conferences, but last month the Obama administration announced that the United States would attend after all – although with reservations. Britain quickly decided to join as well. No word from Russia or the other nuclear-armed states yet. [Update: China apparently has decided to participate as well.]

The State of World Nuclear Affairs

After a brief (although important and substantial) effort to reduce nuclear forces after the end of the Cold War, the nuclear-armed states are now slowing down the pace of reductions and shifting emphasis to modernizing their remaining nuclear arsenals. Some of them are even increasing their inventories and types. The modernization programs that all the nuclear-armed states have underway to extend their nuclear arsenals indefinitely are increasingly at odds with the their own promises – and the stated wishes of many of their allies and partners – to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the non-nuclear allies and partners – many of which are participating in the Vienna conference – need to figure out how to reduce their reliance on the nuclear extended-deterrence provided by the nuclear-armed states. Otherwise, the need for nuclear “umbrellas” will block further reductions and fuel nuclear modernization programs in the nuclear-armed states.

This is not just a nuclear weapons issue. Excessive capability and modernization of conventional forces – or too little of them – may trigger some countries to use nuclear weapons to compensate. At the same time, conventional postures must meet some national defense need but without triggering insecurity in neighboring countries. So deep nuclear reductions may have to go hand in hand with relaxing or modifying conventional postures. How to square nuclear reductions with the overall balance and role of military power is truly one of the great challenges of the 21st Century.

But we’re not at that point in the disarmament process yet. Russia and the United States still possess extraordinarily disproportionately large nuclear arsenals compared with any other nuclear-armed state in the world. As owners of more than 90 percent of the world’s 16,300 nuclear weapons (FAS is honored that the Austrian Foreign Ministry conference web site and Media Information use the FAS estimate for the global inventory of nuclear weapons), Russia and the United States have a special responsibility to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals first.

Meanwhile, the smaller nuclear-armed states (China, Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea) have an equally important responsibility not to increase their nuclear arsenals. Without that self-imposed constraint, it is an illusion for those countries to demand that Russia and the United States (and its allies) agree to deep nuclear cuts.

These important challenges and the deterioration of East-West relations call for new and strengthened initiatives to sustain and deepen the efforts to reduce the numbers and role of nuclear weapons.

Two Presentations

I will give two presentations in Vienna. The first is at the Humanitarian Conference itself with Matthew McKinzie (NRDC) in the third panel on Scenarios, Challenges and Capabilities Regarding Nuclear Weapons Use and Other Events. The title of our presentation is “Deterrence, Nuclear War Planning, and Scenarios of Nuclear Conflict.”

The second presentation is at the ICAN Civil Society Forum preceding the Humanitarian Conference, where I will join Susi Snyder (PAX) in the panel: Nuclear Weapons In A Nutshell.

This publication and presentations in Vienna were made possible by grants from the New-Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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