Non-nuclear weapon states have become increasingly disgruntled over what they perceive as the nuclear weapon states’ unwillingness to seriously commit to nuclear disarmament.
The United Nations adopted UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/67/56 in 2012, which established an open-ended working group to “develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.” Other non-nuclear weapon states have also created initiatives: for example, the New Agenda Coalition called for increased political momentum to create a nuclear disarmament agenda. Many credit this coalition with convincing the nuclear-weapon states to agree to 13 steps toward nuclear disarmament. The Middle Powers Initiative launched an “Article VI forum” which aimed to “examine the legal, technical, and political requirements to fulfill nonproliferation and disarmament commitments for a nuclear weapon-free world.” One of the most influential movements was implemented by four formerly high-ranking U.S. officials, including George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn. They published their proposals titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” and “Toward a Nuclear Weapon Free World” in the Wall Street Journal op-ed.
The humanitarian argument against nuclear weapons has gained popularity and traction in recent years. At the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the humanitarian initiative was the focal point of discussion. As it continues to gain momentum and popularity, the nuclear weapon states will likely have to address and potentially support such initiatives. Recognizing this to some extent, the five formal nuclear weapon states have taken the “P5 step,” promising that they will continue to work step-by-step toward nuclear disarmament. Seven conferences have been hosted by the P5 countries with the goal of increasing dialogue and transparency in regards to the nuclear disarmament progress. However, they still have not agreed to any form of timeline or real progress.
Times are changing, however, and a conflict between nuclear-weapon states is still an increasing possibility. China’s economy is growing and it is set to become a serious competitor to the United States and Russia across all economic and military realms. Consequently, it is enhancing its nuclear capabilities and delivery systems. Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenals and creating waves with its operations in Syria. Traditionally, Russia has depended on nuclear weapons to make up for shortfalls in its conventional military capability. It is not feasible to expect any nuclear-weapon state to give up its nuclear weapons soon as long as other states retain theirs. Any real nuclear disarmament will likely have to happen with all nuclear-weapon states simultaneously capitulating and including all of their weapons concurrently.
Because nuclear weapons are the most powerful and destructive weapons in the world, there has been much research done on the specific arsenals, doctrines, and capabilities of nuclear-weapon states. The international community places heavy emphasis on the security of the warheads and the materials used to produce these weapons. However, despite this emphasis, and the treaties that were signed to minimize the amount of strategic weapons operated by the dominant nuclear powers but still allowing them to keep arsenals, many analysts, scholars and non-nuclear weapons states remain staunch proponents of full nuclear disarmament.
The potential policy prescriptions that could be made to bring this about will depend on one’s specific stance on nuclear weapons. Many academics split along extremes: either advocating for complete international nuclear disarmament or supporting the modernization of and open use of nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent. Those who do not choose the extremes tend to support tighter arms control and increased regulation by an unbiased international agency. However unfeasible at the moment, there are those that advocate for ‘Global Zero,’ a complete and total international nuclear disarmament. “The United States can’t rid the world of nuclear weapons on its own; other states, including its enemies, get a vote. Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea possess nuclear weapons not because they blindly imitate the United States but because they fear their neighbors and, in the case of Washington’s enemies, America’s awesome conventional military power.” (Kroenig, 2013)
If countries were to get rid of their nuclear weapons they would have to rely on their conventional capabilities. America’s conventional military capabilities are far superior to those of any other country. Russia recognizes this and would therefore likely never give up its nuclear capacity. “Only if we could fundamentally transform international politics such that states no longer faced security threats might there be reason to think that the world could be made safe for Global Zero.” (Kroenig, 2013)
The opposite end of the spectrum rings more true, however, as to what the Russian Federation has been doing. Russian military doctrine has continually emphasized the importance of nuclear weapons in its national security. It has even begun modernizing and developing new strategic warheads with advanced capabilities. Many of its nuclear weapons and warheads are still from the Cold War era and have not been tested or overhauled since inception. Therefore, they needed to be updated and modernized for safety purposes so as to continue to regulate Russian national security and make its adversaries more readily predictable. Though some argue that maintaining nuclear weapons is an enormous financial burden, the cost of modernizing and developing an equally powerful conventional force that could truly compete with the United States would be astronomically expensive.
The last option, therefore, is the best and most likely to happen: Russia and the United States will continue to rely on international organizations and arms control methods to monitor and keep track of nuclear weapon developments. These tighter arms control measures could placate the international community, making them feel more involved in the limiting of capabilities of nuclear-weapon states. Currently, Russia and the United States abide by their nuclear weapons treaties, continuing to decommission their strategic nuclear weapons until reaching the levels outlined by the new START treaty. They will maintain those levels and continually perform maintenance upgrades on their strategic delivery platforms and warheads. While this is a far cry from Global Zero, it is still admittedly many steps below the intermittently open hostility of the Cold War era. It seems, for good or bad, the march to Global Zero will have to be taken with baby steps.