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Why We Should Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Co-Chair of International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), Convenor of Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) and former Foreign Minister of Australia, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, 4 October 2012

Nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bomb Victims exhibition now on display here in Reykjavik makes graphically and horribly clear. There have been just three occasions, since those horrors sixty-seven years ago, when events have dared us to hope that the world might at last see the end of them. And Reykjavik has been intimately associated with two of those events.

The first was of course the Reagan-Gorbachev summit here in this city twenty-six years ago, in 1986, when the two Cold War leaders articulated what was, for the time, an astonishingly bold vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and came extraordinarily close to reaching agreement on a plan of action for actually achieving it – the stumbling block, then as now, proving to be Moscow’s nervousness about U.S. insistence on continuing to work on a system of ballistic missile defence.

The second event was the publication of a hugely influential article five years ago, in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, by four of the hardest-nosed realists ever to hold public office – former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and Senator Sam Nunn.  Squarely invoking the spirit of Reykjavik – where George Shultz had played a central advisory role alongside President Reagan – they argued that whatever role nuclear weapons may have had during the Cold War, in the present international  environment the risks of any state retaining them far outweighed any possible security reward.

And the third was the 2009 Prague speech of the newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama, which superbly articulated again the case for a nuclear weapon free world to which he was manifestly totally committed, intellectually and emotionally – and gave us all immense reason to hope that the dream was about to become a reality.

Buoyed by both the spirit of Reykjavik and the spirit of Prague, the Australian Government initiated a major international commission – the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi – designed to put flesh on the bones of a detailed action plan.  When we produced our major report in 2009, Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers, doing just that,we did so in a spirit of considerable optimism that things were at last beginning to move.

And for a time they were. But now, three years later, it is harder to maintain that spirit of optimism. In January this year, the hands of the Doomsday Clock were moved a minute closer to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the respected global organization that for decades has tracked the risk of a nuclear-weapons catastrophe, whether caused by accident or design, state or terrorist, fission bomb or dirty radiological bomb. The message was that progress since 2007 – when the Clock’s hands had last been set at five minutes to midnight – has stalled, and political leadership has gone missing on all of the critical issues.

On disarmament in particular, the Obama balloon has well and truly deflated. The New START treaty, signed by the United States and Russia in 2010, reduced the number of deployed strategic weapons, but left both sides’ actual stockpiles intact, their high-alert status undisturbed, weapons-modernization programs in place, disagreements about missile defense and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved – and talks on further draw-downs going nowhere.
Cautious initial moves by the U.S. to modify its nuclear doctrine – towards accepting that the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear weapons is to respond to nuclear threats, not those of any other kind – have gone nowhere, inhibited by resistance from its North East Asian and more nervous Central and Eastern European allies. The long-awaited NATO Deterrence and Defense Posture Review proved to be a damp squib at the Chicago Summit in May, doing nothing to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in NATO’s military posture or to create the conditions for further movement between the U.S. and Russia. 

And with these two powers, holding between them 95 per cent of the world’s total stockpile of some 22,000 nuclear weapons, not moving anywhere, no other nuclear-armed state has felt pressure to reduce its own stocks significantly. And some of them – Pakistan, India and China – on all available evidence have been increasing them.

On non-proliferation, the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was a modest success, mainly because it did not collapse in disarray, as had the previous one in 2005. But it could not agree on measures to strengthen the regime, and its push for talks on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East has so far gathered practically no momentum. North Korea seems no closer to being put back in its NPT box: for every step forward there’s another back. And Iran may be closer than ever to jumping out of its box. While that is a hotly contested conclusion (which I, for one, think is over-pessimistic), if Iran did decide to actually build nuclear weapons, as distinct from just putting itself in a position to do so, the consequences would ricochet very dramatically around the region – and the global economy.

There are three other crucial nuclear issues – best thought of as building blocks for both non-proliferation and disarmament – on which hopes of early action have also faded.  Despite President Barack Obama’s good intentions, the US Senate is no closer to ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, while China, India, and Pakistan, among others, take shelter behind that inaction, with a fragile voluntary moratorium the only obstacle to resumed testing. And negotiations in Geneva on a treaty to ban further production of weapons-grade fissile material remain at a total impasse. 

The only half-way good news is that, with the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March this year, a follow-on to the 2010 Washington Summit hosted by President Obama, progress continues on the third building block: ensuring that weapons-usable materials, and weapons themselves, currently stored in multiple locations in 32 countries, do not fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. But that progress is painfully slow, and there is not much reason for optimism that the original target will be met, of achieving complete security by 2014.

So who is to blame? Some certainly charge the Obama administration itself with sending mixed signals or worse:  leading the way in modernizing its own nuclear arsenal; continuing to develop new ballistic missile defence and conventional weapons systems (which have made Russia and China deeply unhappy, because they fear they will be used to neutralise their retaliatory nuclear capability); and being too willing to accommodate the nervousness of its European and North East Allies about limiting the nuclear dimension of the extended deterrence umbrella under which they shelter. 

But it is hard to ignore the huge constraint on Obama’s freedom of action posed by the intensely partisan and negative environment of domestic U.S. politics. Republican intransigence has made impossible U.S. ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, which would be a big international circuit breaker. It almost killed the New START treaty at birth; has set the bar almost impossibly high for further negotiations with Russia and China; and seems if anything likely to become greater should Mitt Romney become president, with international concerns compounded by the shrillness of his candidate statements on China and Taiwan, and his extraordinary identification of Russia as ‘our number one geopolitical foe’.


So what do we do?  There are multiple issues to be addressed, all of them big, complex and intractable, involving multiple messages to multiple policymaking constituencies. But the key story is that the world’s policymakers simply have to get serious about eliminating the whole range of risks associated with nuclear weapons and civil nuclear energy.  And the most important single element of that story – and the one on which I shall focus in this talk – is that, above all else, they have to get serious about nuclear disarmament.

Whether we are talking about the five original recognised nuclear-weapon states within the NPT (U.S., Russia, China, UK, France), the three nuclear-armed states  who refuse to join it (India, Pakistan and Israel), or North Korea (which has purported to leave the NPT), what has to be drummed into the heads of often-sceptical policymakers, and largely indifferent publics, is that the threat of nuclear annihilation will continue to hang over us until the last nuclear-armed state destroys its last weapon.

I believe that Iceland has a very important role in telling this story – as a state with a seat at the table at NATO, the UN and other international bodies that count; as a state which brings to any table a long record of commitment and integrity on nuclear issues; and because of the emotional resonance that this country can generate as the host of the spirit of Reykjavik. While at the NATO table Iceland is surrounded by some very big and opinionated beasts indeed, its voice can and should be heard, and I hope that it will be heard on the crucial issues of reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in NATO’s military posture, and simply getting more serious about disarmament. As the old saying goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it’s the size of the fight in the dog!

When it comes to making the case for elimination, there are five crucial messages that just have to get out here with as much weight and clarity as we can muster.

The first is simply that so long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them. If the existing nuclear-armed states are serious about non-proliferation, as they all claim to be, and sincerely want to prevent others from joining their club, they cannot keep justifying the possession of nuclear weapons as a means of protection for themselves or their allies against other weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, or conventional weapons. All the world hates a hypocrite, and in arms control as in life generally, demanding that others do as I say is not nearly as compelling as asking them to do as I do.

The second message is that so long as any state retains nuclear weapons, they are bound one day to be used  – if not by deliberate use, then certainly by accident or misjudgement. In handling nuclear weapon there is ever-present potential for human error, system error, or misjudgment under stress, and the only way these risks can be removed once and for all is by removing nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.

Most people have no conception of either the size or vulnerability of the current global nuclear stockpile.  Despite big reductions which occurred immediately after the end of the Cold War there are at least 22,000 nuclear warheads still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of around 150,000 Hiroshima or Nagasaki sized bombs. Some 9,000 of them are in the hands of the US, up to 13,000 with Russia, and around 1,000 with the other nuclear-armed states combined. More than a third of all these weapons – over 7,000 - remain operationally deployed. And, most extraordinarily of all, over 2,000 of the US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each President of four to eight minutes.

We have been closer to catastrophe in the past than most people know. During the Cuban missile crisis we escaped World War III on the 2-1 vote of the three senior officers of a Russian submarine: losing communications with Moscow after coming too close to a depth charge from a US ship blockading Cuban waters, and not knowing whether war had broken out or not, the commander had to decide whether to launch his nuclear torpedo or not – and, overwhelmed by the responsibility, put it to a vote! Over the years demonstration tapes of incoming missiles have been confused for the real thing; technical glitches have triggered real-time alerts; live nuclear weapons have been flown by mistake around the US without anyone noticing until the plane returned to base; and communications satellite launches have been mistaken for weapons launches (as for example in 1995, when Russia’s President Yeltsin was told that a Norwegian scientific rocket launch was in fact an incoming U.S. nuclear missile to which he should immediately retaliate: thankfully he didn't believe his advisers…).

Given what we now know about how many times the very sophisticated command and control systems of the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy; given what we know about how much less sophisticated are the command and control systems of some of the newer nuclear-armed states; and given what we both know and can guess about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber offence will be of overcoming cyber defence in the years ahead, it is not the quality of systems or statesmanship that led us to avoid a nuclear weapons catastrophe for so long, but sheer dumb luck  – and it is  utterly wishful thinking to believe that our Cold War luck can continue in perpetuity.

Whatever the supposed policy utility of nuclear deterrence in maintaining stable peace – a question which I’ll come to in a moment – in practical operational terms it has always been an incredibly fragile safeguard.  For a start, as the well-known Australian international relations scholar Hedley Bull has put it, ‘mutual nuclear deterrence …does not make nuclear war impossible, but simply renders it irrational’.  Nuclear deterrence depends on rational actors on both sides, each making rational judgments about the risk factors involved – and the presumption seems to be, as Bull wryly puts it, that a rational strategic man is one ‘who on further acquaintance reveals himself as a university professor of unusual intellectual subtlety’.  Political actors and circumstances can change, and it cannot be assumed that complete rationality will always prevail in the stress of a real-time crisis.  

Again, there is an endemic risk not only of human error or misjudgement under stress, but of miscommunication – the risks here now compounded by the sophistication of cyber weapons – and of basic system error, with harmless events being read as threatening. I have already mentioned the abundant archival evidence now available demonstrating these risks to be very real. And on top of all that there is always a risk that new technical developments will make old calculations redundant, in particular that missile defence systems will be developed that will be extremely destabilizing – by destroying the adversary’s capacity for effective weapons delivery unless he fires first.

The third message that needs to be reinforced, in public and policy discourse, is that   any use of nuclear weapons will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it. Apart from the devastating immediate impact of blast and radiation effects, the wider environmental impacts are potentially massive, with even a contained regional conflict, according to a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, having ‘the potential to cause mass starvation worldwide’. Research summarised in the ICNND report showed that a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, with each side attacking the other’s cities with 50 low-yield Hiroshima-sized weapons, would throw up enough concentrations of soot into the stratosphere, and remain there long enough – a decade or more – to cause unprecedented climate cooling worldwide with major effects on global agriculture (a so-called ‘global winter’).

The fourth message is that nuclear deterrence is at worst of zero utility, and at best of highly dubious utility, in maintaining stable peace. This goes to the heart of the case for nuclear weapons elimination, but is difficult to sell because so many policymakers instinctively disbelieve it. There remains a very widespread perception that nuclear deterrence actually works, that it is of real value to the national security of nuclear armed states and their allies, and that its benefits outweigh any possible costs ­– and that for these reasons no more than lip service should be made to disarmament.

But all the main arguments in favour of nuclear deterrence have, on closer examination, nothing like the force they usually seen to possess, whether the context is symmetrical nuclear deterrence where the adversaries are of roughly comparable size and resources; or extended nuclear deterrence, where a major nuclear armed state extends the retaliatory protection of its own nuclear arsenal to allied states (as with the U.S. and its non-nuclear NATO allies); or asymmetrical nuclear deterrence, where a state of very unequally small size and resources as compared to one or more notional adversary, acquires or retains nuclear weapons with the object of raising the other’s pain threshold, so high that would-be regime changers, territory-acquirers or punishers would think again.

There is the argument, for a start, that nuclear weapons have deterred, and will continue to deter, war between the major powers. While nuclear weapons on the other side have always constituted a formidable argument for caution, knowledge of the existence of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war in the past; and  the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and killing of civilians has not caused leaders in the past to back down (including after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the historical evidence is now that the Soviet declaration of war the same week, not the nuclear attacks, was the key factor in driving Japan to sue for peace).There is no evidence whatsoever that during the Cold War years either the Soviet Union or the U.S. was determined to go to war at any particular time, and only deterred by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons.

Then there is the argument that nuclear weapons will deter any large-scale conventional attacks. There is a long list of examples where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers or not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: e.g. the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan and first Gulf wars. Whether the calculation in each case was that the nuclear taboo, or some other factor, would inhibit a nuclear response, the point is simply that nuclear weapons did nothing to assist peace and stability.

There are also cases where the presence on both sides of nuclear weapons, rather than operating as a constraining factor, has been seen as giving one side the opportunity to launch small military actions without serious fear of nuclear reprisal (because of the extraordinarily high stakes involved in such a response): as with Pakistan in Kargil in 1999, and DPRK in the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. It may be that rather than – as the old conservative line would have it – ‘the absence of nuclear weapons would make the world safe for conventional wars’, the presence of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for such wars!

There is a further argument that nuclear weapons will deter any chemical or biological weapons attack. This is claimed by some nuclear-armed states and their allies (e.g. as the reason why Saddam Hussein did not use chemical weapons in 2003), but it lacks plausibility. Given that these weapons have nothing like the destructive potential of nuclear weapons – and never will with chemical weapons, although the future risk factor is higher with biological weapons – it is difficult to paint any plausible scenario in which nuclear, as distinct from conventional, retaliation would be a proportional, necessary and therefore credible response. The U.S. made no nuclear threat against Iraq, and there is no evidence whatever that it would have – or would have needed to – had Saddam’s forces used chemical weapons.

The weakest argument of all, although it is still sometimes heard, is that nuclear weapons will deter terrorist attacks.  Nuclear weapons are manifestly neither strategically, tactically nor politically useful for this purpose. Terrorists don't usually have territory, industry, a population or a regular army which could be targeted with nuclear weapons. And to conduct nuclear strikes on another state, even one demonstrably complicit in a terrorist attack, would raise huge legal, moral, political and strategic issues:  if a nuclear strike was not contemplated in Afghanistan after 9/11, when would it ever be?

Of course belief in the deterrent role of nuclear weapons is not the only reason why states acquire and retain nuclear weapons, and are reluctant to pay more than lip-service to the objective of eliminating them.  In particular, for some states – most obviously France, UK and India, and these days probably Russia as well – considerations of status and prestige (what I have sometimes called the testosterone factor) have been and remain absolutely crucial, and this will  be one of the several factors making the achievement of final, universal elimination, very difficult.

There is also a lingering concern in some quarters that states may want to possess or acquire nuclear weapons as instruments of aggression: but I am not alone in remaining unpersuaded that any nuclear-armed, or putatively nuclear-armed, state in this region, or anywhere else, will be willing to break the international normative taboo against the aggressive use, or threat of use, of such weapons which unquestionably now exists. In security terms, it is the deterrence rationale, not any war-making one that is overwhelmingly the driver. And that is why it is so important to puncture the arguments in favour of that deterrence rationale.

The fifth and final message is that disarmament is actually achievable. Despite widespread ingrained fatalism – the perception that nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented, are always going to be with us, and that there is little point in playing Don Quixote – they can be outlawed. Elimination is not a realistic short-term objective, but it is not a fanciful one.

Effectively communicating this message means mapping a credible path to zero – showing how it is possible to get to where we need to go, within a reasonable time. Advocates who favour a very specific early target date for total elimination, like 2025 or 2030 – like the Global Zero movement, of which I am otherwise a strong supporter – have to wrestle with the reality that setting dates which are seen by policymakers as impossibly ambitious seems bound to stop them listening altogether.

My own ICNND Commission argued that it was more credible and productive to focus on a 2025 ‘minimization’ target – reducing the world’s stockpile from around 22,000 to 2,000 – and not put a specific date on getting to zero thereafter, recognizing that before this can happen we will have to overcome three really big hurdles: remove geo-political uncertainty in key regions like North East Asia,  South Asia and the Middle East; overcome the psychological reluctance of states to give up weapons; and have in place verification and enforcement systems (on which the UK and Norway are now working productively) which every state is totally confident will stop any subsequent breakout.

So long as nuclear weapons remain, we know that states – whether this be a rational motivation or not – are going to want to maintain a minimum nuclear-deterrent capability. But that can be done without weapons on high alert; and it can be done with drastically reduced arsenals in the case of the US and Russia, and, at worst, at current levels for the other nuclear-armed states. It can also be done in a way that reduces the military salience of nuclear weapons. States in Europe and North East Asia which rely on extended nuclear deterrence from the US can make a major contribution of their own to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in defence thinking by making clear that they do not rely on nuclear weapons for anything other than protection from nuclear threat contingencies.

It is going to take time – maybe as long as several more decades – to get to global zero. But in the much shorter term we can set realistic objectives, which I would summarise as the ‘4 Ds’ – dramatic Downsizing, De-alerting, Delegitimizing, and Doctrinal change reflecting that delegitimizing.


So how can policymakers and those who seek to influence them – here in Iceland, in my own country Australia, and in countries of all sizes around the world – regenerate that momentum that seemed so promising just three years ago?  What can we do to reinflate the balloon – and ensure that it’s not just full of hot air? Others will have ideas about how best to do this both in the short and long term – including no doubt through the education system, where nuclear issues seem to have been long more or less completely neglected in every country of which I’m aware – but let me mention finally three particular initiatives which have been recommended by my ICNND, on the last two of which at least some progress has recently been made.

One initiative, about the utility of which the interested international community is fairly evenly divided (and I know about which Iceland, as a loyal NATO member, has been sceptical) is to develop and promote a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention, building on a proposal which already has strong civil society and some useful government support, as a framework for advocacy action, and as a detailed and credible foundation for multilateral disarmament negotiations whenever these could be started. While, given the enormous complexity and difficulty of the issues involved, there is little prospect of such a draft Convention exercise here acquiring the same early momentum as did the Ottawa treaty on land mines and the Oslo treaty on cluster bombs, this could be a useful focusing and energising mechanism over the longer term. I would certainly like to see some serious and sustained research effort going into producing a really comprehensive and credible draft convention.

A second initiative would be to regularly publish detailed report cards that pull no punches in assessing which states are meeting their disarmament and non-proliferation commitments, and which are not,  and which are taking seriously the benchmark challenges set out by the ICNND and similar reports, and which are not. I have been involved in establishing over the last year a new Centre at the Australian National University Crawford School of Public Policy, which is now working to do just that – with the renowned Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden, and with the support of the Swiss Government for outreach activities in Geneva.  Our first “State of Play” report is targeted for early 2013.

The third initiative is to gather together in regional networks experienced and high-profile current and former figures from politics, diplomacy and the services to inform and energise public opinion, and especially high-level policymakers, to take seriously the very real threats posed by nuclear weapons, and do everything possible to achieve a world in which they are contained, diminished and ultimately eliminated. Such networks now exist with the European Leadership Network (ELN) (headed by former UK Defence Minister Lord Browne) and the Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (which I convene, with its Secretariat based at the Centre in Canberra), and another is planned for start-up soon in Latin America.

No quick fix will turn all this around. Getting the kind of messages that I have talked about here today embedded in public and political consciousness is going to involve very slow boring through very hard boards. But the messages demand attention, and we simply have to keep drilling. The stakes are enormous, and those of us who care about these issues – and I am sure that includes everyone here today – persist simply because we must, in the interests of ourselves, our children and our children’s children. And that’s because, as Ronald Reagan put it, invoking the spirit of Reykjavik all those years ago, nuclear weapons are ‘totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, and possibly destructive of life on earth’.


A video of this speech can be viewed at: https://streymi.hi.is/videos/556/af-hverju-er-nau%C3%B0synlegt-a%C3%B0-%C3%BAtr%C3%BDma-kjarnorkuvopnum