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Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: An Impossible Dream?

Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Statecraft and Diplomacy 2013 Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA, University of Cambridge, 13 May 2013

Of all the international policy issues with which I have been involved over the last twenty-five years – as Australia’s foreign minister; as head of the International Crisis Group; and as initiator, member or chair of a number of blue-ribbon commissions and panels – none has tested my optimism more than nuclear disarmament. An issue that in earlier decades mobilized hundreds of thousands of activists all over the world, and on which every political leader and senior policymaker had to have some kind of an opinion, now barely resonates at all with policymakers or publics, except when there is an occasional flurry of anxiety as to what a North Korea or Iran might be up to.

Progress on disarmament has been, as a result, glacial, and shows no signs of moving faster any time soon. Nine nuclear-armed states share the current global nuclear weapons stockpile of just under 18,000 weapons, with a combined destructive capacity between them equivalent to nearly 120,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. The United States and Russia, who together hold 95 per cent of these warheads, have been downsizing their arsenals, but in neither case with any intention of getting even close to zero. France and the UK, now with 300 and 225 warheads respectively, have made modest reductions in their arsenals, from much lower starting points, which will continue at least in the case of the UK, but neither has shown any more enthusiasm than the big two for moving to actual elimination.

Israel, with its 80 or so warheads, though it does not admit to its nuclear-armed status, can be presumed to think likewise. And the four Asian nuclear-armed states – China (with some 240 warheads), India and Pakistan (with around 100 each) and, we have to now add, North Korea (with less than 10) – have been actually increasing their arsenals, albeit again from low bases as compared with the U.S. and Russia, with no evident willingness at all to reverse course.

Part of the reason for the non-resonance of the issue and general inaction seems to be complacency: the perception that in the post Cold War world nuclear stockpiles are not the threat they may once have been. Another part of the explanation appears to be an ingrained fatalism: the perception that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, are always going to be with us, and that there is little point in playing Don Quixote. But perhaps the most important part of the explanation for government inaction is the tenacious perception in many quarters that disarmament is actually undesirable – because nuclear deterrence works.

All these positions can and should be contested. I am enough of an optimist to believe that if enough hard information and good argument is put into the global public domain; if enough bottom-up civil society pressure and peer-group state pressure is maintained for long enough; and, above all, if enough top-down leadership is shown by the states and heads of government that matter most – and President Barack Obama’s continued strong commitment is crucial in this respect – then significant movement can occur.  But I can’t pretend that ridding the world once and for all of its existing nuclear weapons, and ensuring that no new ones are ever built, will involve anything other than very slow grinding, through very hard boards, for a very long time.

In this lecture I want to explore in some detail the relevant arguments for elimination – acceptance of which is a necessary condition, even if never likely to be a sufficient one, for disarmament. I will then, much more briefly, describe the present state of play in terms of take-up of these arguments and sketch some possible ways forward which may do at least a little to accelerate the process.


When it comes to making the case for elimination, there are five crucial messages that have to be constantly and relentlessly articulated in public and policy discourse. These are that nuclear weapons are morally and environmentally indefensible; that as long as any state retains any nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used; that as long as any state retains nuclear weapons others will want them, so multiplying the prospects of such use; that nuclear deterrence is at best of highly dubious, and at worst zero, utility in maintaining peace; and that nuclear disarmament is actually achievable. 

Message One: nuclear weapons are morally and environmentally indefensible. Nuclear weapons are simply the most indiscriminately inhumane devices ever invented – shocking in the extent of the devastation they cause; shocking in their total inability to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, between young and old, between victims and those trying to help them; and shocking in the longevity of their human impact.  As the International Court of Justice determined, for all these reasons, their threat or use “would generally be contrary to the rules of international law …and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law”.

It is not just the countless men, women and children who would be vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled or irradiated to death in any nuclear war. The wider environmental impacts are similarly shocking, with even a notionally contained regional nuclear conflict having the potential to cause mass starvation worldwide. A limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which each side attacked the other’s cities with 50 comparatively low-yield Hiroshima-sized weapons is not a totally implausible scenario given the history of war-fighting between these two states and the size of each side’s stockpile. And this, in addition to the devastation caused in each of them, would throw up enough concentrations of soot into the stratosphere, which would remain there long enough – a decade or more – to cause unprecedented climate cooling worldwide (the “global winter” effect) with major impacts as a result on global agriculture (the “nuclear famine” effect), putting at risk, on at least one well-informed estimate, the lives of nearly one billion people. [1] 

Message Two: So long as any state retains nuclear weapons, they are bound one day to be used. The most serious risk with nuclear weapons is not so much deliberate, aggressive first use by state actors: no nuclear-armed, or putatively nuclear-armed, state (and I include both North Korea and Iran in this assessment) is likely – other than in a situation of extreme, existential threat to its existence – to break the international normative taboo against the aggressive use, or threat of use, of such weapons which I described in the first lecture in this series. Nor is there a high risk, although it is certainly not negligible, that non-state terrorist actors will steal or buy existing weapons or manufacture new ones: the huge attention paid to nuclear security since 9/11 has resulted in more stringent internal measures in nearly all relevant countries and much more international cooperation in intelligence, prevention and enforcement.

The greatest risk from the existing nuclear weapons – and this is in fact much bigger than publics and policymakers tend to assume – is their accidental or panicked use as a result of the ever-present potential for human error, system error, or misjudgment under stress. Most people have no conception of either the size or vulnerability of the current global nuclear stockpile. Of the 18,000 warheads in existence (9,000 Russian, 8,000 U.S., with 1,000 for the other nuclear-armed states combined), nearly 5,000 remain operationally deployed, and – extraordinarily in a world where the Cold War ended more than twenty years ago – some 2,000 U.S. 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.

Nuclear deterrence may or may not be useful in maintaining the peace: I will argue in a moment that it is not, but there is much continuing dispute about that. The point to be made for now is not about its utility but its fragility as a safeguard of anything. For a start, it depends on rational actors on both sides, each making rational judgments about the risk factors involved – and the presumption seems to be, as Hedley Bull once famously put it, that a rational strategic man in this context is one “who on further acquaintance reveals himself as a university professor of unusual intellectual subtlety”.[2] It simply cannot be assumed, in the stress of a real time crisis, that that kind of rationality will always prevail. 

Then add to the endemic risk not only of human error or misjudgement under stress, the risks of miscommunication – here now compounded by the sophistication of new generation cyber weapons – and of basic system error, with harmless events being read  by the systems in question as threatening. We have been much closer to catastrophe in the past than most people know. Over the years technical glitches have triggered real-time alerts; demonstration tapes of incoming missiles have been confused for the real thing; and communications satellite launches have been mistaken for weapons launches (as for example as late as 1995, when Russia’s President Yeltsin was told that a Norwegian scientific rocket launch was in fact an incoming U.S. nuclear missile).

As Cold War archives are opened, ever more horror stories are revealed.  They come in all shapes and sizes but it is hard to beat this one from the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. We now know what we did not then: that nuclear warheads were not just on their way by sea to Cuba, but were actually already installed in significant numbers on land – and in Soviet submarines cruising local waters. When one such boat came too close to a warning depth charge from a blockading U.S. naval ship, the Soviet commander, not knowing whether war had broken out or not, had to decide whether to launch his nuclear torpedo at the nearest available target (the carrier USS Randolf). In such a situation, under threat and out of communication with Moscow, he was empowered to do so ­­– with the consent of his political officer. Who agreed. But the commander of the four-boat fleet happened also to be aboard that particular submarine, and he had the power to override the two officers. So it was, by a one-to-two minority vote, that World War III was avoided. [3]

Given what we now know about how many times the supposedly 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.

Message Three: So long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them – and if more states get them, all the problems I have just described will be further multiplied.  There is a long agenda of measures that need to be taken to strengthen the existing non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime, including universal adoption of a safeguards regime which allows nuclear inspectors to be not just accountants, mechanically recording the flow of sensitive materials through power plants, but real detectives, chasing up leads about undeclared facilities and weapons programs.  Necessary measures also include effective penalties for non-compliance with, or withdrawal from, the NPT; strengthened export controls; and acceptance of multinational nuclear fuel supply arrangements.  But unless the non-nuclear armed states perceive the nuclear-armed states to be making serious moves toward genuine disarmament, none of these necessary measures are any more likely to take wing in the future than they have in the past.

The core message to every one of the existing nuclear-armed states must be this: If you are serious about non-proliferation, as you all claim to be, and sincerely want to prevent others from joining your club, you cannot keep justifying the possession of nuclear weapons as a means of protection for yourselves or your allies against other weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, or against conventional weapons. All the world hates a hypocrite, and in arms control as in life generally, demanding that others do as you say is not nearly as compelling as asking them to do as you do.

Message Four. Nuclear deterrence is at best of highly dubious, and at worst of zero, 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. And this is true whether the context involves major-power adversaries of roughly comparable size and resources (as with the classic dyads of U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China); 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 and Asian allies); or, where a state of unequally small size and resources as compared to one or more notional adversaries, acquires or retains nuclear weapons with the object of raising the other’s pain threshold at least high enough to ensure that would-be regime changers, territory-acquirers or punishers would think again (as with North Korea).

In all of this one should not confuse nuclear deterrence with deterrence generally. There are many contexts in which credible deterrence will be crucial in maintaining peace and stability, or other unhappy outcomes. I, for one, have argued constantly for a number of years that a mix of deterrence, containment and keeping the door open for negotiations is the right policy combination to embrace in relation to the world’s anxieties about both North Korea and Iran. And I have no doubt that the U.S. willingness to hold its protective umbrella over South Korea and Japan has been, and will continue to be, critically important in discouraging them from joining the ranks of the nuclear proliferators.  But effective deterrence simply does not have to involve the threat of use of nuclear weapons. Extended deterrence, in the context of ally protection, does not have to mean extended nuclear deterrence.  Manifestly strong conventional capability could do the job. 

There is a twist to this tale, in that when strong conventional capability becomes overwhelming conventional capability of the kind that the U.S. currently has as against everybody else – although for how long remains to be seem – this may encourage others to retain or acquire nuclear weapons as a strategic equalizer: a deterrent against conventional attack.  This is the kind of thinking which makes Russia and China reluctant nuclear disarmers as against the U.S., and Pakistan a reluctant nuclear disarmer as against India.  But that takes us straight back to the issue with which I now want to deal: just how credible are the familiar arguments for nuclear deterrence?

There is the argument, for a start, that nuclear weapons have deterred, and will continue to deter, war between the major powers (an issue that I discussed in the first lecture in this series – whether the “Long Peace” since 1945 has really been a “Nuclear Peace”). But while nuclear weapons on the other side have always constituted a formidable argument for caution, and undoubtedly concentrated minds in crisis situations like the Cuban confrontation, there is simply no evidence that during the Cold War years either the Soviet Union or the U.S. ever wanted to cold-bloodedly initiate war at any stage, and were only constrained from doing so by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons. [4]

Certainly it is the case that knowledge of the existence on the other side of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war in the past between major powers.  Nor has the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and killing of civilians caused leaders in the past to back down – including after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the historical evidence is now very strong that it was not the nuclear attacks which were the key factor in driving Japan to sue for peace, but the Soviet declaration of war later that same week .[5] True, the context there was different – terminating a war rather than deterring it – as nuclear weapons defenders have been at pains to point out. But the basic point is that (as one might expect, remembering those psychological experiments I referred to in the first lecture) policymakers can be deaf and blind to risks staring them in the face both when it comes to cutting losses and when trying for initial gains.  

Then there is the argument that nuclear weapons will deter any large-scale conventional attacks. But there is a long list of examples where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: e.g. the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan and first Gulf wars. The calculation evidently made in each case was that a nuclear response would be inhibited by the prevailing taboo on the use of such weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of the state was not at stake.

The confidence that seems to have moved some smaller states, like North Korea, to think that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against external regime-change-motivated intervention is not well founded. Weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal to use are not a credible deterrent, nor are weapons that are not backed by the infrastructure (e.g. nuclear-missile-carrying submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack. In the case of North Korea, its strongest military deterrent remains what it has always been: its capacity to mount a devastating conventional artillery attack on Seoul and its environs. 

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 North Korea 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” – it is the presence of nuclear weapons that has made the world safer for such wars. There is in fact substantial quantitative, as well as anecdotal, evidence to support what is known in the literature as the “stability/instability paradox” – the notion that what may appear a stable nuclear balance actually encourages more violence under the shelter of the nuclear overhang.[6]

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 – in particular as the reason why Saddam Hussein did not use chemical weapons in 2003 – but it lacks plausibility. There are a number of other reasons why the Iraqis may not have used these weapons then, including a perception that coalition forces were well protected against such attack, and a fear of individual force commanders of being tried for war crimes. More generally, given that chemical weapons have nothing like the destructive potential of nuclear weapons – and never will, 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 done so, or would have needed to, had Saddam’s forces used chemical weapons. It is similarly inconceivable that the U.S., however else it may or may not choose to react, would see any need to respond with nuclear weapons should it be clearly established that chemical weapons have been used now in Syria.

The weakest deterrence argument of all, although it is still sometimes heard, is that nuclear weapons may be needed to deter nuclear terrorism. 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?

The more general point that runs through many of these responses to the arguments for nuclear deterrence is that nuclear weapons really are inherently unusable, and because key players know that, even if so many are reluctant to openly concede it, nuclear deterrence has nothing like the power it is commonly assumed to have.   Military commanders have long understood that there are formidable practical obstacles involved in the use (and by extension threatened use) of these weapons at both the tactical and strategic level, not least the damage they can cause to one’s own side (the phenomenon of “self-assured destruction”) and to any territory being fought over.  And on top of that there is the profound normative taboo which – again as described in my first lecture –  unquestionably exists internationally against any use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of a state is not at stake.[7]

So if nuclear weapons are for all practical purposes unusable, and the arguments for nuclear deterrence are so contestable, but the risks of something going wrong are still so high, and the consequences of that happening so catastrophic, why don’t we simply get rid of them? Why has the elimination of nuclear weapons been thought to be such an impossible dream? Which brings us to the fifth and last crucial message on my list:

Message Five. Disarmament is actually achievable. Of course nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, any more than chemical or biological weapons or any other product of human creativity can be. But – like other weapons of mass destruction – they can be outlawed. Despite the evident fatalism to which to I referred at the outset – that nuclear weapons are always going to be with us – elimination is not a fanciful objective, even if it is not, realistically, a short-term 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. There are many civil society activists who advocate 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. But they have to wrestle with the reality that setting dates which are seen by policymakers as impossibly ambitious – and which, I fear, are in fact impossibly ambitious – seems bound to stop them listening altogether.

The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired, argued in its 2009 report that it was more credible and productive to focus on a 2025  “minimization” target – reducing the world’s stockpile by then to around 2,000 weapons (no more than 500 each for the U.S. and Russia, and no more than 1,000 for all the other nuclear-armed states combined), and to ensure that by then, and hopefully long before then, very few of those weapons were actually physically deployed, that none of them were on dangerously high alert launch status, and  that in terms of nuclear doctrine, every nuclear-armed state was credibly committed to no-first-use.

Our commission resisted the temptation to put a specific date on getting to zero thereafter, because we recognized that the final step, getting from low numbers to zero numbers, involved not just further stages on the same incremental continuum, but overcoming three high hurdles – psychological, geopolitical and technical – as to each of which it was simply impossible now to attach a credible target date. Even optimists have to be honest with ourselves as to how high these hurdles are.

The psychological hurdle is giving up the status and prestige that seems traditionally to have been associated with membership of the nuclear weapons club, especially when it comprised only the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This consideration – which might be called the testosterone factor – seems to have been, in the case of India’s decision to acquire the bomb, at least as important as any anxiety about China. It certainly resonates strongly still in Russia and France, and it’s hard to see any other persuasive justification for the UK still playing the Trident game. One can only hope that with the current membership of the nuclear club its cachet will diminish over time, and that the general process of delegitimizing nuclear weapons will gather momentum to the point where possession of them is regarded more as matter of embarrassment than pride.  But this is certainly one of the factors that will make the achievement of final, universal elimination very difficult.

The geopolitical hurdle to be overcome is the creation of an environment in the key regions of North East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East stable enough for no country to have any serious concern about at least existential threats to its existence, even if not all sources of potential tension have disappeared.  It’s hard to argue that condition is satisfied now, or to predict when it will be, but that such a world could be achieved within decades is not as fanciful as it might to some appear – for all the reasons I discussed at length in my first lecture in discussing the prospects for an end to deadly conflict generally. What is important is to not succumb to the argument that movement toward disarmament be held completely hostage to improvement in the overall geopolitical climate: the two developments should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing, and properly pursued in tandem.

The technical hurdle is verification and enforcement. Getting to zero, frankly, will be impossible without every state being confident that every other is complying, that any violation of the prohibition is readily detected, and that any breakout is controllable. Those conditions do not exist at the moment, although important work is being done by the UK in association with Norway on verifying warhead dismantlement, and with the U.S. on disarmament verification technology generally, and this part of the problem may well be solved over the next decade or so. Enforcement, however, will continue to be a major stumbling block for the foreseeable future, with the Security Council’s credibility on this issue manifestly at odds with the retention of veto powers by the Permanent Five. All that said, no institutional problem is insoluble given the political will to cooperate, and if sufficient self-reinforcing momentum develops behind the whole disarmament enterprise over the years ahead, this difficulty might not loom as large in the endgame as it does now.


So how realistic are the prospects for generating that momentum, and what can be done now to move things forward?  Not so long ago it was possible to be quite optimistic that things were at last moving. A series of Wall Street Journal opinion articles, from 2007 on, by four of the hardest-nosed realists ever to hold public office – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn – were beginning to change the intellectual climate, arguing as they did that whatever positive role nuclear weapons may have played in the Cold War, in the present international climate the risks of any state retaining them far outweighed any possible security reward. In 2008 the Global Zero worldwide civil society movement was launched. Then in 2009 the U.S. had a new president totally committed – intellectually and emotionally – to a nuclear weapon free world, and in his Prague speech of April that year Barack Obama gave us all immense reason to hope that the dream was on its way to becoming reality.

And at a more nuts and bolts level, the report of the ICNND later that year, following others before it, set out, step by step, a detailed achievable global non-proliferation and disarmament agenda. The 2010 NPT Review Conference, unlike its failed predecessor five years earlier, was a modest success, inching toward that agenda. And in that year the New START treaty was signed by the U.S. and Russia, significantly reducing the number of deployed strategic weapons. The balloon was flying.

But since then it has sunk back to earth.  By the end of last year – as fully documented in a follow-up State of Play report recently published by the Canberra Centre I chair[8] – much of that sense of optimism has evaporated.  On the disarmament front, U.S.-Russia talks on further drawdowns were going nowhere, with fundamental disagreements about missile defense and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved. Cautious initial moves by Washington 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 – had also gone nowhere, inhibited by resistance from its North East Asian and more nervous Central and Eastern European allies. In this respect, the long-awaited NATO Deterrence and Defense Posture Review was a damp squib at the May 2012 Chicago Summit, 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 all the other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia, comfortably sheltered behind the immobility of the big two.  No-one was signalling any kind of willingness to move to even the minimization objective I have described, let alone ultimate elimination, and all the wearyingly familiar arguments about the virtue and necessity of nuclear deterrence remain in constant use.

On other fronts, by the end of last year, there had been some significant progress, at two big summits in Washington and Seoul, on nuclear security issues (to ensure that weapons and weapons-usable materials do not fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists). But there was progress on precious little else. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) remained unratified in the U.S. Senate, a prisoner of domestic U.S. politics. Negotiations in Geneva on a new treaty to stop further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes remained paralysed. And the effort to hold a conference on a weapons-of-mass-destruction free zone in the Middle East had ground to a complete halt, which will have very unhelpful consequences for North-South cooperation in the ongoing NPT review process.

But in international relations, it’s never over until it is over, and there are some signs that things may be beginning to move again, at all the levels that are necessary: top-down, peer group and bottom up.

In terms of top-down leadership, President Obama made clear in his February State of the Union speech his determination to restart nuclear arms reductions talks with Russia, and  the U.S. has subsequently stepped back from implementing in Europe a sensitive phase of its missile defence program, which was proving a major stumbling block. The administration has also announced that it will make Senate ratification of the CTBT a “top priority” And any achievements on these fronts should have positive flow-on effects elsewhere, in particular with China and India.

The UK  – which despite the testosterone factor, seems to this outsider to be the least intellectually and emotionally wedded to its weapons of all the nuclear armed states – could itself play a major leadership role by deciding to dramatically downsize its Trident-armed submarine fleet, and it is encouraging to see some serious debate recently recommencing on this.[9] Even if budgetary, rather than moral, imperatives are the ultimate driver of such a decision, that will not diminish the force of the example.

At the level of peer-group pressure, like-minded countries around the world are again beginning to mobilise to maintain the pressure on all the relevant actors to advance the disarmament and non-proliferation agendas.  For example, a cross-regional grouping of ten countries, initiated by Australia and Japan, has been meeting at foreign minister level – as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) – with a major objective to encourage transparency in nuclear armed states reporting. And,  encouraged by Norway and Switzerland in particular, a new push is being made to focus on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapons use: this has recently been gaining traction both among UN member states and, as I will come back to in a moment, civil society organizations.

At a less formal level, a degree of momentum has been gathering behind recently established regional leadership networks bringing together 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, about nuclear threats. The model was the European Leadership Network (ELN) established by Lord Browne, and it has been followed by the Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) which I convene from Canberra, and another just established in Latin America.

The really crucial need, of course, is to somehow capture the imagination of publics around the world to generate bottom-up pressure on governments, without which – as I well know from 21 years in Australian politics – it is extremely difficult to engage their attention and commitment.  There are many civil society organisations who have tried hard in recent years to generate the necessary traction without so far much success, and the crucial need now is to find ways of instilling new energy and focus into the campaigns. One specific initiative, widely supported already in the UN, is to develop and promote a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention, on the model of the Ottawa treaty on land mines and the Oslo treaty on cluster bombs, and this could prove useful in focusing and energising mechanism over the longer term. But a more productive way forward might be to follow the lead of the middle powers – and the International Committee of the Red Cross – and really focus public and policymaker attention on the horrific and indefensible humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use.


Achieving a nuclear weapons free world is not an impossible dream, but it will certainly be an incredibly hard slog. To get there, the critical need is to build and sustain the necessary political will, through pressure applied, and sustained, at each of the levels I have mentioned.

But while this balloon badly needs to be reinflated, it cannot just be filled with hot air. The battle to rid the world of nuclear weapons is not one that will be won by rhetoric, however powerful, or appeals to emotion, however defensible. It will be won by the power of good ideas, supported by the power of evidence-based argument in putting to the test bad and outmoded ideas. The good ideas here are simply here that a nuclear weapons free world is both overwhelmingly desirable, and achievable. And the bad idea is that nuclear deterrence is a force for peace and stability in the world of today.

Ideas matter in government, and in international relations, because they have real political force. That’s not only because they can be inspirational, but because they provide a frame of reference making it easier for policymakers to take one course rather than another – enabling them to articulate clear and credible reasons to the various constituencies they have to satisfy for the course they choose to take.

Ultimately, the reason that I am an optimist, here as in all the other areas I have addressed in these lectures, is that because – for all that I should have known better, and for all that I should have learned better – I do believe in the power of ideas, or at least good ideas, to change the world for the better. The business that all of us should be in, above all in great universities like this, is effectively developing, articulating and communicating those ideas, and ensuring that they prevail.

[1] Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon, “Self-assured destruction: the climate impacts of nuclear war”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2012 68(5) pp 66–74

[2] Hedley Bull, The Control of the Arms Race (London: Institute for Strategic Studies, 1961), p.48

[3] See the  October 2012 PBS documentary video on Brigade Chief of Staff Vasili Arkhipov “The Man who Saved the World”,  http://video.pbs.org/video/2281376899/

[4] See, e.g. James E. Doyle, “Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?”, Survival, vol. 55, no.1, February-March 2013, pp 7-34, at pp13-15

[5]  See Ward Wilson, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) pp.21-53

[6] Robert Rauchhaus, “Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis: A Quantitative Approach”,Journal of Conflict Resolution,  April 2009 vol. 53 no. 2 258-277

[7] These factors combine to ensure that the utility of nuclear weapons for compellant purposes is just as questionable as for deterrent purposes. The claim is commonly made that possession of nuclear weapons will enable states like North Korea – or Iran – to “blackmail” its adversaries, explicitly or implicitly. But a comprehensive recent quantitative analysis of over 200 interstate crisis situations, involving both nuclear and non-nuclear states and both express and implied military threats, found absolutely no statistically significant basis for concluding that nuclear weapons possession, or superiority, is associated with more effective compellant threats(Todd S.Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, ‘Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail’, International Organization 67, Winter 2013, pp 173-95). And anecdotal observation very much confirms that. 

[8] Ramesh Thakur and Gareth Evans, eds, Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play (Canberra: ANU Crawford School Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, 2013)

[9] See “The Debate about Trident”, IISS Voices 20 March 2013 (http://iissvoicesblog.wordpress.com)