Issues Navigator

Global Challenges

Strategic Regions

Domestic Debates

Tag cloud

See All Tags

August 10, 2009 |  2 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

The Case for Limited Disarmament

Wolfgang Fischer: The desire for complete nuclear disarmament is as old as nuclear weapons themselves. But a nuclear weapon-free world is a visionary project for a world still to come. While arms control is necessary, this must only go to a certain level.

Thomas Speckmann argues on that complete nuclear disarmament should not be done, because a world without nuclear weapons makes conventional war more likely, an argument in line with the idea of nuclear deterrence. This theory suggests that nuclear weapons would inflict unacceptable damage on an aggressor and that the potential aggressor is aware of this risk. Therefore, he refrains from any aggression, even with conventional weapons. The converse argument is that in a world without nuclear weapons, that risk is minor, making war once again a "useful instrument." Even if one questions the logic of this theory, proponents of "global zero" have to face another question: could it be done? They have to make clear how to organize the process of disarmament and how to secure the status of nuclear disarmament (a world free of nuclear weapons). Both steps have their challenges and obstacles. I mention only some.

In the process of disarmament, one of the most important concerns is to maintain the stability of nuclear deterrence, even in a crisis. Is that stability maintained if the US and Russia reduce their deployed warheads to - let us say - 300, the number France has today? How would these remaining warheads be deployed (on strategic submarines, on mobile ICBMS, or on airplanes), and what would that mean for extended deterrence and crisis stability? Step by step the other nuclear powers have to be integrated into this process as well; is it conceivable that these countries - UK (160), Israel (about 80), India & Pakistan (each 60) and finally North Korea with less then 10 warheads - reduce their arsenals proportionately, or would the US and Russia insist on having a much higher number than these countries due to their "global" tasks and the waywardness of a county like North Korea? Would other countries accept that special status?

Even if these (and many other) problems could be solved, how could the world maintain its status as nuclear weapons-free? The issue poses complex technical, political, and organizational questions beyond any experience. There has been some debate about features of a theoretical system of checks, but many questions remain open. Who would be responsible for verifying that no nuclear weapons existed? How could anyone do this to a reliable certainty? Is there any chance of detecting clandestine nuclear activities in undemocratic, non-transparent states before they develop actual weapons? These countries lack what Joseph Rotblat has called "societal verification," in that here are no whistle-blowers, watchdogs, open sources, etc., disclosing suspicious activities or facilities, which greatly hinders international detection. Should there therefore be some kind of "insurance" against the possibility of such a state developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program? Who has the legal and moral authority to maintain and control these "insurance" measures? What if scientific progress makes hydrogen bombs possible without any nuclear material (such as weapons plutonium or highly enriched uranium)? Who should then control that technology, and how?

Therefore, because complete disarmament is unclear, unlikely, and perhaps unfeasible, what is necessary is arms control. But this sharp reduction of nuclear arsenals should only go to a certain level, namely one that still assures second strike capabilities, crisis stability, and extended deterrence. That could improve the chances of dealing with eventual proliferation and new weapons states, but that is another debate.

Wolfgang Fischer is a political scientist and a researcher at a scientific research institution in Germany.

Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
Thomas Speckmann: A Nightmare: Obama Wants Nuclear Disarmament
Daryl Kimball: We Can Not Afford To Delay Nuclear Disarmament
Henry Sokolski: Nuclear Disarmament: Dream or Politically Realistic?


  • 4
  • No rating possible
  • No rating possible
I like this Article! What's this?

Stefanie Jennifer Tetenburg

August 13, 2009

  • 2
  • No rating possible
  • No rating possible
I like this comment! What's this?
This brings to my mind, President Obama's speech in Prague earlier this year. He stated that 'if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.' Maybe that is not so much true on the state level, as this article suggests, because the use of nuclear weapons implies mutual assured destruction, an outcome no state would willingly seek. And when it comes to the so called pariah-states going nuclear, this 'merely' endows them with power and prestige, thereby altering existing strategic relationships.

However, if nuclear weapons were to fall in terrorist hands, there is no guarantee that the prospect of mutual assured destruction will hold them back from using them. A terrorist organisation like Al Qaeda that has splintered out over the world, can not easily be pinned down as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have made painfully clear. On top of that, Al Qaeda sees Allah as its sole audience, so the more spectacular attacks and the more casualties inflicted, the better.

Although as, mr Fischer argues, there's no way of checking whether states have in fact destroyed their nuclear arsenal, I think this does not mean that nuclear disarmement should not be an aim worth pursuing. With terrorist groups like Al Qaeda actively seeking information (if not means) to develop nuclear weapons, it is not a time to merely accept the status quo.
Joshua  Posaner

August 14, 2009

  • 1
  • No rating possible
  • No rating possible
I like this comment! What's this?
Mr. Fischer,

Thank you for your article. I find it very interesting to continue the debate from Mr Speckman's contribution a few weeks ago. I can assure you that we will have many more opportunities to do so over the next week as Atlantic Community launches a Global Zero Week.

It is interesting to discuss the effect that nuclear weapons, or the perception of nuclear power, has had, including possible positives. This is not to say that the development of atomic arsenals is not a bad thing and that the sooner proliferation ends the better but rather to openly evaluate the role that nuclear arms now play in managing the global system. For me the idea of a complete abolition of nuclear arsenals is unrealistic, unattainable and perhaps even unwise. However, it remains a noble course and one that the major powers must remain on to ensure a relatively peaceful global system.

Ms. Tetenburg, I agree with your sentiments that disarmament is an aim worth pursuing and I realize that a realistic acceptance that it is inherently problematic could undermine this goal. However, before we can move on to December, and the NPT talks, we must first be able to agree on how the nuclear balance of power is going to work in the modern global sphere. Of course the argument should be relatively clear but on a strictly 2D basis, is it fair that certain countries are accepted nuclear powers whilst others are refused the right to develop them?

The hypothetical situation that you speak of with terrorists gaining nuclear weapons is now unfortunately a reality and no amount of bargaining, diplomatic concessions, war or treaties will ever remove that risk entirely. By filling the world with a disproportionate amount of weapons during the Cold War we have served to flood the market with not just weapons but also the technology and know-how to construct them. I have never understood why it is, or has been, necessary for a state like France to have 300 nuclear weapons or for Russia and the US to have thousands. Surely after 30 or so it all becomes academic, even considering room for error?


Commenting has been deactivated in the archive. We appreciate your comments on our more recent articles at


You are in the archive of all articles published on from 2007 to 2012. To read the latest articles from our open think tank and network with community members, please go to our new website