Realism vs ambition: banning nuclear weapons

This is one of my longer and more unruly pieces from my daily writing challenge. I spent more time reading into it than scoping out what I would write about. But I think it holds together as a perspective on nuclear weapons, and could be developed further in the future.

Nuclear weapons are part of the furniture

My attitude to all things military have shifted in recent years. I once thought that it was a wasteful use of state resource and raised prospects of horrific inhumanity. I still think the latter, but now better appreciate the value of living in a society where state actors strive for a monopoly on violence. This is preferable to any alternative I’m aware of. Undoubtedly I’m also a product of my time, in that recent conflicts bring home to me the significance of defence and attack capabilities. I like myself as a pacifist, but now I see my old views as naive.

This logic extended to my beliefs around nuclear weapons. I don’t like them, but pragmatism told me that the genie is out the bottle, and the status quo is now set. In countries where they exist, a leader would probably be judged foolish for getting rid of them, bringing their global influence and commitment to allies into question. They seemed a fact of life, a risk for us to live with.

We can’t afford for them to be part of the furniture

Recent experiences have shaken that belief up. I met people from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), who spoke with great clarity and determination. I heard harrowing first-hand accounts from survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia have openly talked about bombing London.

I had lost sight of just how bad another nuclear bomb would be, how terrifying the prospect of nuclear escalation is, and forgotten the promise of a nuclear weapon-free world. The ICAN arguments won me over - that there is always some probability of them being used while they exist; give it enough years and they will be used, with existential consequences. That mistakes or near-misses happen all too easily; a risk that may elevate as AI is increasingly integrated into weapon systems. That deterrence was a theory invented after the invention of nuclear weapons, and no longer works as the primary raison d’etre. That deterrence may have made sense in a nuclear stand-off with 2 players, but doesn’t make as much sense in this complex, 9+ player game we have now. That nuclear weapons step outside of our legal and moral sense of what warfare should be about.

There’s also an interview I heard with Annie Jacobsen, author of Nuclear War: A Scenario’. I haven’t read the book (I now plan to), but she constructs a plausible story of a nuclear exchange leading to an extinction level event within 72 minutes. It highlights the sheer concentration of power in a few world leaders’ hands, and how we will rely on their rushed, fallible and detached decision-making in the short window after a nuclear weapon is (accurately or inaccurately) detected as incoming. She reminds us of the horrors of firestorms, radiation poisoning, and the possibility of 5 billion dead in the nuclear winter which follows. The interview is the kind of content which rings in your ears for a while after.

I wonder too about the distorting affect it might have on the usefulness of warfare. It seems repugnant to refer to warfare as in any way useful, but I have came across more arguments in this shape in recent years. Over millennia, the argument goes, war has organised anarchic societies into centralised nation states where prosperity and progress could take root. To the extent to which nuclear weapons do indeed prevent war, I wonder if the prospect of nuclear weapons stymies relatively small conflicts and the productive reorganisation, or just de-escalation of tensions, that can follow. A world of nuclear weapons means a world of countries bottling up their issues with each other, and takes away some of the middle ground of escalation and de-escalation.

My last paragraph is far more speculative - I’m clearly no military strategist. But taken together with more established, better research arguments, I feel an overwhelming desire for a nuclear weapon-free world, and a frustration with the view that we have no choice but to have them.

We just can’t see the path to a ban

Public views on nuclear weapons aren’t normally favourable. I imagine most people nodding along to most of the above. I don’t exclude members of the military or politicians from that image - I would guess that most of them, if pressed, would be uncomfortable about the destructive power at their fingertips. Or at least, at the fingertips of their adversaries. They are human beings after all. Ronald Reagan was left greatly depressed after watching a film on TV about a nuclear attack on the US, which supposedly contributed to shifting his administration onto the path to peace with the Soviet Union.

Surely a universal ban on nuclear weapons, implemented effectively, would be welcomed worldwide? It only seems to have not happened so far as we can’t see the path to get there, or politicians, diplomats and military actors don’t feel they can take it yet. A nuclear state acting unilaterally to get rid of theirs only weakens their global standing and national security. It would presumably take all 9 nuclear states, acting together, and every country trusting that every other country is committed and will stay committed to the ban. They would need to agree on punishments for breaches, controlling non-state actors, funding of international watchdogs, and more.

Opening up the path

I’m not about to give you the route to a ban on nuclear weapons, which navigates every obstacle on the way (of which I expect there to be many). But I think it’s useful to consider events, moments or trends which could set us on our way; which could get us to a viewpoint where the path appears more obvious.

The first such event which jumps to mind is surely the worst way. A nuclear bomb is used again, which somehow does not lead to escalation but does galvanise support for abolition. Maybe it’s an accidental use, followed by a courageous decision to not retaliate. You can imagine millions of lives ended and affected. This surely cannot be our only way.

Below are some ideas for alternatives: some desirable, some less so.

  • Courageous leaders coinciding: Most power over nuclear weapons seems to be concentrated in the hands of world leaders and their military advisors. We therefore hope, at least, for sane leaders. For a ban, we would need more than sanity: leaders, especially of the nuclear states, would need the courage to table the prospect, to trust that the others are going along with it, to become weaker in firepower but more secure in the long run.
  • An AI threat story becomes a meme: Suppose a state’s nuclear command systems are compromised by an AI-led cyber attack. Or a state finds that their AI-assisted military decision-making systems repeatedly recommend a nuclear strike or mis-detect blips on the radar, spooking decision-makers. Or agentic AI demonstrates a capability and/or willingness’ to use nuclear weapons. The relevant leaders are persuaded that we cannot live on a world with highly-capable AI and nuclear weapons.
  • Autonomous weapon systems disrupt the idea of deterrence: The power, speed and effectiveness of autonomous weapon systems (like those recently used by Israel, and no doubt ready to be used by other countries) is such that the principles of nuclear deterrence start to apply to other weapons. Mutually Assured Destruction, the ability to retaliate, the perceived rationality of decision-makers and the credibility of threats appear as principles in new contexts, on new battlefields, away from nuclear war chests. It hardly seems like a desirable outcome - we now have a new problem - but it may shift the security lens of great powers away from nuclear weapons, to a point where they’re viewed as more expendable.
  • An infectious new security doctrine comes to the fore: This is linked to the above, but more general. There are many benefits to a national nuclear weapons programme, though it seems that national security and the idea of deterrence are the main drivers. I sense it will not be enough to just undermine the theory of nuclear deterrence, but we will also need to offer a theory of national security without nuclear weapons, perhaps in a world where some rogue actors don’t immediately comply with the ban. If this can infiltrate national security circles and tear them away from the status quo, we’re onto a winner.

These are ideas from a novice, and in no way anywhere near complete. The UKs open paper on nuclear disarmament reads as a more expert, considered list of ideas (e.g. further reduce arsenal sizes, ban testing, working out practical plans for eliminating warheads). It is also, usefully, far more concerned with actively shaping the conditions for complete disarmament - while the above are framed passively. But I think starting to imagine scenarios where nuclear weapon bans are on the table could inspire useful action towards this, outside diplomatic circles as well as within.

A final reflection

I always find it difficult to know, with big ideas and ambitions like a global ban on nuclear weapons, how to hold together the world as it is and the world how I’d like it to be. Pragmatism risks getting sucked into defeatism, ambition risks floating away into dreamland. But nuclear weapons bring a dimension of the unthinkable. So maybe I should sit more comfortably on the side of blue-sky thinking for how we stop them ever being used again.

June 11, 2024