A few thoughts on the Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been announced as the 2017 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. As North Korea and Iran work to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, would disarmament among existing nuclear states and non-proliferation bring greater stability to the international system?

In getting under the skin of the question I recommend reading “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons – a Debate Renewed” by Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz (2003). Waltz argues that “more weapons may be better”, building his case on a viewpoint of national self-interest in an anarchic international system. Sagan counters detailing how and why “more will be worse”, not least through accident (broken arrows, in transportation, in enrichment and nuclear waste), proliferation to non-nuclear states, and over-reliance as a deterrent in relation to conventional forces and weapons.

Incidents such as the Cuban Missile Crisis pose significant challenges to Waltz’s position, as does the 1983 NATO exercise, Able Archer, a large-scale nuclear war game that was ‘almost’ mistaken by the USSR as preparation for a real attack. The book “Able Archer 83 – The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War” is edifying.

In expanding the Waltz / Sagan debate, weapons of mass destruction including chemical and biological agents must also be considered. Sarin gas attacks in the recent Syrian conflict and during the Iran / Iraq war provide tangible examples.

Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” through to contemporary Democratic Peace Theory posit “mutual democratic pacifism” and an unwillingness to go to war, unless for defensive purposes, among citizens of democratic states. These provide some of the philosophical underpinnings of Sagan’s Liberal position, namely that trade and cooperation trump armaments and aggression. This has arguable naiveties, considering the realpolitik of strained relations with rogue states (and sanctions). Hans Morgenthau’s principles of political realism are an interesting read in considering the Waltzean position that nuclear proliferation might make the world safer. Morgenthau’s ‘first image’ conceives man as inherently bellicose and power hungry, somewhat evocative of Nietzsche’s Will to Power.

Norman Moss’s book on Klaus Fuchs “The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb” provides excellent historical context to the problem of nuclear espionage. The case of Abdul Qadeer Khan offers a further cautionary tale of the dangers of ‘nuclear insiders’ selling secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Speculation as to foreign state assistance provided to the North Korean nuclear programme continues to raise concerns.

Finally, the sensibilities of maintaining a nuclear arsenal in Pakistan, one of the world’s most fragile states (see Fund for Peace index for further details) is also questionable, if not unnerving. A major concern with nuclear proliferation in weak states is control of weapons, nuclear materials and technical know-how. Terrorists will seize opportunities to develop chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) capabilities if presented. This makes proliferation in poorly governed spaces especially worrying.

In a recent paper titled “Tracing the links between failed states and international terrorism” I examine a number of these issues more broadly.