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Seminar on Irreversibility of Nuclear Disarmament

The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland convened a Seminar on the irreversibility of nuclear disarmament in Glion, Switzerland on February 17-18th, 2011.


A basic paper was prepared by the Verification Research Information and training Center (VERTIC), London, to assist consideration of this important subject. Participants were individuals with established senior level expertise in nuclear arms control and verification technologies and policies. The Chairman of MPI took part and was asked to make a presentation on the political dimension of irreversibility. The following are the notes which formed the basis of his oral presentation.

Irreversibility of Nuclear Disarmament

Notes for remarks on the Politics of the Irreversibility of Nuclear Disarmament
Richard Butler, Chairman Middle Powers Initiative
February 17th, 2011

This Seminar is an excellent initiative by Switzerland, on an essential aspect of the achievement of nuclear disarmament.

The paper provided by VERTIC is thorough, relevant, and stimulating to our discussion.

I accept what I consider to be its basic premises and analysis:

1. Irreversibility has a specific, substantive definition in the field of nuclear disarmament
2. It is essential to plot a scale of irreversibility.
3. A subset of this point is that an important distinction can be drawn between a State being disarmed and unarmed.
4. Considerations of cost and political will are central determinants of the willingness of States to undertake irreversible measures.

It can be concluded from the paper that in virtually all important cases:

1. Irreversibility will be extremely difficult to achieve, especially for disarmament; less so for an unarmed status.
2. But, we know in most cases WHAT needs to be done; what steps and measures will be effective. (Those who would make the perfect the enemy of the good would appear to do so because of their underlying view of nuclear weapons – that they serve a good or necessary purpose – rather than examine facts, such as those exposed in the VERTIC paper).
3. And, we know how to do what needs to be done – materially and physically – to the point where a significant position on the irreversibility scale can be achieved.
4. A fundamental requirement for the implementation of irreversible measures is “political will”.
5. Each instance of success will breed further confidence in the process. A climate of political confidence is the essential requirement

This last point introduces the subject I have been asked to discuss – the political dimensions of irreversibility in nuclear disarmament.

I must begin, briefly, with three fundamental realities, which have become widely accepted and which, importantly provide the rationale of nuclear disarmament:

1. As long as any State possesses nuclear weapons, other will seek to acquire them. This has been termed the ”axiom of proliferation”
2. As long as nuclear weapons exist, they will one day be used, either by accident or decision. Any such use would constitute a catastrophe, in political, ecological and many argue, in moral terms.
3. Nuclear weapons are, essentially unusable. What this notion reflects upon is: that any use of nuclear weapons would, with virtual certainty, author problems larger the problem their use set out to solve; the user would itself suffer at least some of the consequences sought to be inflicted on their target; and, many senior people in military roles now recognize these facts and would prefer never to be directed, by their political masters, to use nuclear weapons. Interestingly, such military leaders would appear to be more advanced, or reflective, in their thinking than their political masters.

What these facts underline, when placed alongside the reality of the profound difficulty which always attends nuclear arms control and disarmament proposals, is that we find ourselves victims of our own fantasies – fantasies of security, potency, superiority, prestige. All of these modes of thought, even though they are distant from underlying reality, both seduce us and entrap us.

It is beyond doubt that when the axiom of inevitable use one day is realized, countless wise men and women will say they knew this would happen, they saw it coming. My point is we should not await a catastrophe as the trigger for action we know now should be taken, now.

In order to properly to design the solution to this problem of political paralysis, based on inaccurate and/or misguided thought ,we need first to reflect, again necessarily briefly on the reasons why nuclear weapons were acquired and are still being sought. History reveals at least four such general reasons:

1. Deeply felt animosity/hostility. Naturally, I have in mind the period of the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union. Leaving aside the vexed questions of what drove this and, its existential rationality at the time, the plain fact is that it became an obsession, deeply irrational. How else can the nuclear arms race be characterized? Three weapons had existed in 1945 and a mere forty years later that number was at least 80,000, enough to destroy the planet over and over again. Today those two States hold some 90% of the nuclear weapons still in existence. The Cold War is well behind us but the threat of its weapons is not.
2. Adversarial pairs. Brazil and Argentina each dallied with the idea of obtaining nuclear weapons, but better sense prevailed. India and Pakistan have not resisted the temptation. They now constitute the key case of both this adversarial motivation for nuclear weapons acquisition, and the catastrophe of any use. On the latter, it is impossible to calculate the horror – human and ecological – of their entering into a nuclear exchange. Reliable estimates are that, following a nuclear exchange between them, no crops would grow in the region, possibly for decades.
3. Discrimination, an elemental sense of unfairness – the so-called nuclear apartheid. It must be accepted that the notion, too often advanced, that my security justifies my having nuclear weapons but yours does not, is not accepted and, rejection of it has fuelled proliferation and continues to do so.
4. Prestige. Whatever more objective, more adult reasons are advanced for the acquisition of nuclear weapons, it is clear that for some involved the wish to obtain status, prestige, has been a principle motivator. Iran and Saddam’s Iraq spring to mind but this motivation is also alive today in what might be considered unlikely paces – France and the UK. For example it has now been revealed publicly that when he turned down proposals from within his own Party to abandon its costly and useless nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Blair said his reason was that they gave the UK prestige on the world stage. As an aside he noted that Britain had lost its colonies. Was he conceding inadvertently his view that the possession of nuclear weapons conveys a ”colonial” style superiority?
5. Idiosyncrasy. I’m not sure how else to characterize the nuclear program of the DPRK, the previous one of Libya, (so well analysed in the Vertic paper), and what appears to be the aspirations of the Junta in Burma.

The reasons I have described, for the acquisition of nuclear weapons are certainly not uncomplicated. And, indeed, there may be others. What they have in common, at the least, is that they lend verity to the axiom of proliferation.

What this reflection achieves is to point us towards steps that are essential if we are to move seriously towards the nuclear disarmament and, irreversibly so. These are some of them:

1. Leaders, as a matter of political priority must find the courage to tell the truth to their citizens, about the costs and dangers of nuclear weapons and insist that they and the world will not be endangered by their removal but, in fact, made safer.
2. For the reasons that there is safety in numbers and no politician could survive the heat of going it alone, some of them, naturally the US and Russian leaders would be an excellent starting point, should do it together. Twenty two years ago Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev started down that path in Rekjavik, but sadly, Reagan’s advisors talked him out of it, at the end.
3. Military leaders, equally, can play a determining role, both within their own polities and with publics. They should state that they can do their job in protecting national security, without nuclear weapons, and would prefer it that way.
4. Both of these groups of leaders should agree to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in their defense policies and make clear publicly that they are doing so. They could shore up their credibility on this, worldwide, by giving the negative security assurance that the great majority of non nuclear weapon states want to receive.
5. Nuclear weapon states should announce that they are prepared to begin discussions on a Nuclear Weapons Convention, or a “ mutually reinforcing framework of instruments”, as the Secretary General of the United Nations has proposed. Why cannot the same fundamental approach be taken towards nuclear weapons as that which has been successful with respect to chemical weapons?
6. At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, 130 States indicated their support for the beginning of such a dialogue.

Of these four points, the last one is contentious. Some would and do argue, that the law should follow the politics and the existential reality. That is, before moving to a convention or framework of instruments, lets first get much more progress on concrete issues in nuclear disarmament: further US/Russian cuts, the Iran and DPRK proliferation problems, the Middle East issue, to name only some of the more obvious ones. There’s also the issue of the States with much smaller arsenals than the US and Russia; India, Pakistan, Israel and of course the recently proclaimed second largest economy in the world – China. Where and when would they fit in?

The nuclear weapon States are to begin consultations soon, in Paris. Presumably this is a positive development, but it will be important that they do not act as if they alone can determine the future of nuclear weapons. We are all interested. It would be constructive if they had in mind something like the four points I have just mentioned.

But as in all political matters, change can be uncomfortable and entail sacrifices and costs, if there is to be progress. These are some of those required for a secure world freed from nuclear weapons:

1. The “maintenance of international peace and security” – the words of the Charter – urgently requires a new structure of governance. The body primarily charged with that task, the Security Council, must be reformed. Its constituency must be made more representative of the post-Cold War/ post-colonial world, and its decision making rules changed. The nexus between permanent seats and the possession of nuclear weapons is a distortion of reality, albeit perhaps not originally intended, and does nothing to reduce the prestige based notion that the seats at the top table first require that nuclear weapons be acquired. More importantly, it is simply unthinkable that key States will disarm, without being given a significant role in the management of a world without nuclear weapons.
2. Financial and technical support to the IAEA must be significantly increased and assured.
3. The NPT must, likewise be more strongly supported, including by establishing a Treaty Secretariat. Aside from the Charter is the largest Treaty in existence, and it alone codifies the norm that no State should have nuclear weapons: after all, it provides that those who do not have them should never get them and those who have them should get rid of them.
4. Significantly enhanced effort should be made to develop the technologies and capabilities which will be and are now required, to verify compliance with disarmament undertakings and irreversibility.