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Envisioning a World Free of Nuclear Weapons
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Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre

On the 40th anniversary of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), there is a resurgence of interest in achieving the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is welcome. To be sure, the vision is not new. My government, along with many others, has been a stalwart advocate of the elimination of nuclear weapons for decades. Indeed, all parties to the NPT have committed to this objective.

Government policies in favor of a world free of nuclear weapons fall along a wide spectrum of commitment. Nonetheless, they share a fundamentally aspirational quality. Few if any government policies advocating elimination have fully reconciled themselves with countervailing realities, such as reliance on a nuclear umbrella or the difficult and complex challenges of transparency and verification in a world with only handfuls of nuclear weapons.

Thanks in no small measure to the courage and commitment of former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, the prospects for reconciling aspiration with reality could be getting brighter.[1] In the political space they have created, we might move beyond the false debate between the demand for overnight elimination and the demand that nuclear abolition must be "contemporaneous with the abolition of all evil in the world."[2] There is a growing consensus that global security could be enhanced, not threatened, by the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of hosting an international conference on nuclear disarmament with Senator Nunn and Secretary Shultz. Among the world's leading experts on nuclear issues, there was a remarkable consensus on the advisability of moving toward elimination. Participants also insisted that a prerequisite for major progress is personal engagement by national leaders of all states, nuclear and non-nuclear alike; their leadership is imperative for engaging key stakeholders and building public support. They also agreed that taking disarmament seriously requires that we begin now in taking concrete steps in that direction.

One of the most important steps is anticipating future ones. When we envision a world with scores of weapons, rather than hundreds, we will have had to resolve some of the most difficult dilemmas surrounding deterrence and verification. Effective answers to these questions will demand a consistent pattern of confidence and cooperation, among nuclear-weapon states and between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states, far more developed than that of today.

There are at least five challenges that we can and should begin addressing now.

The first concerns regional conflicts in which states with nuclear weapons still consider them vital to regional stability. We need much more regional dialogue in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia regarding the possible strategic consequences of a move toward nuclear disarmament. This challenge also invites us to reassess whether, in light of a powerful contemporary norm of nonuse, nuclear weapons continue to maintain a viable asymmetric role to superior conventional forces. The bottom line is this: How can we ensure that nuclear disarmament amid volatile regional dynamics serves to mitigate, rather than heighten, the risk of deadly conflict?

Second, how can we achieve nuclear elimination while preserving alliances at the heart of the international security architecture? NATO is the foremost case. My government, collaborating with Germany, has sought to begin a candid discussion of this question within NATO. We hope and will advocate that NATO gradually reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons in its security policy. That would mean continued nuclear reductions and more emphasis on conventional deterrence.

The third and familiar challenge is that the genie is out of the bottle. With the possibility of nuclear breakout, steps toward elimination require a global verification regime both for reductions in nuclear arsenals and for accounting of nuclear material that can provide adequate confidence among nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states alike. This is a tall order. This challenge implies the hard truth that there will never be full "nuclear elimination" per se. Nuclear-weapon elimination must be reconciled with civilian nuclear perpetuity. This demands a nonproliferation regime far more robust than that of today.

Our fourth challenge is to develop a better understanding of how, as we move toward elimination, strategic stability would function and how it could be strengthened in a world with low numbers of nuclear weapons. It is not clear that we yet have an adequate framework for assessing those risks. Many Cold War-era assumptions about stability, whether about command and control or conventional deterrence, need revision.

Fifth, we would profit from a full re-evaluation of nuclear risk in today's world. The risk calculus that evolved between the United States and the Soviet Union arguably privileged survivability over accidents. The benefits of survivability, which a large arsenal provided, were considered more important than the risk of accidents, which arguably increased with a larger arsenal. Yet, this logic has never been universal. Alternative understandings of deterrence have emphasized the deterrent value of a small nuclear arsenal, concerning themselves less with weapon-for-weapon survivability.

In assessing all of these risks, whether those posed by small numbers of nuclear weapons or by nuclear breakout, we must always ask, "Relative to what?" We too often assume that our nuclear luck to date will endure indefinitely and that the status quo is inherently stable. Equally, many critics of abolition too unhesitatingly assume that, absent nuclear weapons, the 21st or 22nd centuries might be as vulnerable to major war as the 20th. We must calculate the risks of moving toward nuclear elimination with clear-headed analysis that reflects today's world, not that of easy, convenient, or cherry-picked historical analogies.

These are enormous challenges, and we should begin confronting them now. At the same time, I am cognizant of the danger that we might focus so much on elimination, whether with zeal or skepticism, that we neglect steps that can and should be undertaken now.

Those steps are clear. We must effectively deny, deter, and punish proliferators. We must come to terms with the dual-use dilemma of nuclear energy by fostering a sustainable multilateral regime of fuel cycle management. To prevent nuclear arms races in the 21st century, we must give top priority to entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiation of an effectively verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty. We also must consolidate existing nuclear-weapon-free zones and work toward a new one in the Middle East, and no matter what the numbers of nuclear weapons, we must reduce their role in our security policies. This includes those non-nuclear-weapon states currently under a nuclear umbrella; non-nuclear-weapon states must realize that our disarmament objectives are not for the nuclear-weapon states alone to fulfill.

My government is committed to these near-term imperatives and to the longer-term challenges of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. Norway established and continues to lead the Seven-Nation Initiative on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, which includes Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Romania, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Our coalition has a substantive agenda that reflects the possibility of common ground among a diverse range of actors. The initiative will not and is not intended to replace other existing cooperation arrangements. Members will continue their active roles in other groupings and coalitions. However, the initiative can serve as a bridge between these groups in the NPT review process. It also can promote a constructive, long-term agenda to address some of the disarmament challenges I have outlined.

The challenges confronting the NPT are considerable. Yet, it remains our only avenue toward a world without nuclear weapons. Call it the light at the end of the tunnel, or call it the mountaintop[3]; but 40 years on, we might be catching a glimpse of it.

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Jonas Gahr Støre has served as Norway's minister of foreign affairs since 2005.


1. These former officials have called for the United States to champion the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons and outlined several immediate steps toward achieving this goal. See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15; George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008, p. A13. Both essays can be read on the Nuclear Threat Initiative's Web site at ww.nti.org/c_press/c3_opeds.html.

2. Michael Quinlan, "Abolishing Nuclear Armouries: Policy or Pipedream?" Survival, Vol. 49, No. 4 (December 2007), p. 8.

3.  Nunn used the analogy of climbing a mountain in relation to the task of nuclear disarmament. "A World Without Nuclear Weapons: An Interview With Nuclear Threat Initiative Co-Chairman Sam Nunn," Arms Control Today, March 2008, p. 6

Posted: June 9, 2008