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Elimination or Irrelevance
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K. Subrahmanyam

The dilemma facing the world today is whether it should aim at preserving the present nonproliferation status quo and strengthening it or aim at the final elimination of nuclear weapons as the international community did with its effort to ban chemical weapons. 

The basic premise of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was enshrined in Article VI of the treaty, which stated that the possession of nuclear weapons should only be temporary and that the international goal ultimately was to eliminate them. This foundation of the treaty was severely damaged when in 1995 the NPT states-parties legitimized the perpetual possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of five nuclear-weapon states by extending indefinitely and unconditionally a treaty initially slated to last only 25 years. This introduced a fatal flaw in the nonproliferation regime. It cannot be legal for some countries to possess a category of weapons while it is illegal for others to do so. A regime that is based on such inequity cannot be expected to be stable or secure against further proliferation. 

Indeed, history has shown that other states will seek to acquire weapons that are considered militarily usable and legitimate. For example, the NPT was not responsible for proliferation in the years between 1968 to 1990 being slower than anticipated. Rather, the anticipated proliferation did not occur because most of the industrialized nations came under the protection of extended nuclear deterrence of the two major nuclear powers who deployed nuclear weapons on the soils of other countries, trained their troops in their use, and made them crypto-nuclear-weapon powers.

Once the Cold War ended, most of the nations of the industrialized world who earlier felt the need for the protection of nuclear weapons did not need it. Therefore, the less-than-anticipated speed of proliferation owed more to skilful alliance security management than to the NPT. It did not prevent some of the industrialized nations from proliferating nuclear weapons and other technologies to developing countries keen on acquiring nuclear weapons. As a result, an objective assessment of the NPT would not attribute to it more credit than it is due for the limited increase in the number of nuclear-weapon powers.

This has continued into the post-Cold War era. China, even after becoming an NPT nuclear-weapon state-party, proliferated nuclear weapons technology in breach of its treaty obligation and other leading nuclear weapon powers were tolerant about such proliferation. Industrialized nations with advanced nuclear technology tolerated proliferation carried out by their industries, and Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and his black market proliferation network took advantage of this attitude. Further, countries threatened by externally induced forcible regime change have considered the acquisition of nuclear capability a form of insurance against such eventualities.

All told, the NPT approach has led to three states remaining outside the treaty and becoming nuclear-armed (India, Israel, and Pakistan); one state becoming nuclear and then abandoning the weapons for racial considerations (South Africa); one attempting to become nuclear and being disarmed after a war (Iraq); one successfully carrying out a nuclear test to resist regime change (North Korea); and one suspected to be developing nuclear weapons capability, threatened by regime change (Iran). The 40-year record of the NPT cannot be considered a glorious one to be extended in its present framework.

Moreover, the next few decades will see radical changes in the international balance of power. New nations are bound to emerge as economic powers of international significance. In those circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect a nonproliferation regime dominated by the five nuclear-weapon powers of 1968 vintage to be sustained and acceptable to that newly evolving world order. It will be especially problematic if the nuclear-weapon powers and the NPT continue to attach vast legitimacy to nuclear weapons and grant them salience in security doctrines. The only thing of which the world can be certain is that the international nuclear order of the next 40 years cannot be a continuation of the one of the previous 40 years. Attempting to freeze that order is bound to create new problems.

Nonproliferation by itself cannot be an end goal. Can a weapon that is considered legitimate and usable to win wars by five nations be ever stopped from proliferation? It can only be one of the methodologies to ensure that the probability of a nuclear weapon or device being used is reduced to virtually zero.

The Chemical Weapons Model

To see other possibilities for eliminating the risks posed by the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, one need only look at the world's experience with chemical weapons. In 1925, five states possessed chemical weapons but agreed in the Geneva Protocol not to be the first to use them. In subsequent years, this norm was breached only in situations where one side had chemical weapons and the other did not and when the international community callously chose to look away from its use, for example, Italy's use of chemical weapons in Ethiopia in the 1930s or Iraq's use of these arms against Iran in the early years of the Iran-Iraq War.

The norm's value was evident during the Second World War. Although more sophisticated chemical weapons had been developed and were available in enormous quantities to the major combatants, they refrained from using them because of a sense of mutual deterrence as well as a realization that this would not help win the war. Finally, after 68 years of growing accustomed to a convention banning the first use of such weapons, the international community was ready to agree to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which in 1993 called for eliminating that category of weapon altogether.

Today, the situation with respect to nuclear weapons is somewhat similar. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Communist Party Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev declared in a joint statement that a nuclear war could not be won.[1] Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote in Foreign Policy in 2005 that launching a nuclear weapon against a nuclear-armed opponent would be suicidal. He said that he had never seen any U.S. or NATO nuclear war plans that concluded that initiating the use of nuclear weapons would yield the United States or the alliance any benefit. He also said that his statements to this effect had never been refuted by NATO defense ministers or senior military leaders. Yet, it was impossible for any of them, including U.S. presidents, to make such statements publicly because they were totally contrary to established NATO policy.[2]

Former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) have called for a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons to prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world.[3] They claim to have the support of a large number of U.S. strategists and former policymakers, many of whom had contributed significantly to the buildup of Washington's massive nuclear arsenal during the Cold War as well as to decisions during and since that era not to use them.

It should now be possible for the nuclear powers to firmly establish as a valid professional military conclusion that nuclear weapons are not militarily useful weapons. We have had various commissions go into the issue of promoting and stabilizing nonproliferation, but the world has not seen a commission of retired strategic force commanders from different nuclear-weapon powers discussing whether a war using nuclear weapons is fightable and winnable and would make military sense. Such a commission would delegitimize the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, and one wonders whether the reluctance to face this issue is a matter of policy to sustain the pre-eminence of nuclear weapons in international strategy.

Against this background, India has suggested a seven-step plan for achieving nuclear disarmament modeled on the elimination of chemical weapons. The first step would be the reaffirmation of the unequivocal commitment of all nuclear-weapon states to the goal of complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The second step should be to reduce the salience of the nuclear weapons in the security doctrines of nuclear-weapon powers, particularly efforts to incorporate no-first-use pledges. This should be followed by the nuclear-armed powers taking steps to reduce nuclear risks.

Simultaneously, there should be negotiations among nuclear-weapon possessors for a global agreement on no first-use of nuclear weapons. Negotiations should also be launched on the nonuse of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. A convention on the complete prohibition of the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons would be a logical next step. The final step would be a nuclear weapons convention on the prohibition of the development, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons and on their destruction, leading to global, nondiscriminatory, and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified time frame.

The NPT was meant to regulate the code of conduct of responsible nation-states. Even in that respect, there were very serious lapses. Today's challenge is more from nonstate actors and rogue states supporting them or unable to control them. It is not easy for the world to meet this challenge if the legitimacy of nuclear weapons is sustained by the international community. That was a mistake committed in the name of the indefinite extension of the NPT in May 1995. That needs to be reversed immediately if the spirit of nonproliferation is to be maintained temporarily until the world readies itself to eliminate nuclear weapons. The focus today has to be on the elimination of risks of use and threat of use of nuclear weapons and devices by nonstate and rogue state actors.

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K. Subrahmanyam is former director of India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses from 1968 to 1975 and 1980 to 1987, and convenor of the national security advisory board in 1999, which drafted the Nuclear Doctrine for India.


1. James Goodby, "Looking Back: The 1986 Reykjavik Summit," Arms Control Today, September 2006, p. 49.

2. Robert S. McNamara, "Apocalypse Soon," Foreign Policy, No. 148 (May/June 2005).

3. These former officials 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.

Posted: June 9, 2008