Nuclear Disarmament In A Trumpian World: Desirable But Not Feasible?

Barry Gilheany evaluates the prospects for nuclear situation in a world order shaped by Donald Trump.

The recent announcement of US unilateral nuclear rearmament by Donald Trump through his intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia which ended the Cold War superpower nuclear arms race and removed the threat of annihilation for Europe through “limited” nuclear war has raised the spectre of a new nuclear arms race in a multi-polar world order characterised by bullish disregard for the norms and processes of the rules based international order which rested on pillars such as the INF treaty. How then is a return to the fear of nuclear annihilation which so terrified the generations that grew up in the shadow of the Cold War to be avoided?

To provide a possible answer, this article sketches out possible road maps towards generalised, global and multilateral nuclear disarmament. In so doing, I emphasise that decrying nuclear weapons as horrible instruments of war on its own is totally impractical. Scholars, activists and practitioners in the area of disarmament must analyse and deal with the realities of the changed international security environment over the last half-century; from a bipolar order in which two superpowers (US and USSR) armed with multiple nuclear warheads faced each other down to the post-Cold War multipolar order in which we live where regional nuclear powers have emerged with their own security imperatives and which requires different regulatory regimes. This article examines the theories of deterrence and proliferation that have underpinned both nuclear orders (and which have straddled each other) and suggests ways in which ideas and discourse around peace and disarmament can be integrated into policy environments. It concludes by rejecting the arguments for the benefits of nuclear weapons proliferation advanced by some “realist” scholars while acknowledging the formidable obstacles that lie in the way of effective multilateral disarmament.

The major fault-line in academic and policy debates on nuclear proliferation divides those who equate nuclear weapons spread with international stability, other things being equal, with international stability, from those who worry about the risks of inadvertent war from proliferation. (Cimbala, 2015). The assumptions of major realist theories expounded by the former camp derive from a Hobbesian view of the world as perpetually warring factions requiring containment by an overarching Leviathan.

These assumptions are that there is an inherent lust for power on the part of states or governments, based on human nature. Regional or global hegemony is the ultimate goal of states. States seek to maintain the existing balance of power arrangements within the current international system and will seek to alter the status quo to their advantage in incremental stages. Realist principles tend to be highly abstract and to be inherently pessimistic about international relations. (Cimbala, p.165).

A particular strand of realism is known as “proliferation optimism”. This brand of neo-realism argues that nuclear weapons ensure that actors in an otherwise state of Hobbesian anarchy will behave peacefully and rationally. Consequently, widespread nuclear proliferation ensures peace and stability (Woods, 2002). This is MAD; the maxim that the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction was the ultimate guarantee against such an outcome. It is doubtful whether Donald Trump can see beyond the perspective of America First with his narcissistic desire for bigger and better bombs to understand the thinking behind MAD, flawed though it is as I shall shortly explain.

According to its proponents, nuclear optimism incentivises states on the basis of self-interest to restrain aggressive behaviour due to the threat of annihilation in a nuclear holocaust. The spread of nuclear weapons can avert the dangers of limited nuclear war and escalation by the guarantee of cast-iron deterrence to every recipient the prospect of nuclear war becomes virtually impossible. It furthermore nullifies the need for costly diplomatic initiatives designed to bolster suspect alliance commitments. By rendering nuclear-armed states neutral and impotent, proliferation aids the global economy by enabling states to fully realise their economic potential. Proliferation optimists ultimately believe that the possession of nuclear weapons facilitates rational behaviour in all states, regardless of the leadership qualities of the regimes in power (e.g. Iran and North Korea). (Woods: pp.167-169).

Proliferation scholars such as Pierre Gallois and Donald L. Clark conclude that nuclear proliferation makes permanent global security a realistic goal. Until this goal is achieved, nations will not sign up to additional arms control measures. Since war continues only in those areas without nuclear arms, non-proliferation efforts represent not just obstacles to national security – they are immoral. According to this account it is the emotions associated with the memories of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that prevents acknowledgement of the game-changing value of the nuclear weapon in war (Woods: p.170).

Using analogies from micro-economics, Kenneth Waltz, arguably the most prominent neo-realist scholar, reimagines the world of diverse states as a stable, bipolar universe (USA and USSR) of units, of rational, interest maximising actors. The fear of apocalypse engendered by nuclear weapons which elevates rationality and sanctifies immediate deterrence also works for extended deterrence. For so-called rogue states, aware of the impossibility of victory, will have reason to restrain both their inflammatory words and deeds. In a crisis or showdown, nuclear armed states will naturally incline towards restraint. The example of Israel is cited as evidence for the claim that small, vulnerable (even messianic) states will behave rationally when nuclear armed (Woods: p.173).

The major problem with such types of “extended deterrence” and “proliferation optimism” theories in the eyes of their critics is their sheer determinism. In the oligopolistic world of International politics, the few rule the many. Thus, there is no “system” to which the dominant powers, unlike the remaining states, are subject against their wishes. Realists are blind to the regional tiers of dominance that exist in the international order In a determinant “system”, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would not have defied UN Security Resolutions on disarmament over twelve years from 1991 of sanctions, intrusive inspections and international military policing and succeeded in driving such fatal diplomatic wedges in both the Security Council and NATO in 2003 forcing the US and its minimal “coalition of the willing to intervene unilaterally (Cimbala: pp.167-168).

Proponents of deterrence during the Cold War advocated that the superpowers develop massive nuclear arsenals which they did. But they never said how much of an arsenal and what exactly would it take to deter conventional conflict. It is difficult to calibrate the deterrent power of the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers as they were so much more superior militarily than the other states in the system that their ability to deter non-superpower states was overdetermined. Thus, the superpower nuclear balance is an insufficient analytical tool for assessing the extent to which the possession and expansion of nuclear weaponry acts as a deterrent to potential aggressors (Narang, 2014).

Finally in relation to deterrence theory and practice, it can be seen that, viewed through the lens of conservatism of Edmund Burke, proliferation optimism reproduces a pessimistic view of human nature, integral to conservative philosophy, that seemingly runs counter to the rationality and modernity valorised in the thinking of scholars like Waltz. The core of Burkean conservatism is to be found in his seminal work Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790. As such it is a refutation of the rationalist belief that man could explain and so regulate every aspect of human social life (Woods:p.178).

Burkean conservatism has three interrelated elements. The first prescribes leadership qualities for the good society. Leaders must be imbued with various moral qualities such as virtue and the ability to assimilate and put into practice received wisdom from earlier generations in the art of governance rather than the desire to implement rationalist projects based on abstract theory. Persons are most likely to develop those qualities within the ruling class and political leadership is provided by exceptional human beings of wise counsel (Woods: pp.178-179).

Second, conservatism validates lasting organic (versus contrived) social institutions as the best mode of governance. Established institutions inform the attitudes and behaviour of the ordinary person and the elites and enhance wisdom, skills and accomplishments. Within conservatism, leadership and institutions blend to effect its core components of veneration of family, community, church, tradition and authority and disdain of liberal individualism, rapid social change and autonomous reason (as in science and progress). Leadership and institutions combine to produce the third, and most existential, element – it’s pessimistic view of human nature. Conservatives of all complexions view humanity as imperfectible; they fear the tyranny of the mob on the basis that ‘men acting on their own uncontrolled impulses, will act badly’. (Woods: pp.180-181).

Nuclear Optimism resembles conservatism in these ways. Its vision of a proliferated world equates to conservatism’s version of the good society. Nuclear weapon states are its wise and venerated leaders, deterrence as a body of theory and practice is it lasting and trusting institution and all other states are ordinary actors to which the power to rule may be delegated. Strategic deterrence is a prescriptive body of doctrine and received practices that: prescribes the right behaviour (revives extended deterrence); refuses to inquire into its practical origins and absolves leaders of requirements to legitimise inherited privileges (Permanent Security Council seats) or property (nuclear arms). In this account, the non-proliferation movement represents a fundamental threat as it implores states to not do what they must, namely acquire what they need to survive. Finally, and surprisingly, bearing in minds its origins in microeconomic theory, optimism cautions that certain states be denied nuclear weapons because they are governed by base passions; being driven by a will to power (Woods: pp.184-186).

Having called into question the foundational principles and falsifiability of nuclear deterrence theories, it is now appropriate to tease out how nuclear disarmament can be achieved and the practicalities involved. In particular how can the traditionally separated spheres of ideas and action co-operate to produce policy proposals which will move forward a currently deadlocked nuclear arms control agenda (Thakur, 2011)?

Nuclear arms control regimes are based on the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT regime faces five challenges: the failure of nuclear disarmament by the five NPT-licit nuclear powers (US, UK, France, China and Russia); the possible violation by non-nuclear signatories like Iran and North Korea; India, Israel and Pakistan remaining outside the NPT; terrorists’ interests in getting hold of nuclear weapons; and the possible security risks of the increased interest in nuclear energy to offset the financial and environmental costs of fossil fuel (Thakur: p.34).

There have been some recent salient developments though. In 2010 a US Nuclear Posture Review reduced the role of nuclear weapons in defence strategy and placed additional restrictions on their use; a new Russia-US treaty slashed strategic arsenals by about one-third, a summit in Washington undertook to tighten the security of nuclear materials and trade and there was a five-year NPT Review Conference in New York in May (Thakur: p.34). 2015 saw a breakthrough in the imbroglio over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme with a US led final agreement agreed by 30th June 2015, now tragically trashed by Trump in another middle finger gesture to rules based global security architecture, to provide for indefinite access to Iranian nuclear facilities in return for which certain sanctions would be lifted.[1]

Nuclear disarmament will prove difficult to achieve because of the dynamics of the ‘second nuclear age’ in which a multipolar nuclear order is taking shape which is likely to be characterised by regional nuclear arms races, crises in the regions, and nuclear competition among major powers (Bracken, 2013). Their nuclear choices and their relative power positions are distinct from the superpowers of the Cold War era, demanding theories and analysis distinct from Cold War scholarship which dominates present thinking on security and deterrence (Narang: p.299). Such reconfiguration is given further urgency by Trump’s trashing of INF which has provoked this article.

In his analysis of the “fifty-year problem” of nuclear strategy, Bracken asserts that although a grand design for world order that gets rid of the bomb, especially one that greatly benefits the USA is undoubtedly desirable, conflation of this desire with feasibility isn’t good policy analysis. For getting rid of the bomb will not, in his opinion, happen any time soon (Bracken: p.2).

It won’t happen because major powers such as Russia, China and India, along with the secondary nuclear powers Pakistan, Israel and North Korea (and possibly Iran), are uncertain about the future of the world and can envisage a myriad of differing possibilities and outcomes. The decline in the capacity of the US to enforce order in various regions and the absence of promised governance structures, and the spread of advanced weaponry of all kinds makes any declaration of unilateral disarmament by any of the above states most unlikely. Furthermore, distrust of the United States has also given impetus to the spread of the bomb as a counter to American military interventions. Counties like Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and China hardly desire a world that is “safe” for a US that has vast superiority in conventional weapons technology. For these states the bomb raises the risk levels for the US in any military showdown (Bracken: p.6). This factor also gives the lie to the notion peddled by proliferation optimists that possession of the bomb by “rogue states” will engender “good behaviour” by their leaderships. In this account then, action such as the unilateral revocation by the UK of its Trident programme would be a massive act of virtue signalling producing minimal impact on the world stage.

For Bracken management of the regional nuclear hotspots such as the Korean peninsula and the Arab-Israeli and Kashmir disputes is more important than the search for an overarching strategy such as containment and deterrence (Bracken: p.8). In mapping out pathways to universal nuclear disarmament; Cerruti states his preference for this term over “abolition” as after such an “event” cheaters and free riders could secretly rearm but, more importantly, disarming states may require an insurance policy against cheaters and free riders through a nuclear armed Security Council. Even if renouncements do occur, states may still want to rely exclusively on reciprocal trust and look for a minimum force in neutral hands (Cerruti, 2008).

Having stated that minimum deterrence is this generation’s most realistic nuclear disarmament goal, Cerruti proposes the following policy measures: a “no first use” convention, the de-alerting of nuclear systems; re-legitimate the NPT by finally taking seriously Article. IV, (“states in a position to do so shall help non-nuclear, especially developing states in pursuing the peaceful application of nuclear energy”) and, as the Canberra Commission emphasised, Article VI (“all parties to the Treaty shall work for a treaty on general and complete disarmament”) (Cerruti, 208: pp.207-208).

Underpinning these proposals would be two constitutional initiatives: the establishment by governments of an ombudsman for future generations who would monitor laws and administrative acts for their supposed impacts on our far posterity and, related to this, the recognition of the right of humanity to survival under decent conditions, which would be written into constitutions and bind governments not to act in contravention of this goal. This would represent a pinnacle for human rights and would vindicate sovereignty in its deeper meaning of autonomous power over the existential issues of the global polity in which we live. (Cerruti: p.208). This is democratic theory for a nuclear age.

Finally, disarmament initiatives need to be intellectually bolstered by peace research (PR) programmes that can be integrated into the policy making environment. PR aims to control the manifestation of arms and violence, including structural violence – more people die from poverty and malnutrition than in armed conflicts. PR assumptions contrast with the realist assumptions that violence is endemic and an instrument of statecraft which permeate strategic studies (SS). PR offers critical alternatives to the realist narratives of violence and security and changes focus from security of the state to the welfare and security of the individual. PR has a constituency inside the governments of few countries but nuclear arms control and disarmament specialists are welcome in international organisations such as the UN (Thakur: pp.35-36).

To be taken seriously by policymakers, scholars need to adapt their approaches to fit into ha the dominant discourse and speak the language of applied research. The shift in diplomacy from the world of the “club” to the newer “networked” model has created opportunities for PR scholars in international bodies such as the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the UN Secretary-General’s advisory group on disarmament. The German delegate to the 2010 NPT conference included Harald Mueller of the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute. It is to be hoped that governments can tap into such scholarly expertise by expanding the scope of such structured opportunities for interaction between academic and policy maker (Thakur: pp.38-42).

In conclusion, demands for the abolition of nuclear weapons may raise the moral self-esteem of their authors and addressees but rarely live up to the imperatives of challenging scholars to construct ideas around nuclear disarmament that deal effectively with the nitty-gritty of politics and to look for endorsement from the appropriate social forces and historical tendencies (Cerruti, p.208). While I would oppose the crude reductionism of neo-realist theories, I believe, as a former advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, that there can be no single moment of world-wide nuclear disarmament. The tragedy of Trump’s sabotage of the current accord on Iranian nuclear capability is that the accord offers a suitable template for future arms reduction initiatives. It must be preserved.


Bracken, P. (2013) The Second Nuclear Age. Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

Cerruti, F. (2008) Global Challenges for Leviathan. A Political Philosophy of Nuclear Weapons and Global Warming. Plymouth: Lexington Books

Cimbala, S.J. (2015) the New Nuclear Disorder. Challenges to Deterrence and Strategy. Farnham: Ashgate

Narang, V. (2014) Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era. Regional Powers and International Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Thakur, R. (2011) Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament: Can the Power of Ideas Tame the Power of the State? International Studies Review, 13, pp.34-45

Woods, M. (2002) Reflections on Nuclear Optimism: Waltz, Burke and Proliferation. Review of International Studies, 28, pp.163-189.

[1] 4th May 2015

➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.

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