It is worthwhile asking the question: What are nuclear weapons? In some respects the answer to this question may seem obvious, but this is not necessarily the case. To some, nuclear weapons are a scientific achievement that bestows prestige. This is the view that has been taken by each of the nuclear weapons states, with the exception of Israel. Most recently, this perspective was on display when India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998.

To others, nuclear weapons are a deterrent that protects a weaker state from a more powerful one. This is likely the view of North Korea and perhaps Iran, after having been designated by the US president as part of the “Axis of Evil” and observing the United States attack Iraq, the third designated country in this axis. To still others, such as Israel, nuclear weapons represent a final response to an existential threat. To North Korea, nuclear weapons may represent a response to an existential threat and also a “bargaining chip” for security guarantees and development aid.

To others, nuclear weapons demonstrate a state’s power in the international system. This likely reflects the view of the five original nuclear weapons states, the ones that also hold permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council – the US, UK, Russia, China and France – and quite possibly the rest of the nuclear weapons states as well.

Thus far, I have only given the probable views of states that possess nuclear weapons or may wish to do so. Let me now offer another view of nuclear weapons. They are weapons that kill massively and indiscriminately. As such, they are long-distance instruments of annihilation. Weapons that kill indiscriminately are illegal under international law. In this respect, any threat or use of nuclear weapons that failed to discriminate between civilians and combatants would be illegal. It is hard to imagine any threat or use of these weapons that would or even could discriminate.

The International Court of Justice has found that any threat or use of nuclear weapons would be generally illegal, allowing for the possible but uncertain exception under current international law of a circumstance in which the very existence of a state is at stake. But even then, for such use to be legal it would have to meet the standards of international humanitarian law. In other words, it would have to discriminate between soldiers and civilians, be proportionate, and not cause unnecessary suffering.

Nuclear weapons are also cowardly and anti-democratic. More accurately, the weapons themselves may not be cowardly, but those who would threaten or use these long-distance killing machines are cowardly. Nearly all of the leading military figures of World War II recognized this and commented upon it. Admiral William Leahy, referring to the use of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said, “[I]n being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

Nuclear weapons are anti-democratic because they concentrate power in the hands of single individuals or a small cabal. They take away the most basic right of people everywhere – the right to survive. There will never be a democratic vote to use nuclear weapons. These weapons place in the hands of leaders the capacity to destroy cities, countries and civilization, with the high likelihood that any use of nuclear weapons would lead to the destruction of the country that initiated a nuclear attack.

No Defense against Nuclear Attack

It is not possible to defend against a nuclear attack. Deterrence, which has been the main line of prevention, cannot provide physical defense against a nuclear attack. It is simply the threat of retaliation. This threat must be effectively communicated and believed by a potential attacker. It is, of course, not a meaningful threat against a non-state extremist organization, which cannot be located. Deterrence theory is rooted in rationality. It posits leaders acting rationally to assure their survival, even in times of severe crisis. Basing protection against nuclear attack on rationality, unfortunately, is irrational.

This is what the former commander-in-chief of the United States Strategic Command, General George Lee Butler, had to say about deterrence: “Deterrence serves the ends of evil as well as those of noble intent. It holds guilty the innocent as well as the culpable. It is a gamble no mortal should pretend to make. It invokes death on a scale rivaling the power of the Creator.”

Early in 2007, four former high-level US officials – George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn – published an article, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” in the Wall Street Journal. They addressed the issue of deterrence, arguing: “The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”

If deterrence is becoming more dangerous and less effective, what remains? US leaders have put significant emphasis on missile defenses, but few knowledgeable scientists, other than those working on government contracts, believe that missile defenses would actually work under real-world conditions. There is a widespread understanding that missile defenses, in addition to being unreliable, can be easily overcome by offensive forces and the use of decoys. The US push to deploy missile defenses has frayed relations between the US and Russia and China, and led these countries to improve their offensive nuclear capabilities.

If neither deterrence nor missile defenses provide security against nuclear attack, what is left? Nothing is viable but diplomacy to eliminate nuclear arsenals. There is no reliable defense against nuclear attack. Major countries might consider returning to the “duck and cover” drills of the 1950s, although they might update the drills so that they took place in legislatures rather than in schools. These drills, of course, offer no protection to those who do them, but they might help awaken them to the dilemma and the need to take action to eliminate the threat by eliminating the weapons.

Nuclear Dangers

Since nuclear weapons continue to exist, nuclear dangers have not gone away, despite the ending of the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Union. What has largely ended is public concern for the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. The end of the Cold War has created a false sense of security, largely attributable to inertia and poor leadership. It is worthwhile reviewing current nuclear dangers.

  1. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to other state actors. The more states in possession of nuclear weapons, the more likely they are to proliferate further and to be used. The spread of nuclear weapons dramatically increases problems of control, as was demonstrated by the case of Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan.
  2. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to extremist organizations. This is a danger that cannot be ruled out. Nuclear weapons in the hands of an extremist organization, such as al Qaeda, pose substantial danger to all countries, including the major nuclear weapons states.
  3. The use of a nuclear weapon by an extremist organization against a state. The actual use of a nuclear weapon by an extremist organization against a state could result in destruction comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with added widespread security and economic implications. Questions would arise about the viability of the world economy, human rights and democratic processes in the face of such attack.
  4. The use of a nuclear weapon by a nuclear weapons state against another state. Such use would be devastating and could trigger a nuclear war. It would end the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons that has existed since 1945.
  5. An all-out nuclear war, initiated either intentionally or accidentally. The danger of an all-out nuclear war is always with us. It would be insane, but it could happen. Just as states stumbled into World War I, they could stumble again, by accident or miscalculation, into an all-out nuclear war.

These dangers are obviously not trivial, nor are they dangers with which anyone should feel comfortable. They are dangers that place civilization and even the human species at risk of annihilation.

Current nuclear dangers are fueled by the continued reliance of the nuclear weapons states on their nuclear arsenals for their security. Whereas these states once lived in a world of Mutually Assured Destruction, they now live in a world of Mutually Assured Delusions. Their greatest delusion is that they can continue to rely upon nuclear weapons for their own security and that of their friends, while preventing these weapons from spreading to others or being used again.

There have been repeated warnings over a long period of time that nuclear double standards cannot hold. In 1955, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto warned: “We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?”

In 1996, the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons warned, “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defines credibility. The only complete defense is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.”

This warning was repeated in 2006 by the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by Hans Blix. Their report, entitled Weapons of Terror, Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, stated: “So long as any state has such weapons – especially nuclear arms – others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain in any state’s arsenal, there is a high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. Any such use would be catastrophic.”

A New Nuclear Policy

There have been many proposals for a new nuclear policy. The essence of such a policy is rooted in the following:

  1. The obligation for good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament in Article VI of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty;
  2. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, which stated, “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”
  3. The pledge in the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament agreed to unanimously at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference: “An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI.

US leadership will be necessary in order to move forward in implementing such a policy. Without US leadership there will be little incentive for the other nuclear weapons states to act, and we are likely to remain frozen in the nuclear double standards of the status quo.

While US leadership for a new nuclear policy has not been forthcoming, some hope exists in that the group of former US officials – Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn – called for it in their January 2007 Wall Street Journal article. They endorsed “the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal….” The four former officials argued, “Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations.”

Once the political will for the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons exists, it will be possible to take the necessary actions to move from where we are to the goal. There have been many proposals for how to achieve the goal. A group of leading civil society organizations has drafted a plan for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons in a series of stages. This draft Convention has been introduced to the United Nations by the Republic of Costa Rica. The 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament agreed to at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference sets forth another series of steps. The four former Cold Warriors set forth their own series of steps. What is most important in achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons, once there is sufficient political will, is that the disarmament be phased, transparent, verifiable, irreversible, and subject to strict and effective international control.

Challenges to a New Nuclear Policy

There are many challenges to a new nuclear policy, but the greatest challenges lie in the orientation of the current leadership of the US. In July 2007, the US Secretaries of State, Defense and Energy issued a joint statement, “National Security and Nuclear Weapons: Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century.” This statement, contrary to the position taken by the four former US officials, began by extolling “the essential role that nuclear weapons play in maintaining deterrence.” It ended up by calling for replacing every nuclear weapon in the US arsenal with a new type of thermonuclear weapon, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). They argued that “RRW is key to sustaining our security commitment to allies, and is fully consistent with U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – including Article VI.” They also threatened that delays on RRW “raise the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify existing weapons.”

The Bush administration is clearly not seeking to achieve a new nuclear policy, but a retrenchment of the status quo, one in which the United States remains the dominant nuclear weapons state. They seem unaware of the risks they are running, particularly the dangers that their nuclear policies create for the US itself.

Further challenges to a new nuclear policy come from those states that want to defy the nuclear status quo of privileged nuclear “haves” maintaining their superiority over nuclear “have-nots.” Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea were not content living in that two-tiered nuclear world, and pursued nuclear programs that led to the development of nuclear arsenals. South Africa had followed this path in earlier years, developed a small nuclear arsenal, and then reconsidered and dismantled its weapons. Without more concerted action to achieve nuclear disarmament, we can anticipate that more states will move toward a nuclear option in the future. Even today, some countries, like Japan, hold open the nuclear option as virtual nuclear weapons states, having both the technology and nuclear materials to develop nuclear arsenals in a very short time.

A general challenge to a new nuclear policy is the belief that a firewall can be drawn between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. No such firewall is possible, and nuclear reactors, for power or research, have fueled the nuclear programs of Israel, India and Pakistan. The designation of peaceful nuclear power as an “inalienable right” in the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a contradiction that must be addressed if nuclear proliferation is to be controlled.

A Way Forward

In the end, the most important consideration may be that suggested by the hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in their statement, “Nuclear weapons and human beings cannot co-exist.” This is patently true. The two are now placed in an uneasy juxtaposition. One represents the technology of annihilation. The other represents the sum total of human achievement – past, present and potential future. It should not be a difficult choice, but many of us on the planet seem to be voting against ourselves by our ignorance, apathy and denial. An awakened populace may prove to be a potent force to achieve a nuclear weapons free world.

Our challenge, as leaders in civil society, is to educate and advocate for a new nuclear policy that will move the world away from the nuclear precipice. In doing so, we may find many important partners, including the mayors of cities throughout the world who have joined Mayors for Peace led by Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba of Hiroshima; the network of parliamentarians in the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament; and the governments of non-nuclear weapons states, such as those in the New Agenda Coalition, which have worked closely with the Middle Powers Initiative.

What has been accomplished thus far is not nearly enough. The world remains in peril. In Einstein’s words, “we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Our challenge is to reverse that drift, to move back from the nuclear precipice, to prevent the catastrophe Einstein foresaw. To achieve a new and human-centric nuclear policy will require major national efforts within nuclear weapons states, and a major global campaign to bring pressure to bear upon these states from without. Already the southern hemisphere of the planet has organized itself into a series of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones.

Europe could play an important role in the effort to achieve a nuclear weapons free world by demanding that US nuclear weapons be removed from Europe, by refusing to participate in missile defense programs, by stepping out from under the US nuclear umbrella, and by convening a forum for the good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament called for in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Now is the time to begin planning for a saner, more reasonable and law abiding US administration that will replace the current one in early 2009.

Nuclear weapons currently divide humanity, but the recognition of their danger could be a force for uniting humanity for their elimination. This would be a great achievement not only for its expression of common human purpose, but also for the resources it would free for meeting basic human needs for food, health care, housing, education, the alleviation of poverty and the protection of the environment. A new nuclear policy aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons should be the top priority on the global agenda.


David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (