The international ban on nuclear weapons most recently announced by the United Nations is seen by many as a landmark toward a safer world. The U.N. intends to generally proscribe this category of weapons by judging that nuclear weapons must neither be owned, nor produced, nor stationed — and threatening to use them is prohibited, as well.
It is obvious, though, that the verdict will not have any immediate consequences as the nuclear weapons states had stated from the beginning that they would ignore such a decision. Many non-nuclear NATO members, like Germany, boycotted the negotiations and the vote in July 2017, as well.
Still, the political fallout is severe as countries that did not join the ban were harshly criticized.
How dare they oppose banning the undoubtedly most dangerous and inhumane of all weapons? Did that not mean squandering the opportunity for truly radical international disarmament? Didn’t President Barack Obama make the case for a nuclear weapons-free world and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so?
Indeed, he did, but during his term in office, he, too, had to acknowledge that it is a delusion to believe that this popular demand will ever be fulfilled.
As understandable as the dream of a world without nuclear weapons may be, it founders on the iron laws of realpolitik. There are three reasons that reduce the idea of complete nuclear disarmament to a pipe dream.
First, an abolition of all nuclear weapons is unlikely because it is not feasible: One would have to ensure that no one is keeping or hiding even a single nuclear warhead. Disposing of an entire category of weapons in this way would require a monitoring and a verification regime that goes far beyond what can currently be reconciled with the sovereignty of nation states. States that always vehemently insist on noninterference in their internal affairs — for instance, when it comes to human rights — would have to agree to a form of international monitoring unimaginable to them. One can hardly visit North Korea, let alone check for nuclear weapons.
Second — and this is a reason that President Obama underestimated in his initial optimism — most nuclear weapons states would not dream of complete disarmament because they do not want to cede their nuclear weapons. Weapons are not the cause of tensions, but the reverse is true: States arm themselves with nuclear or conventional weapons because they believe that it serves their security interests. Pakistan has nuclear weapons because it feels threatened by India, and India became a nuclear weapons state out of fear of China. Moscow is expanding its nuclear arsenal to compensate for Russian inferiority in the conventional field. North Korea strives to obtain nuclear weapons because it considers itself to be at war with virtually the entire world, and as for France, its status as a nuclear weapons state still makes up part of its international self-confidence. One may argue about each of these justifications, but for the countries in question, they are absolutely compelling.
And third, even if full disarmament succeeds, it remains unclear whether a nuclear weapons-free world would really be more stable. The knowledge of nuclear fission and nuclear fusion is out there, and the know-how to build nuclear weapons cannot be erased. Uranium and plutonium are produced every day. And if a state should decide to use the nuclear option in a conflict to attain a decisive advantage, it would probably take only weeks to manufacture the first nuclear warhead. What would it mean for international stability if every serious crisis resulted in a race to be the first to obtain a nuclear weapon?
Even many nuclear weapons opponents recognize this problem and, therefore, argue that they strive for nuclear weapons to be condemned rather than abolished. This way, they say, an international norm could be developed that would undermine the reliance on nuclear weapons in the long run.
They argue that this has already been achieved for biological and chemical weapons. This, however, is where the problem lies: After all, this would also undermine the idea of nuclear deterrence to prevent wars, an idea that NATO has successfully relied upon for nearly seven decades.
Condemning nuclear weapons this way would be a very one-sided affair. After all, autocratic states that are concerned neither about public opinion in their country nor about their international reputation tend to be unimpressed by U.N. decisions and will continue to threaten to use their nuclear weapons. Syria’s head of state Bashar Assad, for instance, has used chemical weapons again even though they are internationally prohibited — and Russia stands by its ally regardless.
A ban on nuclear weapons may serve to silence people’s conscience in an insecure world, but it will not help to make the world more secure or stable. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle, and no good wishes force it back.
Karl-Heinz Kamp is president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin.