Can unarmed states prohibit nuclear weapons?

Photo of a B52 testing an air launched cruise missile.

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

This article first appeared in Live Mint. The views are of the author(s).


Guess what terrifies nations armed with the most powerful weapons ever invented? Believe it or not—a mere UN conference to ban them, which began on 27 March in New York. This gathering of nations without nuclear weapons to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”, has caused greater consternation among the nine nuclear-armed states and their shielded allies than the spectre of Armageddon through deliberate, inadvertent or accidental nuclear use.

This was amply demonstrated when the US, UK and France, along with several other countries which live under nuclear umbrellas, publicly protested against the conference and sought to justify why they were boycotting it. In doing so, they not only exposed their uber anxiety over the conference but also, inadvertently, focused a spotlight on the proceedings, which might otherwise not have garnered as much attention.

The supreme irony is that despite the fear of the nuclear-armed states, neither the conference nor the subsequent treaty, which is likely to be concluded later this year, will disarm a single nuclear weapon. Yet the trepidation of the nuclear weapon states is not entirely irrational.

First, the 120-odd nations that participated in the negotiations highlight that nearly two-thirds of UN members have been able to ensure their security without the possession or protection of nuclear weapons. In contrast, the 40 nations staying away—less than one-fourth of all UN members—perceive that nuclear weapons are essential to ensure their security. This is also the rationale provided by the US and its allies to justify their nuclear weapons and their boycott of the conference. However, as Alexander Marschik, the Austrian delegate to the conference, retorted: “If nuclear weapons are truly indispensable in providing security, then why should not all states benefit from this advantage?” This argument also lays bare the fallacy that deterrence based on nuclear weapons is more stable than deterrence without nuclear weapons, given that relations among nuclear weapon states are crises-ridden.

To read more, please click here.