Some States may seek nuclear weapons as icons of power. Hence, to strengthen efforts against their spread, States should deflate the symbolic value of nuclear weapons. A crucial step would be to de-emphasize their military significance. – Ward Wilson, Senior Fellow at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), made this argument at a panel event held at the UN Headquarters in New York on 16 October. Effective nonproliferation measures must address both motives for acquiring nuclear weapons – security and prestige – Stimson Center co-founder Barry Blechman replied.
Angela Kane, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, moderated the First Committee Side Event, which was sponsored by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
States may have come to see nuclear weapons as “icons of power rather than as real weapons intended for actual use,” Mr. Wilson argued in his presentation. Despite being very limited in their military utility, nuclear weapons deeply impress adversaries – just like dreadnoughts and chariots once did, he explained. This has repercussions for proliferation: “If states see nuclear weapons not as weapons but as powerful political symbols that confer enormous status and influence, and that they are not particularly dangerous because they will never be used, that will put intense pressure on them to acquire nuclear weapons.”
As a consequence, strengthening nuclear non-proliferation requires deflating the symbolic value of nuclear weapons, Mr. Wilson said. To achieve this, nuclear-armed States could de-emphasize nuclear weapons in their policy statements, remove those weapons from constant alert, and express their commitment to eventually de-nuclearize all military alliances, he recommended. All States should endorse the notion that the use of nuclear weapons would cause unacceptable humanitarian consequences. In the end, “nuclear weapons are weapons intended to be used, not symbols that just sit in silos,” he said.
In his response, Barry Blechman, who is the co-founder of the StimsonCenter, a Washington D.C. based think tank, acknowledged the symbolic value of nuclear weapons to be a significant factor. But he warned against dismissing the idea of security benefits as a driver for proliferation. Nuclear weapons, he argued, do not make a State more secure. However, the misperception that nuclear weapons increase security persists, as the current trend towards extended and more diversified nuclear arsenals among some nuclear weapon States shows, he pointed out. Mr. Blechman also voiced concern over vertical proliferation risks, which, in his view, Mr. Wilson’s approach fails to adequately address.
The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane welcomed Mr. Wilson’s fresh approach. In the nuclear weapons field, “the problem is an apparent lack of learning and adaptation,” she said. “We require new thinking about nuclear weapons. We seem to have fallen into the thrall of ideas that hold us frozen in place. Only if we break free of those bonds can we take the actions that are needed. … It is in exploring new ideas that I believe we will eventually find the path out of the nuclear dead-end where we currently find ourselves.”
Ms. Kane applauded Mr. Wilson for having found “a way to combine judiciously his iconoclasm on nuclear weapons with a healthy respect for the lessons of history.” In “exploring whether some of the deepest roots of proliferation … relate to the very existence of nuclear weapons themselves, and to the ideas we have constructed to rationalize their possession and threats of use,” Mr. Wilson “suggests that the path to non-proliferation may well be through the great gate of disarmament,” Ms. Kane said.
“To tell you the truth, I’d never considered that dreadnoughts and chariots were relevant to the nuclear weapons discussion. But Ward makes an interesting case that we should see them in a new light,” the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs added.
Article and photographs by Elias Oberkirch
Photos from the Event