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September 21, 2016

Nuclear Deterrence: Not Suitable for the 21st Century

PAUL QUILÈS

Some 23 years ago the Berlin Wall fell. This major event, followed by the dismantlement of the Soviet bloc, put an end to a bipolar world and caused fundamental upheaval on the international scene. Yet no new security doctrine has emerged from this profound geo-political mutation. Whether we like it or not, nuclear deterrence – consisting of exposing one’s enemy to the risk of mass destruction – remains the pillar of France’s and Great Britain’s defence policies.

Yesterday nuclear arms control symbolised the will to maintain a balance – albeit a fragile one – between the Eastern and Western blocs. Yesterday a certain strategic relevance of nuclear weapons could be conceivable. Today the balance and the relevance have disappeared. The threats of the Cold War period can be deemed fears of the past. The nuclear deterrence doctrine is no longer suitable within an evolving world in the early 21st century. Today, paradoxically, the greatest threat comes from the very existence of nuclear weapons, coupled with the risk of their proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear proliferation will be fought more effectively through multilateralism and international treaties such as the Treaty on the NonProliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), than with nuclear deterrence.1Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (hereafter NPT), open to signature on July 1, 1968. The May 2010 NPT Review Conference adopted an ‘Action Plan’ on the three pillars of the Treaty (disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy), and planned a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Moreover, establishing linkage between the possession of nuclear weapons and great power status, as is often done, can only encourage countries to acquire a nuclear capability, whilst the aim of the NPT, ratified by almost all UN member states (189), is precisely to lead to a nuclear weapons-free world. Today, the new international environment, characterised by deep political instability, requires making abolition of nuclear weapons the spearhead of a new international security doctrine.

Despite this evidence, nuclear weapons are not really questioned, and their preservation is justified not by real arguments, but by ritual incantation. While claiming that nuclear weapons are the ultimate security guarantee, the governments of nuclear weapon-States continue to view their arsenals as an instrument of prestige. The possession of such weapons gives them the feeling of holding great power status.

The new generation, on the contrary, believes in a world where promoting nuclear disarmament embodies more political power and prestige than redundant, dangerous and costly nuclear stockpiles. Precisely because it can free itself from the fears of the past, this generation, which did not live through the Cold War, is able to find a new language and propose a new approach.

It does not believe that ever-lasting stability of states can be induced by nuclear weapons. It understands that the nuclear weapons it has inherited will not help respond to 21st century problems: terrorism, economic and financial crisis, pollution and climate change, poverty or pandemics. It is outraged to hear of budget cuts affecting social welfare, knowing that the cost of maintaining nuclear stockpiles will reach 700 billion Euros in the next decade.

Transforming mindsets is a common strategic and moral duty. For the first time in decades, the theme of nuclear disarmament finds a deep resonance among young people. Like them, and for them, I support the appeal of Global Zero – in favour of the first multilateral negotiation in history toward the gradual and controlled elimination of nuclear weapons. European governments must pledge to take part in such a negotiation in order to make the Cold War a piece of antiquity, and thus leave a nuclear weapons-free world to future generations.

The Multilateral Framework

The NPT considers that five states have the right to possess nuclear weapons, but it does not give them the right to keep those weapons forever. On the contrary, its Article VI unequivocally commits them to “nuclear disarmament” and “a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”2Article VI of the NPT states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Even if the performance of the five nuclear weapon-States can be criticized with respect to this commitment, one should not underestimate the progress already made in nuclear disarmament, contributing to a better international security climate and reduction in the risk of nuclear proliferation. Too often is the argument heard that despite the evident decrease in world stockpiles of nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation proceeds unabated. The case of North Korea joining the nuclear club is mentioned. True, there were six nuclear powers in 1989, eight in 1998 (India, Pakistan) and nine in 2006 (North Korea). However, in the meantime, let us remember that South Africa unilaterally disarmed (1991), and Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan renounced the nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union (Lisbon Protocol, May 23, 1992). More recently, Libya gave up its nuclear ambitions having negotiated with the U.S. and the United Kingdom. As for Syria’s plans, they were stopped by an Israeli military strike in 2007 (operation Orchard). Measures of unilateral, multilateral, even coercive disarmament prevented six countries from acquiring or keeping nuclear weapons. Finally, since 1991, several concrete actions against proliferation have been developed: four new nuclear weapon-free zones were established in Mongolia (1992), Africa (1996), South-East Asia (1997), and Central Asia (2000); and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol
was adopted by 114 states.3The IAEA Additional Protocol allows inspections of undeclared nuclear activities or installations across the world.

Of course, new initiatives for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation will have to be introduced in order to achieve the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. But this cannot be achieved outside a multilateral framework. This is why it is crucial that eventually all nuclear weapon-States become fully incorporated in the disarmament process.

It is clear that the United States and Russia, holding some 95% of the world’s nuclear armaments, have a special responsibility. Even once the New START Treaty is fully implemented, their stockpiles will still remain considerable – as this treaty sets no limits on non-deployed or sub-strategic weapons. Those two categories of weapons are indeed twice as numerous as the ones covered by the treaty. Moreover the existing ceilings do not exert strict constraints: 1550 warheads by 2018, taking into consideration the accounting rules allocating only one warhead per strategic bomber.

These figures clearly sit far below the goal of 1000 warheads, which, coupled with constraints on nondeployed weapons, could have acted as a real incentive for multilateral negotiations without negatively affecting the security of both countries concerned. That being said, the importance of the New START Treaty should not be underestimated, especially because of its verification and transparency mechanisms.

In order to address the complex equation that constitutes nuclear disarmament, involving so many actors with very diverse interests, I consider three notions to be essential:

1. Confidence implying transparency. This will prove indispensable to any progress on these issues. The guarantees, which the U.S. and more broadly NATO provide to Russia with respect to antiballistic missile defence, will be decisive. It should be feasible, through technical data exchange and operational cooperation, to reassure Russia that the system will not weaken its deterrent.

Middle nuclear powers also have a role to play in enhancing confidence. France could indeed, like the U.K., increase its policy of transparency on the level and nature of its nuclear armaments.

In this regard, one can only approve of the now regular meetings among the five official nuclear weapon-States, aiming at increasing confidence on deterrence policies and transparency within nuclear postures. Let’s hope that such meetings go beyond formal contacts!

Building confidence within interstate relations is also a necessity in Asia. What is needed is a stronger commitment from the international
community in favour of solving conflicts between India and Pakistan, and between China and India. It is furthermore essential to put a halt to rising tensions within China’s maritime surroundings.

2. A second fundamental notion is multilateralism – meaning the participation of all states, whether nuclear or not, in the negotiation for nuclear disarmament, on an equal and non-discriminatory footing.

The NPT Review Conferences may, from this viewpoint, allow for considerable progress. It is indeed within this framework that nuclear weaponStates are required to report on their disarmament efforts in conformity with Article VI of the Treaty. In particular the 2000 Review Conference adopted a roadmap toward disarmament through 13 priority steps, allowing for rigorous evaluation of each nuclear weapon-State.

There are two other multilateral frameworks of crucial importance for disarmament. The first deals with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The other involves launching negotiations for a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes: the Cut-off Treaty.

With respect to the CTBT, the main goal is to achieve ratification of the treaty by the United States. Regarding the Cut-off Treaty, an end to the Pakistani veto is needed. This will probably require taking Pakistan’s concerns about existing stockpiles into account, as well as exhibiting a stronger expression of consensus between other member states.

3. Verification. No decisive progress toward nuclear disarmament will occur unless adequate verification mechanisms are put into place. It is not an easy task. From a technical, military and political viewpoint, it is a formidable challenge to move beyond verifying the number of delivery vehicles to verifying warheads, their stationing and their dismantlement, as well as fissile materials. Taking the achievements of chemical disarmament into consideration however, it seems a realistic goal – provided the necessary political will exists. This political will must be measured against the risks resulting from thousands of nuclear weapons being constantly perfected. The contribution of civil society, NGOs, independent experts and a movement such as Global Zero is invaluable on this issue.

What Can France Do?

As for my own country, France, it could realistically contribute to nuclear disarmament in two ways:

1. Through technical measures
By considering the possibility of committing itself to a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons:
During the Cold War such a commitment was impossible due to the conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact. The new strategic environment could allow for such a shift in doctrine however. The current review process of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture could offer an opportunity. A massive conventional offensive against European countries has become an increasingly unlikely scenario. The only argument to justify maintaining a nuclear component in the alliance’s forces is the persistence of Russian tactical and strategic nuclear forces. Under such circumstances, NATO should state that the sole purpose of its nuclear weapons is to deter a potential aggressor from using nuclear weapons against it. It follows that the allied nuclear powers, and France in particular, should make the same commitment to a no-first-use policy.

By enhancing the transparency of existing stockpiles: 
France could, like the U.K., strengthen its policy of transparency on the level and composition of its nuclear arsenals. Both countries could encourage the other nuclear powers to follow suit.

By accepting negotiated constraints on the level and composition of French nuclear weapons:
Taking into consideration the disproportion between the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles on the one hand, and the stockpiles of the other nuclear powers on the other hand, it is difficult, at least at this stage, to envisage France joining a negotiation for nuclear disarmament.4Russia and the United States hold more than 95 percent of existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons A negotiated reduction of French nuclear weapons would suppose that Russia and the U.S. have already reduced their nuclear warheads of all kinds down to 1000. However, France could commit, possibly in a treaty, to freeze the level of its stockpiles by reducing the scope of its current modernisation process (M-51 missile), or even by stopping some aspects of this process completely. The utility of the airborne component of French nuclear forces could also be reviewed. We are told that because of asymmetrical threats, flexible responses are needed, and that airborne capacities allow a gradual engagement in a conflict, thus avoiding global sanctions. If this means that the heart of a regime could be targeted by precision-guided penetrating weapons capable of reaching a dictator in a hardened bunker with cruise missiles or airborne air-toground missiles, then we are much closer to a doctrine of use than of deterrence.

By supporting U.S.-Russia negotiations toward the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons:
France could support the request of 14 NATO nations, calling for the withdrawal of some 180 U.S. tactical weapons (currently designed to equip European air fighter jets), from the territories of Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, where they are positioned. This withdrawal could be conditioned upon Russia’s willingness to enter into negotiations with the U.S. on a nuclear disarmament process including tactical weapons. France always firmly opposed the removal of the U.S. deployment; not wishing to become the sole Western nuclear power left on the European continent, and thus become drafted into ‘tactical’ weapon disarmament. Indeed, for both the U.S. and Russia, the French nuclear airborne weapons can be considered ‘tactical’.

Now this opposition seems to be fading away. For the first time, in his report to the French President on “Consequences of France’s Return into NATO’s Integrated Command”, former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine clearly advocates a policy shift:

“France, which always insisted on keeping its deterrent to a minimum level, can only encourage the United States and Russia to reduce further the number of their nuclear warheads, and has no reason to oppose the elimination of the last “tactical” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons of NATO (out-of-date airborne gravity bombs). This would not in any way undermine the deterrence capabilities of the Alliance.”5Védrine, Hubert. Report for the President of the French Republic on the Consequences of France’s Return to NATO’s Integrated Military Command, on the Future of Transatlantic Relations, and the Outlook for the Europe of Defence, 14 November, 2012. http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/IMG/pdf/12-2226- Rapport_H_VEDRINE_VEN.pdf

The internal review process is underway and it is crucial that this approach become France’s new official posture.

2. Through fundamentally adapting France’s deterrence posture to the new security environment 

By explicitly recognizing that nuclear weapons no longer realise the same strategic function as they fulfilled in the Cold War i.e. that Europe is no longer exposed to a threat of massive aggression: 

The current official French doctrine describes nuclear weapons as the “ultimate guarantee of France’s national independence and of the autonomy of its strategic decisions.”6“Défense et sécurité nationale, le livre blanc.” La Documentation française/Odile Jacob: June 2008. http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rappor ts-publics/084000341/0000.pdf. In today’s world however, it is illusory to build France’s security upon a foundation of nuclear weapons possession. Currently French security principally depends on membership in the European Union, as well as inclusion in a network of alliances, agreements and interdependent relationships, all of which ensure the stability of France’s environment.

By redefining, as a consequence, the role of nuclear weapons in France’s national security strategy: 

The scenario of massive aggression against France’s vital interests with conventional means has become most unlikely. What is more, only an attack with weapons of mass destruction – meaning in practice nuclear weapons – would justify, in present circumstances, a nuclear response. France’s nuclear weapons only deter potential aggressors who would opt to use nuclear weapons against it. In order to conform with present strategic realities, it would thus be appropriate for France to cease declaring that it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons as a response to any attack on its ‘vital interests’, whatever the form of such an attack.7France asserts this right of legitimate self-defence based on Article 51 of the UN Charter. Indeed the threat of nuclear deterrence can only be credible, if it is meant to deter a possible aggressor from resorting to weapons of mass destruction – meaning at present, nuclear weapons.

By explicitly accepting the prospect of a world free of nuclear weapons:
France could, like the U.K., explicitly support the trajectory for a nuclear weapons-free world based on two conditions:

  • The initiation of a process of verified and structured reductions of the existing arsenals of all nuclear weapon-States, leading to their full elimination;
  • The strengthening of the non-proliferation regime in such a way as to prevent, if necessary through constraints, any new state from
    becoming a nuclear weapon-State.

***

Such a set of measures would constitute a historic step for France. It would enable it to achieve coherency between current practice, and its stated ambition of contributing to a reduction of tensions and disorders in the 21st century world.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • PAUL QUILÈS was the Minister of Defence of France between 1985 and 1986. He contributed this article specifically for this issue of the Nuclear Abolition Forum. He is the author of “Nuclear, a French lie: Reflections on nuclear disarmament”. Translation for this article was provided by Marc Finaud, Senior Programme Advisor, Emerging Security Challenges Programme, Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

References   [ + ]

1. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (hereafter NPT), open to signature on July 1, 1968. The May 2010 NPT Review Conference adopted an ‘Action Plan’ on the three pillars of the Treaty (disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy), and planned a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
2. Article VI of the NPT states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
3. The IAEA Additional Protocol allows inspections of undeclared nuclear activities or installations across the world.
4. Russia and the United States hold more than 95 percent of existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons
5. Védrine, Hubert. Report for the President of the French Republic on the Consequences of France’s Return to NATO’s Integrated Military Command, on the Future of Transatlantic Relations, and the Outlook for the Europe of Defence, 14 November, 2012. http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/IMG/pdf/12-2226- Rapport_H_VEDRINE_VEN.pdf
6. “Défense et sécurité nationale, le livre blanc.” La Documentation française/Odile Jacob: June 2008. http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rappor ts-publics/084000341/0000.pdf.
7. France asserts this right of legitimate self-defence based on Article 51 of the UN Charter.
Rob van Riet

About Rob van Riet

Rob van Riet is Coordinator of the Disarmament Programme at the World Future Council. In addition, he has been U.K. Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND) since 2011 and has served as the Director of the Nuclear Abolition Forum since its founding in 2011. He was a co-author of the InterParliamentary Union/PNND Parliamentary Handbook Supporting Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, released during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec City, Canada, in October 2012.

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