It’s quite fascinating to observe the global conversation on nuclear weapons. It resembles a simple pendulum oscillation with a time period of ten years.
Back in 2009, the then US president pledged to seek an arms reduction treaty with Russia, ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and convene a global summit to discuss the eventual elimination of nuclear stockpiles. It was the first time that a US president spoke of a roadmap for nuclear disarmament.
And yet that goal seems even more distant nine years later. An excellent article titled ‘The Vanishing Nuclear Taboo‘ in The Foreign Affairs describes the situation well:
After decades of arms control agreements, security cooperation, and a growing consensus about the unacceptability of nuclear weapons, the world is now headed in the opposite direction. Geopolitical tensions have heightened. New arms races have started. States have reverted to valorizing nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo is weakening. But nothing about this is inevitable; it is a choice our leaders have made. Nuclear disarmament will have to be a long-term project. Today’s decision-makers may not be able to complete the task, but they have an obligation to pursue it.
The taboo is vanishing fast. Apart from the usual suspects, the European states have also changed their tones. This excellent paper gives an idea of the possible scenarios in Europe that seem likely as a result of the ongoing churn. While rejecting the idea of a single European deterrent, the paper argues that the following scenarios appear realistic:
- In the current context, Paris can consider extending nuclear deterrence to Europe as a whole including rotations of Rafale fighter-bombers (without their nuclear missiles) to allied bases across Europe.
- If the US-Europe relationship worsens further, France can consider these options:
- base part of its airborne arsenal (say, in the order of ten missiles) in Germany or in Poland (basing) and/or agree that they could be carried by European fighter-bombers (sharing).
- replace the NATO SNOWCAT (Support of NATO Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) procedure with an identical European one, where non-nuclear nations commit themselves to participate in a nuclear strike with non-nuclear assets.
- create the possibility of a European nuclear maritime task force, with accompanying European ships and, possibly, a European nuclear squadron based on it.
The fact that such themes are even being discussed seriously in Europe is just another indication of the fact that the NPT regime is falling apart. Consequently, the terms of the debate now need to shift from the ambitious goal of zero nuclear weapons to the more realistic goal of nuclear restraint by a global commitment towards no first use and by taking weapons off high alert to reduce possibilities of accidental use.
The terms of the nuclear weapons debate are definitely up for a change; it would be interesting to see which nation-state will declare itself as the next nuclear power. Any guesses?