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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 15, May 1997

Evolutionary versus Planned Approaches to Nuclear Disarmament
by William Walker

Author's note: what follows is a presentation given at the Joint Seminar on Asian Security held in New Delhi on 23-24 January 1997 by the United Services Institution of India and the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, London.


Nuclear disarmament has always been on the international agenda, and it has never been on the international agenda. To be more precise, it has been spoken about and dreamt about for over fifty years, but it has never been embraced by the policy communities that matter in the nation States with serious nuclear weapon programmes. Especially during the Cold War, the belief that nuclear weapons deterred war became deeply entrenched within these communities.

This situation has both changed and not changed in recent times. Comprehensive nuclear disarmament is being advocated by governments and non-governmental organisations, and by people of all kinds, with an insistence that is unprecedented. They are demanding action, and an end to prevarication. Despite this pressure, the elites that decide nuclear weapon policy, whether in London, Washington, Beijing or New Delhi, still show no enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament. They may lend rhetorical support to the idea, but they will not embrace it and take steps to implement it.

This lack of enthusiasm may partly be put down to inertia. Bureaucracies have been established, money expended, facilities built, equipment deployed and careers nurtured over decades in the countries that have active nuclear weapon programmes. In addition, the possession of nuclear weapons has become bound up with those countries' self-esteem. As recent events have shown, the phenomenon of 'nuclear nationalism' remains very much alive in France, India and Russia, and even in Britain where nuclear disarmament has become a taboo in political parties that once espoused it. They fear that even to mention it would incite popular reactions in favour of nuclear weapons, and cast doubts over their commitments to national security.

However, the main reason for the resistance of policy elites to disarmament, and for their ability to mount effective campaigns against it within the corridors of power, is that satisfactory answers have not yet been given to three fundamental questions.

1. Would nuclear disarmament increase or decrease national, regional and global security?

2. What exactly is entailed by nuclear disarmament - what is being disarmed, and when has whatever is being disarmed finally been disarmed?

3. How do we get from here to there safely and securely, and once in the condition of disarmament how can we collectively ensure that we all stay there (that is, how can the international community guard against the possibility of 'break-outs')?

Unhappily, there are no clear, unambiguous answers to these questions. Indeed, there cannot be such answers at present. The end of the Cold War is too recent to tell whether relations between great powers can remain peaceful without some vestige of nuclear deterrence; the dismantling and re-regulation of the vast US and Russian nuclear infrastructures have to go much further before judgements can be made about the final condition that will be called 'disarmament'; there needs to be confidence that the process of disarmament will not, at certain stages and in certain contexts, increase insecurity; and as yet there is no agreement on how to mount an effective guard against break-out during disarmament and after it has been achieved. Uncertainty is inherent to the current situation.

The two approaches to nuclear disarmament

There are two broad approaches to comprehensive nuclear disarmament. For want of better terms, I shall refer to them as the planned and evolutionary approaches.

The planned approach (which embraces the time-bound approach) defines a terrain and chooses, in advance, the route across it. It sets target dates for disarmament, identifies all necessary steps to move from here to there, and envisages all countries marching together - arms linked - to the finishing line. Its great appeal lies firstly in its clarity and finality, since the sequences are pre-ordained and must be completed by a given date; secondly in its apparent equity, since all countries must participate and be reduced to the same final condition; and thirdly in the moral, principled quality with which it is often infused. If it is self-evident that we should be trying to create a world free of nuclear weapons for our children and grand-children, why the hesitation about tying ourselves to a definite procedure and time-scale?

However appealing, the planned approach has serious disadvantages. It assumes that clear answers can be given, here and now, to the three questions alluded to above. It assumes that the necessary institutions and measures can be fully developed, and that the resources can be assembled, to enable disarmament to be implemented over the chosen time-scale. And it assumes that policy elites that have hitherto resisted nuclear disarmament will have a sudden revelation - they will all recognise the errors of their ways and act accordingly. By definition, only one nation State has to disagree with the project of comprehensive nuclear disarmament for it to be aborted.

The evolutionary approach is the alternative. Although planning would not be absent, this approach would be relatively open-ended and involve a gradual, step-by-exploratory-step, process of searching, learning and implementation. It recognises the inherent complexity of nuclear disarmament, the prior need to attend to a variety of security issues that are linked to the nuclear question (including imbalances in conventional forces), and it is open to the whole spectrum of national, bilateral, multilateral and global courses of action. It also recognises that the time required to prepare the ground for nuclear disarmament, let alone to achieve disarmament, may stretch into decades. For example, it may take thirty or more years to extend full international safeguards over the huge stocks of fissile materials in the nuclear-weapon States, and to reduce those stocks to manageable proportions through disposition programmes.

In practice, an evolutionary process of sorts has already been in operation. Although disarmament has not been universally accepted as the final objective, the steps taken since the end of the Cold War have led, cumulatively, to the gradual marginalisation and demobilisation of nuclear weapons, especially within the East-West context. This evolutionary process has involved, amongst other things, deep reductions in the numbers of operational warheads and launch vehicles, the elimination of whole categories of weapons (especially tactical weapons), the de-targeting and reduced readiness of nuclear weapons, the closure of production facilities, and the banning of nuclear explosive tests. If this gradual marginalisation and 'imprisonment' of nuclear weapons persists, which it surely will, the conditions in which true disarmament can be contemplated will gradually be established.

However, the evolutionary approach also has disadvantages. Three stand out:

i) Lack of clarity and energy

Precisely because it is comparatively fuzzy and open-ended, the evolutionary approach lacks popular appeal, and may lack sufficient energy. It does not satisfy the impatience in us all. And wherever there is lack of clarity over intentions, even amounting to deliberate ambiguity, there is scope for mistrust and, for that matter, the exploitation of mistrust. Furthermore, an evolutionary approach is inherently more reversible: to invite trust, it must be attended at every stage by commitments to irreversibility.

ii) Uneven distribution of costs and benefits

In political and security terms, some States may gain more, or lose less, than other States from specific evolutionary measures. Indeed, what is deemed evolutionary by some may appear revolutionary to others. This has certainly been the predominant Indian perception of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) - that the nuclear-weapon States' abilities to deploy nuclear weapons will be hardly affected while India's abilities will be severely constrained if the CTBT acquires force. This may be an extreme case, but the obvious asymmetries in the sizes, maturity and scope of the extant nuclear weapon programmes make some disparities in costs and benefits unavoidable.

iii) Domination by the P5

The evolutionary marginalisation of nuclear weapons is being driven, and its extent and ambition are largely determined, by the five acknowledged nuclear-weapon States (P5), and by the United States in particular, with the encouragement and support of the majority of non-nuclear-weapon States. A way of bringing India, Pakistan and Israel fully into the decision-making process that underlies it has not been found. This may be attributed partly to the P5's unwillingness to confer prestige on those States' weapon programmes, partly to the distinctive situations in which they find themselves (not least concerning their relations with the NPT), and partly to those States' reluctance to join a process that may lead to the sidelining of nuclear weapons in political and strategic relations with neighbouring States.

Concluding remarks

It will not be easy to find a clear and consensual path to nuclear disarmament. There are no neat solutions. Let me make four observations in conclusion.

Firstly, the evolutionary approach will prevail. It will do so not because it is the preferred strategy of the P5, but because it has inherent managerial and strategic advantages.

Secondly, we need to bring greater clarity to this process, making it more explicit in both its objectives and its effects. If trust is to be established and sustained there is need, in particular, for a stronger commitment by the acknowledged and de facto nuclear-weapon States (NWS) to the ultimate achievement of nuclear disarmament, and for a clearer delineation of the processes by which it will be achieved. Hitherto, the evolutionary approach has been attractive to the NWS partly because the final objective - disarmament or low-level deterrence - has not had to be decided or declared. This obfuscation is becoming more difficult to sustain. But we should not begin to impose straightjackets: flexibility is essential. Nor should we expect that all parties must necessarily sign up to all measures at all times. Freedom of association has to be respected, although the pressures to conform will naturally increase as the state of disarmament comes nearer.

Thirdly, two sets of political, economic and strategic relations - between the USA and Russia (and NATO and Russia), and between the USA and China - will ultimately decide progress in marginalising and then eliminating nuclear weapons. The reality is that the two countries represented at this conference (India and the UK) are comparatively peripheral actors, and will have a correspondingly minor influence on outcomes in the long run, even if both have considerable opportunities for constructive or obstructive interventions. Relations between the USA and Russia seem again to be on a good track. Despite the problems with the ratification of START II in the Russian Duma, it is likely that the negotiation of START III will begin soon, and that its scope will be even broader than its predecessors. Furthermore, the difficulties over NATO expansion may soon be behind us, the likely consequence being that nuclear weapons will have even less prominent roles in military strategies in the European and Atlantic domains.

Relations between the USA and China invite greater caution. China's nuclear objectives remain enigmatic. Nevertheless, China has moved a long way towards cooperation on nuclear arms control over the past decade, especially since joining the NPT in 1992. There has been a particularly impressive increase in the Chinese policy community's engagement in dialogue with US and other governmental and non-governmental organisations in the past year or two. This may betoken an even deeper commitment to collective security, at least in regard to weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, complete nuclear disarmament will require the establishment of a sophisticated and watertight multilateral control regime. In terms of practical politics, this regime can only evolve out of the current nuclear non-proliferation regime. Indeed, many of the instruments of non-proliferation - such as the legal renunciation of nuclear weapons, verification techniques (notably safeguards), trade controls and sanctions - will be essential to the achievement of nuclear disarmament. The great task ahead is to enable the non-proliferation regime to be transformed, again through an evolutionary process, into a regime that is capable of implementing disarmament.

Postscript (May 1997)

During my visit to India in January, I was fortunate in having the opportunity to discuss nuclear affairs with many Indian experts, including high-ranking government officials and military officers. In private, none of them espoused a time-bound approach to nuclear disarmament. When quizzed, they acknowledged that time-bound disarmament was unrealistic and that India's advocacy of it was primarily political. But they also expressed severe impatience with, and mistrust of, the five nuclear-weapon States' attitudes towards disarmament. They did not trust them to move beyond a policy of limited marginalisation. Thus they exhibited a lack of faith, which we probably all share to some degree, in both the time-bound and evolutionary approaches to nuclear disarmament as currently constituted. The latter approach will need much more definition, backed by greater commitment to its final purpose, before an international consensus can form around it. This is the challenge that we all now face.

William Walker is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He is author of 'India's Nuclear Labyrinth' (Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1996) and co-author, with David Albright and Frans Berkhout, of SIPRI's 'Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies'.

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