Nuclear-free World: Enhanced Security or Total Chaos?

This year Nobel Prize for Peace has been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that promotes the conclusion of an international treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Although there is no doubt that the consequences of nuclear weapons use would be devastating and their proliferation and seizure by terrorists present the biggest threats to global security, many countries (first of all, those that possess nuclear weapons) still insist that the total abolition of nuclear weapons will not contribute to stability either.

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The nuclear bomb that appeared at the end of the Second World War and whose destructive capacity was unveiled in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 forever changed the character of wars. The renowned physicists of the time (Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi) warned about the dangers of using nuclear technologies for military purposes. Nuclear war is an unwinnable war. As Bernard Brody, one of the founding fathers of the US deterrence strategy wrote: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them”[1]. But surprisingly, many believe that it is thanks to nuclear weapons that we have been avoiding big wars for more than seven decades.


The strategic stability between the USSR and the US that was maintained during the Cold War was based on the doctrine of “nuclear deterrence” and “mutually assured destruction”. President Eisenhower was the first US President to put “massive retaliation” and “strategic deterrence” at the core of the National Security Doctrine[2].The threat that one superpower would use nuclear weapons to repel an oversized conventional attack or the use of weapons of mass destruction was a deterrent factor preventing the other one from delivering a first strike. Although the USSR did not officially use the term “deterrence”, its military doctrine was based on the similar principles. The Soviet defence minister from 1957 till 1967, Rodion Malinovsky, indicated that, as the war could start without warning and “traditional period of threatening”, the best means for the Soviet Union to defend itself was to “warn the enemy about our strength and readiness to defeat him at the very first attempt to commit an act of aggression”[3].


The strategic stability based on “nuclear deterrence” was more or less successful in the bipolar world and prevented the military showdown between two superpowers. Only two times they came close to the brink of nuclear war: in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in 1983 when due to an outage the soviet alerting system reported the launch of US missiles, which could have ended up with a retaliatory strike. These two incidents proved the need for coordinated disarmament policy and the improvement of early warning systems to avoid “accidental” nuclear strikes.


Today nuclear deterrence seems to be an obsolete legacy of the Cold War due to the new character of global threats and the increase in a number of countries that officially possess nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons become ineffective in the fight against terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and other transnational threats. Nevertheless, the nuclear weapon has not only remained in the arsenal of retaliation measures but also acquired new objectives of use. After 9/11 the US admitted the possibility of nuclear “pre-emption” – pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against an adversary intending to use weapons of mass destruction against the US. The use of nuclear weapons can thus take place at a much lower intensity level than it was during the Cold War[4].


Seeing the steps of its former antagonist and proclaimed partner, Russia did not reduce the role of its nuclear weapons either. The document “Main Principles of Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation” published in 1993 did not anymore contain the obligation not to use the nuclear weapon first assumed by the USSR. In the Concept of National Security adopted in 1997, the term “deterrence” was officially used as an instrument of preventing aggression against Russia[5]. The country’s Military Doctrine asserts its right to use nuclear weapons “in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”[6].


Other nuclear powers are not ready to scarify their “main” weapon either and steer clear from assuming disarmament obligations. Only Russia and the US have been steadily moving toward the reduction of their strategic nuclear forces and the maintenance of parity. The latest treaty was signed in 2010 amid “the reset” of their relations. What is more, nuclear weapons are considered as a guarantee of the real sovereignty, where from the desire of some nations, especially those engaged in longstanding conflicts like India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, to possess nuclear weapons.


At the same time, the international community is becoming more conscious about the threat of possession, proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, which was embodied in the idea of nuclear-free world advocated by the ICAN. The first leader who put forward the idea of a nuclear-free world was Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. This idea flows organically from the Soviet leader’s new political thinking which the main goal was to avert the threat of nuclear war. It was one of the main subjects discussed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during their historical meeting in Reykjavik in 1986. Practical steps followed the discussions: the elimination of intermediate- and short-range missiles in conformity with INF Treaty (1986) and the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons after the START Treaty was signed (1991). The idea was revived in the 2000s. For instance, Barak Obama made it one of the subjects of this presidential campaign and, later in his Prague speech, promised to ensure “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”[7].

Nevertheless, we have to admit that today the world seems to be further from the nuclear-free ideal than it was in the beginning of the 90s. The former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, used a telling metaphor to define this trend –“the half-open window to a nuclear-free world is about to close”[8]. Why did we move backwards in our aspirations for a nuclear-free world? As it was explained in the article written by a team of renowned Russian politicians and scholars, the nuclear-free world does not equal today’s world less nuclear weapons[9]. In other words, the whole international system has to be reformed in order to make the total elimination of nuclear weapons possible. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US was trying to assert its status as the only superpower acting unilaterally and building up its military power. What is more, in 2002 the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and proceeded to the deployment of ABM systems in Europe. Russia reiterated on a number of occasions that these steps undermine strategic stability and lead to a new arms race[10].


Therefore, it is too early to speak about the adoption of any legally binding universal agreement on the elimination of nuclear weapons because the countries that possess it will not be simply ready to sign it. However, should we ever come close to the nuclear-free world, it needs to be entrenched in a universal treaty. The Convention on Chemical Weapons can serve as an example of a non-discriminatory international treaty that prohibits not only the use but also the possession and production of chemical weapons. 193 countries signed the treaty, making it a universal instrument preventing the catastrophe of chemical weapons use. The treaty also provides the mechanisms of verification assured by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The success of the Convention was recognized in 2013 when the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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The road to the prohibition of chemical weapons was not smooth and fast. The road to the nuclear-free world will not be easy either. The intention of nuclear disarmament was already fixed in the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968[11]. The cornerstone laid, we must not accelerate the pace, as it is fraught with the destabilization of the world order. The treaty advocated by ICAN and adopted by 122 nations on July 7, 2017, cannot have any tangible impact since the nine nuclear states did not participate in the negotiations and sign the document. They clarified their position later. The United States pointed out the need to maintain nuclear weapons in the face of North-Korean threat, while also restating in a joint statement with France and the United Kingdom their adherence to nuclear deterrence “which has been essential to keeping peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years”[12]. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia declared that the treaty was contrary to the interests of the country[13]. On the other hand, it did not deny the idea of a nuclear-free world but in the long run.

Today the world is in an ambiguous and dangerous situation. On the one hand, there is a growing threat that nuclear materials will end up in hands of terrorists. The total abandonment of nuclear weapons would reduce this danger. On the other hand, in order to come to “global zero,” we need to obtain the consent of all the nations, including those that already officially possess a nuclear weapon and those that try to get it in disregard of the NPT. In actual circumstances, it seems to be an impossible task. Nuclear weapons are considered as an attribute of power and a guarantee of security. But it does not mean that the efforts of ICAN are fruitless and the treaty signed on July 7 will go unheeded. It testifies the growing worry of the international community and gives signals to nuclear states that steps should be taken.


Maria Tonkova

ex-student, Moscow State University of International Relations, Russia.




[1]Brodie, Bernard, and Frederick Sherwood Dunn. The absolute weapon: atomic power and world order. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

[2]Colucci, Lamont. The national security doctrines of the American presidency how they shape our present and future. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2012. P. 345.

[3] Р.Я. Малиновский «Бдительностоятьнастражемира», М.: Воениздат, 1962. (Malinovsky, Radion. To guard the world vigilantly. Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1962. P. 25.)

[4]Warren, Aiden. Prevention, pre-emption and the nuclear option: from Bush to Obama. London: Routledge, 2012.

[5]The Concept of the Natioanl Security of the Russian Federation. URL:

[6] The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, December 25, 2014. URL:

[7] Obama launches doctrine for nuclear free world. In: The Guardian, April 5, 2009. URL:

[8]TASS, June 7, 2016. URL:

[9]Izvestiya, October 15, 2010. URL:

[10]Russia’s approach to nuclear disarmament issues, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. URL:

[11]The Non-Proliferation Treaty. URL:

[12] Joint Press Statement from the Permanent Representatives to the United

Nations of the United States, United Kingdom and France following the

adoption of a treaty banning nuclear weapons

[13] The interview with the head of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Armaments Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Commersant, September 12, 2017. URL:

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