James ActonDebating Disarmament

Last September, George Perkovich and I published an Adelphi Paper, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, which attempted to identify the challenges of getting to zero and how they might be overcome. Most of all, however, it called for serious international debate on the subject.

We have made an effort to catalyze such debate with our new book Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate. This book reproduces the original Adelphi Paper, followed by 17 responses from officials, analysts and authors representing 13 countries (nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear-weapon states). The volume ends with a concluding essay by George and me. And, it’s all available free of charge from here!

We made a real effort to have a broad spectrum of opinion with authors including Jonathan Schell, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Frank Miller, Scott Sagan and President Ernesto Zedillo.

As well as a lot of content, there are also some great pieces of writing. Let me share a couple of my favourites.

Sir Lawrence Freedman on the need for greater public engagement:

As things stand now, if governments start dragging their feet, it is hard to imagine vocal demands and public demonstration to get the process back on track. If nationalist politicians start to insist that their country is being duped into putting national security at risk, it is just as likely that demands to slow down would follow. As long as talk of abolition remains the diplomatic equivalent of easy-listening elevator music, and as political leaders remember to assert their belief in a world without war and weapons—and, while they’re at it, no more poverty and disease either—few will pay attention. Only as the talk becomes serious will public debate open up, and properly so. Depending on the political system, dissent from the official line may be vigorous and open or cryptic and furtive. In all cases, the course of the debate will be influenced by the interaction with whatever happens to be on the public agenda at the time and the passing concerns of the moment.

Zia Mian on the problem with framing the disarmament debate in terms of security:

Some arguments that policy makers may advance for abolition will certainly conflict with long-standing official narratives of national security that have served to justify a role for nuclear weapons. These arguments may trigger debates about what, if anything, could fill the nuclear-weapon shaped hole that would result from the abolition of nuclear weapons. The pursuit of disarmament may become tied to the search for reassurance through technological, strategic, and political substitutes for nuclear weapons. Other arguments for abolition may claim that eliminating nuclear weapons would not actually undermine the security calculation of a nuclear-armed state, but would in fact strengthen its position relative to rivals and in the international system. Such an argument could complicate efforts by some other states to make a case for disarming.

In addition, St. Anthony’s International Review has also joined the debate by publishing an excellent critique of our Adelphi Paper by Elbridge Colby and a response by us. Again, all available free of charge and worthwhile too because this exchange really helps crystalize an important aspect of the wider debate, in my opinion.



  1. Major Lemon (History)

    As I understand it Professor Freedman thinks that if you are a “nationalist politician” who believes unilateral disarmament to be impractical or irresponsible then your opinions are not welcome. That’s not a very liberal point of view but please someone, tell me if I’ve misunderstood him.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I haven’t read his piece, but in the one day workshop that New America and Brookings hosted at Kings, in which he was a participant, he didn’t say anything of the sort.

  3. James Acton (History)

    Major Lemon: Yes, I think you are misreading him. He is describing the likely dynamics of the debate not stating that such opinions shouldn’t be heard. In fact, the general thrust of his whole argument is about the need to debate the topic seriously.

    By the way: Who ever said anything about unilateral disarmament? The vast majority of us who are serious about making progress towards zero believe that if it is ever possible to abolish nuclear weapons, it could only ever be on a multilateral basis.

  4. Paul Stokes (History)

    If Colby’s critique is any indication, your book must be excellent.

    Colby doesn’t seem to consider the view expressed by Les Aspin that, since the demise of the Soviet Union, we are better off in a world without nuclear weapons. It seems likely that the longer we claim to need nukes, the more others will also find it necessary to have them. I don’t think that’s a good trend.

    I really don’t accept the notion that something tantamount to a world government is needed in a nuclear-free world. The UN should do just fine.

  5. Stephen Young (History)

    I went immediately to the two pieces I thought most likely to be critical of zero. Frank Miller’s piece is a standard old-think diatribe. Brad Roberts’ is unsurprisingly more thoughtful, and worth a read.

  6. Sam Roggeveen (History)

    Sir Lawrenece Freedman gave a speech on this subject to the Lowy Institute for International Policy yesterday, which may throw some light on the debate above. You can listen here:


  7. mike

    James – is this also available in print? If not, perhaps you could suggest to the powers that be they also make titles like this available on lulu.com at no markup for those who might wish to read it as hard copy (and are willing to pay 10 bucks or so).


  8. Major Lemon (History)

    Any form of ‘disarmament policy’ as a category of strategic thought is of course interesting but it is surely far from being one of the West’s priorities. Who could be surprised Professor Freedman finds only “easy-listening elevator music” with regard the subject? I am a bit ruffled however when he talks about a ‘world without war and weapons’ as if it were weapons and not people that make war. The main strategic issue of our day is the P word: proliferation. How to stop the emerging pariahs of the world acquiring the means to impose their will on the rest of the planet. This is not, in the Professor’s words just one of the “passing concerns of the moment”. We have an urgent duty to ourselves and future generations not to allow ourselves to be side tracked. If those politicians, military and intelligence leaders burdened with the task of trying to deal with this real crisis prefer to avoid being distracted by whimsical utopian fantasy by playing ‘elevator music’, then I say keep playing. No disrespect to the venerable Professor intended of course.

  9. MWG

    I support the idea of concerted efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, but I think if it as a means, not an end. In my view, the end goal is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. Since having nuclear weapons entails the risk they will be used, elimination is the only reliable way to prevent their use.

  10. yousaf

    I haven’t read the response piece but I think “getting to X” (where X~10)is probably a necessary pre-condition to “getting-to-zero”. Hawks will always pooh-pooh and shoot down attempts that advocate immediately getting to zero.

    I have a letter in today’s IHT on the subject for those who may be interested.

  11. Major Lemon (History)

    Arms control is a rational, obtainable and worthwhile subject of debate. When the discussion turns to disarmament one is truly surprised how far decent highly educated well meaning people allow their idealism to take leave of their commonsense. The truth is there are evil men in this world void of the kind of moral scruples most of us here have. For the foreseeable future we need what ever means is available to us to contain their ambitions.

  12. James Acton (History)

    Mike: There are some hard copies, which we are giving out at events etc. If you can make it to the Carnegie Conference you’ll be able to get one there!

  13. James Acton (History)

    Major Lemon: Two points.

    First, I agree with you about the dangers posed by proliferation. What fundamentally motivates me to urge action on disarmament is the belief that it will not be possible to create the consensus necessary to strengthen the non-proliferation regime without a genuine, good faith commitment, by the weapon states to zero as the goal.

    Second, ‘making progress toward zero’ does not mean unilateral disarmament or steps without regard to the security environment. It means doing it in a way to enhance global security but with the recognition that the ultimate aim is zero. If you haven’t read our original Adelphi Paper (reproduced in section 1 of the new book), give it a look over. I think its approach to disarmament might surprise you.

  14. ij reilly (History)

    why do we want fewer nuclear weapons? seems to me that the empirical data suggest a decline in interstate violence, especially between armed states.

  15. James (History)

    For once, I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Acton. Disarmament and non-proliferation are inextricably linked. They are linked legally by the NPT itself, morally by the principle of equal rights, and politically because the states whose support is desperately needed for nonproliferation efforts have a different agenda. That agenda is disarmament.

    Quid pro quo. The US cannot expect other nations to exert themselves in support of its security policy unless it takes their security concerns seriously. Outside the bubble of American domestic politics, multilateral disarmament is considered viable, relevant, and necessary. The US cannot afford to ignore the issue, and attempting to defeat such a popular idea would mean allowing global leadership to pass to America’s adversaries.

    Moreover, now is an excellent time to take up the cause. There has never been a better time, in fact. All of the nuclear weapons states (with the possible exception of China) have gone through a long post-Cold War period of mend-and-make-do with their strategic weapons programs. There is a crying need for recapitalization of their delivery systems, which would cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the US and tens of billions in Europe and Russia. With a global economic downturn putting pressure on defense budgets, even generals and admirals are hard-put enough to take another look at nuclear disarmament.

    With an overwhelming preponderance of conventional superiority, explicit or implicit strategic partnerships with the majority of other advanced economies, and a strong lead in nearly every other technology category, the US would be the primary beneficiary of disarmament.
    Nuclear weapons favor the weaker party by allowing them to achieve strategic parity at relatively low cost. This is the reason the Tokugawa shoguns banned firearms and the British Empire attempted to ban submarines at the Washington Naval Conference. Not because they were fuzzy-thinking Utopians, but because such a ban enabled them to maintain their advantage against asymmetrical threats.

    The NPT is fundamentally an unequal treaty that only survives because of the whimsical idealist Utopian beliefs of the designated second-class signatories. Their forbearance cannot be taken for granted, nor will it endure indefinitely. The nuclear states made a firm promise to “negotiate in good faith” towards the abolition of nuclear weapons. The Cold War is over; the geopolitical situation has never been more favorable. They are obligated to make the attempt “in good faith.” If they fail to do so, the treaty has been abrogated and will wither away. How will that help nonproliferation?

  16. Lugo (History)

    Doesn’t seem like much of a “debate”, inasmuch as the anti-abolition view (or pro-nuclear, if you prefer) seems rather underrepresented in this work…

  17. Ozy (History)

    A small question:
    Why should a medium-sized nuclear power give up nukes? The way I see it, it makes no sense.
    The US has an interest in nuclear disarmament. Its overwhelming conventional superiority could be used to its full potential without the threat of nuclear retaliation from a weaker power.

    But the others? What’s in it for them?

  18. Distiller (History)

    Sorry, don’t see the whole approach as realistic. Honorable, but not realistic.

    Nuclear weapons are out of the sack, no way to put them back in again. There is no way to verify that “the other” doesn’t have them. And if he has them, it would give him an unacceptable power over those who don’t.

    And there is also no way around the fact, that large conventional wars are made basically impossible by nuclear weapons.

    Any discussion would have to be more technically detailed. Like: Strategic, land tactical, sea tactical, &c. Which class of weapons are more dangerous, more likely to be used, more likely to be abolishable?

    I think a low-ish limit on strategic nuclear weapon systems is achieveable – not zero, though. And also not too low, as “conspiracy” scenarios of multiple-versus-one require a certain level of survivability via numbers.

    And that advanced conventional weapons can replace most tactical nuclear weapons, but not all.
    But it is exactly those smaller warheads that might be actually used first (e.g. bunker busting, naval warfare, area denial), and between the major powers only the strategic weapons can keep that from happening.

  19. Major Lemon (History)

    James, I take your point although there is still a shopping list of objections. One of them is the ‘close to zero’ concept. Small numbers of nuclear weapons according to classical theory at any rate is destabilizing because it encourages first strikes. I doubt this theory is obsolete and there is a scary feeling it could soon tested in case of Israel and Iran.

  20. Major Lemon (History)

    Yet another objection is the terminology. The term “multilateral disarmament” is ambiguous. Unless disarmament is universal it could be 3 states out of 50 disarming or 40 out of 50 states which is a form of “unilateral disarmament multiplied several fold” because you are left with a residue of powers with the ability to attack the parties who have disarmed. A better term could be “universal disarmament” which is more specific, rational and might sound more inspirational making it more achievable, particularly if the public get to hear of it.

  21. Major Lemon (History)

    I write the above slightly tongue in cheek because yet another objection is what we call “the public”. There are large segments of humanity whose ideology and connection to the rest of us is largely controlled and curtailed by totalitarian governments. This is unlikely to change in the forseeable future if ever. When notable writers and academics call for ‘public debate’ this itself is unobtainable except within democracies. The nature of any debate can therefore be only limited. How much more so limited will be the goal of disarmament they seek through debate.

  22. kme

    Lugo: That’s because it’s not a debate on the desirability or otherwise of “getting to zero”. That debate is a parallel one, ongoing in other forums. Instead, it’s a debate on how best to get to zero and stay there, and if it is in fact possible.

  23. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Since the end of the cold war, it seems to me that the quality of arms discussion has really declined. No longer do you see discussion of the interplay of nuclear weapons with conventional arms. Europe is a perfect example where the nuclear standoff restrained the movements of the NATO and Warsaw Pact armies. Additionally, it would be the clashing of those conventional forces that would most likely trigger a nuclear exchange.

    Is there anybody in disarmament who gives a rational discussion of how a multipolar world without nuclear arms would avoid starting a large conventional war that would spiral to a nuclear war with weapons made after the war starts and the treaties disolve while nations fight for their existence? It seems to me that the interplay of conventional and nuclear forces allows for a posture that makes deterrence really work. You communicate with conventional exercises and nuclear alert level.

    We should reduce our nuclear stockpiles, they no longer reflect the real need of any of the major powers. A massive reduction and lowering of alert would be more reflective of our time. Additionally it would give escalation room in the future without bringing things to the dangerous levels a change in alert would require today.

    If anybody has any references to disarmament along these lines I’d love to read it, but it seems I have not come across any in depth since the 1980’s.


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