Do weapons of mass destruction make us safer?

no nuclear

In his 2018 Disarmament Agenda, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres argued that many people wrongly believe that weapons of mass destruction make us safer, and it’s not difficult to see why.

In much the same way as you wouldn’t want to pick on a six-foot-tall bodybuilder, threatening a state in possession of nuclear weapons is unsurprisingly unappealing. But have we missed the point here, and is possession of nuclear weapons doing more harm than good? I spoke to Dr Olamide Samuel, Project Coordinator for the Strategic Concept for Removal of Arms and Proliferation, to find out more.

First of all, are people really wrong to believe that weapons of mass destruction make us safer?

I think people are wrong to think that. If you think about the concept of security, being safe can be defined as the absence of fear and danger but also of want and oppression. Put simply, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) cannot bring this to people, so why do states still believe in their use? 

When we think about security, we tend to think about the individual, whereas national security prioritises the state. WMDs do make states more secure, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the protection of their people.

That’s interesting, because lots of us in our daily lives aren’t thinking of the threat of WMDs at all, whereas if we think back to the Cold War that was probably very different. Would you say that we’re in a situation now that’s comparable to the Cold War in any way?

I think in many respects we are, purely by the continued presence of WMDs. Perhaps not as much attention is given to WMDs as terrorism, but they’re still a significant threat. I think people will also have the perception, probably from the media, that the use and deployment of WMDs is subject to a lot of scrutiny, but in reality we’ve faced over 75 close calls since 1945, including accidents and false alarms, so we’re definitely still in a status of alert.

It’s interesting that you say that the individual is not safer with WMDs – thinking back to Jeremy Corbyn’s last general election campaign, I remember in one of the TV debates the audience were really trying to force him to say that he would push the nuclear button and he refused. My impression is that that damaged his campaign, so do you think people don’t have an understanding of what is at stake here?

I think people are misinformed about the dangers that WMDs pose, and also you have to give it to Corbyn, he can be quite stubborn with regards to certain issues. What’s interesting about Trident is that it’s causing a lot of brain drain, a lot of human capital and resources are entangled in it that could be better utilised elsewhere. Corbyn has actually been a member of the CND campaign since 1966 and he is onto something here. He’s suggested that about 11,000 jobs could be created if we were to shut down the Trident system through ‘defence diversification’.

Could you explain a bit more about that – do you think we’d be better off with disarmament in ways besides international security?

We’d be better off in a myriad of ways. The disarmament process enables states to end the spiral of increased military spending between themselves because of the false perception that acquiring increased security measures is a threat to others. This includes initiatives to make sure that states know what each other is doing and understand that the acquisition of military capability by one state is not meant to be an offensive posture, so the likelihood of interstate conflict is reduced.

Now we have to be rational, we’re not going to be able to wipe out all weapons, but we are saying that we should have the bare minimum.

I think that’s a really important point about what states think each other are doing, and there’s a deep mistrust, which is one of the problems of WMDs. Do you think that mistrust is there because we have the weapons, or do we have the weapons because of a lack of trust?

It’s almost a chicken before the egg scenario. All I can say is the increased acquisition of weapons by one actor erodes existing trust. We can argue that some states have acquired nuclear weapons because of a lack of trust in other states, but that would be false. In actual fact, the acquisition of nuclear weapons has been linked more to a sense of national pride in acquiring the ultimate deterrent weapon.

The biggest, baddest weapon?

Exactly, I mean Trump has the biggest red button to push… What’s interesting when we look at non-nuclear weapon states is that the reason they want other states to disarm is of course partly because of the existential threat they pose, but also the question of unequal sovereignty. If states that do have nuclear weapons wanted to acquire them, they either have to withdraw from the treaty and go rogue, or follow the provisions of the treaty. Whereas states that already have nuclear weapons are expected to disarm at some point in the future, and this obligation has not been met.

It’s interesting that the states that have nuclear weapons haven’t signed the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – can change be made if the states involved refuse to sign the treaty?

The problem with the treaty is that it’s very aspirational, so when you look at the text of that treaty you kind of get a sense that it’s more symbolic – I don’t think it will result in significant change in the near future.

And how do you think we can achieve that change? Recently I’ve been really struck by the Extinction Rebellion protests, and there is a link to be made there that we all knew about climate change for decades and decades, but it’s only now that people are sitting up and taking notice of it and all of a sudden we’re declaring a climate crisis. Do you think something like that could happen for WMDs?

The main difference between Extinction Rebellion and the Paris agreements is that we’re actually living the climate emergency, in the sense that coastal countries are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change, so there are certain places in the world where the loss of life has reached that threshold where people have to act.

However, when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have seen instances of chemical weapons used, but we have fewer examples to go on. To get popular support for this, you have to think back to the Cold War period, where people felt this could happen at any time, this could happen tomorrow. It’s almost too big for us to understand – we still have tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan made people more aware of them when there was a confrontation between them a few months ago, and India and Pakistan have around 350 nuclear warheads – it takes only about 100 nuclear warheads to be detonated for the world to experience a global winter. But we have tens of thousands of them. Still, people don’t really see it as a possibility.

So your part in this desire to see disarmament happen is that you’re project coordinator for SCRAP, could you tell me a little more about what SCRAP does?

So SCRAP, the Strategic Concept for Removal of Arms and Proliferation, is a very ambitious project that takes a holistic approach to disarmament where we look at conventional weapons, demilitarisation, nuclear and bacteriological weapons. We look at well-documented best practice and prior treaties to find the most effective way to approach disarmament.

The SCRAP treaty, if implemented, would be the most audacious but most effective treaty for disarmament. On the other hand, the SCRAP project engages with a lot of outreach programmes: we’re currently working with Oxfam and the UN to raise awareness of the issue. We’re aware of the concerns of states, and take a step by step approach to ease tensions between countries and eventually enable disarmament.That’s us in a nutshell, but we have a lot more information on our website and Twitter.

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