Challenging the Dominance of Nuclear Weapon States: Q&A with Zia Mian

United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power (left), Japanese ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa (center), and South Korean ambassador Oh Joon speak after a Security Council session on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. March 2, 2016, New York. (Bebeto Matthews/UN Photo)

North Korea is expected to test ballistic missiles again this week, as it continues to pursue the ability to transport nuclear warheads within range of the United States.

While most attention continues to focus on the actions of Pyongyang and also Tehran, Zia Mian, Director of Princeton University’s Project on Peace and Security in South Asia, points out that the five nuclear weapon states comprising the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are also modernizing their nuclear arsenals.

“Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation is at a crisis point,” Dr. Mian said, in a conversation with the International Peace Institute’s Jimena Leiva Roesch. He said the world needed to simultaneously rethink the dominance of nuclear weapon states and the structure of the multilateral system.

This interview took place on the margins of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism’s retreat on weapons of mass destruction, non-proliferation, and disarmament, held in Geneva, Switzerland.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

From your perspective as a nuclear scientist and researcher on peace and security issues, how do you see the future of disarmament and nonproliferation in the multilateral system?

Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation is at a crisis point, in the same way that the multilateral system itself is at a crisis point. Both the existing system of nuclear weapons in the world, and the multilateral system, are now 70 years old. And the context within which decisions are being made and who is making these decisions has not kept pace with the change that has actually happened in the world.

Today the five nuclear-weapon states who are the permanent members of the UN Security Council—which is one of the core pillars of the multilateral system—are all modernizing their nuclear weapons arsenals. In the case of the US, the plan is to spend as much as one trillion dollars to build new nuclear weapons systems with new warheads, new ballistic missiles, new bombers, new submarines to carry their missiles, and to rebuild the nuclear complex that will support nuclear weapons. Policymakers in the US are talking about nuclear disarmament being a goal in some century far into the future. And, at the same time, Russia, China, Britain, and France are all modernizing their weapon systems, their missiles, their warheads, their submarines, etc. So we face a crisis about how long nuclear weapons will be, because all of these states are preparing for the next generation of nuclear weapons. The nuclear age will last perhaps another 70 years if these plans are all allowed to be realized.

At the same time, the multilateral system that is responsible for dealing with international security, especially the United Nations and the Security Council, is still stuck with the same structure that we had when it was first set up at the end of World War II. It has not responded to the changing balance of the number of countries in the world, the rise of developing countries in particular, and the fact that new technologies, new systems of trade, and the movement of people and ideas is very different from what it was when the system was set up.

If we’re going to manage the security challenges of the future, we need to rethink the dominance of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon states, and the structure of the multilateral system all together at the same time. Otherwise, the power of the nuclear weapon states in the multilateral system will guarantee that they will keep their nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future and prevent any evolution of the multilateral system itself. The two problems need to be solved together.

Deterrence as a security doctrine is often said to be a necessary evil as long as nuclear weapons exist. However, you say that there is no place for deterrence in this strategic security framework, and to believe otherwise is reckless. How can you justify this position as long as nuclear weapons exist? How can we balance their existence with the need for safety?

How to think about nuclear deterrence is very important, and let me start by saying that when nuclear weapons were first still only an idea, before they were actually made in April 1945, the US Secretary of Defense wrote a letter to the President of the US saying, “We are making nuclear weapons, and this weapon will be so terrible that one bomb will destroy an entire city, and this bomb may be a threat to all of civilization.” So they knew this before they made the first nuclear weapon, but they made them anyway.

Since then, only nine countries now have nuclear weapons, but there are 193 countries in the world. All of them have the right to some kind of security, all of them have ideas about how to defend their people and their territory. And yet, only nine of them have decided that they should build nuclear weapons to defend themselves, whereas the overwhelming majority of countries have rejected nuclear weapons as the basis for their national defense. And they could have built nuclear weapons if they wanted.

So the first question is not why nuclear deterrence is central to security. It is: why have so few states felt it necessary to go down this path while the vast majority of states for decades have rejected nuclear weapons and actually support a ban on nuclear weapons? I think the first question is to challenge the claim by a minority of states, why they are right and everybody else—the vast majority of states—are wrong to think about nuclear weapons as a problem.

The second thing I think you have to ask is a fundamental ethical question and it is: if you went to people in any country and ask, “Should we defend ourselves by committing genocide and mass murder?” Most people in most countries would say no, you should not commit genocide and mass murder to defend yourself. But that is what nuclear deterrence assumes—that you will use your nuclear weapons and you will kill millions of people to defend yourself.

The fact of the matter is that people are never asked about nuclear deterrence. Governments and generals in a few countries make this decision. And if you ask most people in most countries, including the ones with nuclear weapons, large portions of their people will say, “No, we don’t want to be defended through genocide and mass murder.” I think the issue of nuclear deterrence can be rethought if you think about it in terms that it’s a minority strategy by a handful of states, and that people are never asked what they think about the use of nuclear weapons as the basis for their defense.

In disarmament machinery, many criticize the lack of progress as a sign that it is failing, but you mention that we need to question that a few countries have overwhelming power, and that this power is at the core of the impasse. What are your thoughts?

There’s no doubt that the international system we have is dominated overwhelmingly by a small number of countries. And if you just think about it, the US alone is responsible for half of all the military spending in the world, and it has the veto on the Security Council. So if the US chooses to violate international law, the entire international system would be incapable of restraining the US. We saw this most evidently in 2003 when the US chose to invade Iraq after the Security Council said it will not give the US support from the UN system, yet the US went ahead and invaded Iraq anyway, even though it is clearly written in the UN Charter that you cannot invade another country.

So you cannot ask for a clearer demonstration of the limits of the international system that we have to restrain the great powers. Similarly, we have Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and we know that other nuclear states have a certain degree of impunity. But there’s a big difference between the impunity that the US, in particular, has in the international system and the impunity of other states in the system.

It has to do with the fact that most of the states in the world have other relationships with the great powers: they need aid, they want trade, they want good political relations. And so, they see nuclear weapons issues as only one element of a larger agenda, and most of the time, nuclear weapons are not the most important part of that agenda.

Until the non-weapon states, the vast majority of countries in the world, go to the weapon states and say, “We will not trade with you, and we will not allow you to invest money in our country, and we will not invest money in your country until you get rid of your nuclear weapons,” there’s no reason to presume that the nuclear weapon states will take the demands of non-weapon states that seriously. So the real issue is, what are non-weapon states willing to do to confront the great powers in the world system?

Any last thoughts you have for us?

I think we have reason to be hopeful about the future, and the reason to be hopeful is that we now have a generation of young people who have grown into adults after the Cold War, which ended 20 years ago now. They do not have this fear of mass global war that was the dominant fear throughout the Cold War. When you ask their opinion, young people around the world, including in the US and the other nuclear weapon states, say they don’t like nuclear weapons.

They want sustainable development, and they believe that climate change is a big problem and should be stopped. They believe in human rights, and they believe in equality for men and women, for people who are gay, and many other progressive and decent values. They’re the generation that will inherit our future and our multinational system. And so I have every reason to believe that given the chance, young people can actually save us from the mess that we have made of the world in the past 70 years.