Is it worth the effort to reinvigorate the international nuclear order?

23 Jul 2018

In 2007, a member of the International Relations department at my university, William Walker, presented an interesting case in his article Nuclear Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. Walker suggested that the effort to construct an international nuclear order following World War II expressed characteristics of an enlightenment project. It emphasised rationality, trust among states, feasible instrumental regulation and an attachment to progress. With the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty at its heart, it gave precedence to diplomacy and containment over preventive war. 

Of major interest to Walker however is why the concept itself was abandoned by the United States in favour of one that had all the traits of a counter-enlightenment and, subsequently, why this alternative strategy failed in his view. Given the events of the past two years on the global stage regarding nuclear weapons and their potential use, do we require a stronger subscription to an established international nuclear order to better diffuse current tensions? And if so, will the US comply?

There may be scope to consider such reinvigoration. According to Walker, the construction of the international nuclear order was based on assumptions about the basic rationality and reasonableness of state actors, particularly following the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, it is important to point out that both President Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Khrushchev, faced monumental pressure from their respective security apparatuses. The former was encouraged in some instances to bide his time and let diplomacy take effect while he insisted on invading Cuba; the latter suffered pressure to act while he himself considered compromise. There was every possibility that either leader could have succumbed to intense pressure but they acted rationally and with reason in the end. 

Yet whether these assumptions warrant a re-invigoration of the international nuclear order I am not convinced. For such pragmatism to arise, the brinkmanship and flexing of military might between the two superpowers had to reach severe, almost catastrophic levels. This is not to suggest that complete trust between states should espouse from the face-off of military capability, but it guarantees security a lot more than expecting the rogue states of today to adhere to international norms. The situation between the US and Soviet Union deteriorated so close to the prospect of mutually assured destruction that there was no other option but to cooperate.

At the end of 2017, a verbal stand-off between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un mirrored the tension of the 1960s. It is interesting to me that having previously dismissed the rogue nation’s leader as a ‘rocket-man’ and boasted of his own nuclear button as being ‘much larger’ that the Koreans', Trump then sent a delegation to South Korea for the Winter Olympics as a sign of good-will. A few months later we had the culmination of the stand-off, with less destructive consequences, in the Singapore summit. 

Of course, a few tweets have not resulted in a complete shift in North Korean policy but Trump’s consistency in his threatening rhetoric to North Korea has led to a situation whereby compromise once again appeared to be the only option other than nuclear catastrophe. Just like in Cuba, it was brinkmanship that produced order. What is to come from the summit remains to be seen, it may be all just for show but diffusion of tensions has occurred in the short-term. 

In an unpredictable international system, where today’s friend could be tomorrow’s enemy, this is at the very least a welcome respite in diplomacy. Recent reports that the Kim regime has in fact continued to upgrade its nuclear facilities will no doubt be addressed via Twitter in due course and hopefully any brinkmanship that follows will result in another summit.

Aside from my depressingly realist opinion of the world, would a reinvigoration of the international nuclear order be met with open arms by the US? For you optimists I again disappoint you with my conclusion: Probably not. The reason for the counter-enlightenment during the Cold War, as Walker rightly states, was that many within US strategic thought viewed the order with disdain as it shackled Washington while others were able to manoeuvre out of it. It also imposed on the US a form of self-defeating institutionalism. 

It would be difficult to believe that the current administration would self-impose such an extensive level of the order again. Withdrawing from the Paris Accords, making NATO pickup more of the bill, and suggestions of cutting funds to the UN are all typical policies of an isolationist United States. It resembles the likes of Woodrow Wilson’s creation of the League of Nations and his refusal to join it thereafter and F. D. Roosevelt’s hesitance to enter World War II. 

But when it comes to nuclear policy the game changes from isolationism to exceptionalism, there is no debate to be had about the superiority of the US military and its nuclear capabilities. The suggestion that it will surrender its nuclear power or lessen its superiority is not only irrational, but as previous examples have shown, completely illogical.


Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.