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Does the World Need Nuclear Weapons?

Original Broadcast Date:
August 5, 2017(UTC)

Nuclear weapons… deterrent or danger?
In this edition of GLOBAL AGENDA, we look at the world's nuclear arsenals.
Despite decades of global disarmament efforts, an estimated 15,000 nuclear weapons remain. In July, the United Nations adopted the first legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons. One hundred twenty-two countries supported the UN proposal. But nuclear states and their allies sat out the negotiations, highlighting the divide. How, then, should the international community deal with nuclear arms? Our panelists took up that decades-old question.

Nuclear weapons ban: the pros and cons

Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi, who helped lead the negotiations, said that adopting the treaty is the only logical way to bring an end to what he called,"the most deadly and horrendous weapons."He said that the treaty leaves the door open for nuclear states to join in the future. Andrew Weber said that the treaty will send a very strong signal to nuclear states to meet their obligations to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Weber said that all countries that possess nuclear arms, not just the US and Russia, must work together to ensure a world without such weapons. He prefers a step-by-step approach. On the other hand, Keir Lieber said that the current international security situation makes the treaty completely irrelevant. He argued that nuclear weapons have helped maintain world peace. Lukasz Kulesa said that countries such as Poland and Japan which are protected under the nuclear umbrella of their allies face a dilemma: if they signed the treaty, it would end their relationship with their powerful allies. But he agreed that a world free of nuclear weapons would be a better place.

A U-turn in US nuclear policy

In 2009, US President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague laying out his vision of a nuclear-free world. And, now, President Donald Trump is showing willingness to bolster America's nuclear capabilities. Moderator Ken Jimbo asked the panelists to weigh in on the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Hajnoczi said that such weapons pose risks, not only through intentional use, but also because of new dangers such as arsenals falling into the hands of terrorists. He said that eliminating nuclear weapons is the only way to secure the future of the planet. On the other hand, Lieber said some countries now face serious security threats, and find nuclear weapons to be useful. Kulesa said the problem lies with "zero-one logic," the idea that the world must either get rid of all nuclear weapons, or stand at the brink of disaster. He said there are several stages in between and there should be other approaches to realizing a safer environment.

Relying on deterrence

Our panel also discussed why some countries rely on nuclear deterrence. Kulesa said that the deteriorating security situation in Europe is one cause. He said that Russia has cast a nuclear shadow over the region, and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 contributed to insecurity in the region. Lieber said that Russia has reason to rely more on nuclear weapons. He said the country is feeling less confident about its conventional weapons capability. Hajnoczi then asked about the credibility of nuclear deterrence: would Americans really be willing to risk their own lives or security to protect people in other countries? He said that nuclear weapons are ineffective against today's real security challenges, such as terrorism. Hajnoczi also said that countries that rely on nuclear weapons for protection could incentivize others to do the same.

How to handle N. Korea

The panelists also discussed the world's most pressing nuclear threat - North Korea.
Lieber said that a conventional war with the country could go nuclear almost immediately. He said there are two options -- either learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, or take military action to eliminate its arsenal. Kulesa said that the world had better options in the early 1990s: only bad ones remain. Weber suggested looking for clues in the Iran nuclear deal, the historic 2015 agreement between Iran and 6 world powers, including the US.

A nuclear-free world?

Hajnoczi said we must eliminate nuclear weapons before they eliminate us. And he stressed the need for nuclear states to work together toward that end. Weber agreed and said the US should take a central role. But Lieber said he believes that nuclear arms control is dead.
He said that technological improvements are changing the way nuclear states approach disarmament. He said many countries are reluctant to reduce their arsenals out of fear that it would make them more vulnerable. But Kulesa said there is still a role for arms control and diplomacy to bridge gaps among different parties. Jimbo concluded the discussion by highlighting the importance of encouraging debate among experts and the public so that the world can find realistic ways to move forward.


Thomas Hajnoczi

Austrian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva

Led negotiations at the UN for a nuclear ban treaty Believes the weapons should be abolished immediately.

Andrew Weber

Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense

Involved in nuclear disarmament for the Obama administration Says nuclear countries should take the initiative.

Keir Lieber

Associate Professor, Georgetown University

An expert in foreign policy and nuclear strategy Says nuclear weapons are necessary as a deterrence to war.

Lukasz Kulesa

Research Director, European Leadership Network

Provided security and defense analysis for Polish President Believes allies of the US need the nuclear umbrella.


Ken Jimbo

Associate Professor, Keio University

Expert in international security
Member of Japanese government study groups on security issues.