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Policy Papers - April 14, 2007

Nuclear Weapons: The Politics of Non-Proliferation

This publication is part of the CWC Working Paper Series [read more about this publication series]

Christine Wing

 

 

From the Introduction: The inherent difficulty is that the existing distribution of nuclear weapons capabilities serves the interests of some states but not others (i.e., how you see the nuclear challenge depends on where you sit). Yet this is not a situation where all points of view are equally valid: the actual detonation of a nuclear weapon would be catastrophic, killing hundreds of thousands of people—a challenge to human and international security, indeed. Thus we need a conception of the nuclear question that assumes an irreducible interest in preventing nuclear use, yet simultaneously acknowledges the intense politicization of the nuclear issue. The fundamental challenge is this: how can we build effective approaches to reducing the risk of nuclear use, in the context of vastly different and competing state interests?


Always difficult, this task has become even more complex in recent years, as some states have acquired nuclear weapons status outside the existing regime treaties, and others—e.g., the United States, Iran, and North Korea—appear increasingly uncertain about whether current multilateral institutions can adequately protect their security. The old mechanisms for controlling nuclear dangers are inadequate, but new or strengthened approaches are not solidly in place. Nor is there agreement about the form of those new or strengthened approaches. Rather, the differences among states are often more salient than their common interests concerning nuclear issues; the international discussion is abrasive and frequently counterproductive.

This paper takes stock of this seeming impasse in multilateral efforts to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. It briefly describes the key policy dilemmas at play, but goes on to argue that the underlying challenges are essentially political, reflecting profound differences in state interests and power. We attempt to understand and characterize those political differences, how they shape different multilateral approaches, and what kinds of leadership imperatives they create.

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