Nuclear Weapons: Debating the Normative Imperatives to Disarm

21 Feb, 2013    ·   3822

Satyabrat Sinha discusses whether the delegitimisation of nuclear weapons can contribute to global nuclear disarmament

In evaluating the argument that for global nuclear disarmament to be possible, norms that delegitimise and devalue nuclear weapons are needed, we first need to understand norms and their difference from injunctions (legal or moral), and the emergence of norms. Norms may be defined as, a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behaviour. Norms comprise both of behaviour, observable recurrent patterns, as well as beliefs and expectations. Social norms can emerge through human design as well as an unintended outcome of uncoordinated human action. The crucial element sustaining the norm is the presence of conditional preferences for conformity. Only the joint presence of a conditional preference for conformity, and the belief that other people will conform to a particular ideal, will produce an agreement between normative beliefs and behaviour.

That the establishment of norms devaluing and delegitimising nuclear weapons could go a long way in paving the path towards global nuclear disarmament has often been argued. There are various reasons to not expect the linear progression as imagined in the hypothesis. 
The first, and the strongest argument available, pertains to the prestige and utility value of nuclear weapons and how they provide weaker powers security against bigger and stronger powers. The norm of non-use of nuclear weapons that developed after its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a taboo that precludes the possession of nuclear weapons. In fact, the normative taboo with regard to use of nuclear weapons notwithstanding, there are more states who have rushed to possess nuclear weapons than the ones who have given up. Nuclear weapons remain an insurance for states seeking parity with superior powers (Pakistan-India; India-China; China-United States) and for states seeking security against regime change (North Korea). 
When the utility value of possessing nuclear weapons for the above set of states is examined, it seems that the normative considerations have not been and would not be enough to stop them in their pursuit. States such as Brazil, South Africa or Argentina, that have given up the nuclear weapons option have been states whose security calculus had no value of the possession of nuclear weapons. However, the states whose security imperatives called for the utility of nuclear weapons, have gone ahead (Israel, India, Pakistan) and the others (North Korea, Iran) have assiduously moved towards the goal, despite the threat of the US. As long as the utility of the possession of nuclear weapons remains, normative conditions will be difficult to satisfy. This, by far, would be the strongest argument against the development of norms against nuclear weapons and its success in terms of moving towards global disarmament. 
The example of the taboo against chemical weapons, which is used as the successful precedent for suggesting a similar course of action for nuclear weapons, may have its own problems. As to how the norm against chemical weapons came to be accepted is a matter of a rich debate with insights from varied perspectives. Even if we assume that we can decipher the trajectory by which the taboo against chemical weapons emerged and replicate them, it would be a matter of conjecture as to how successful the efforts would be. It is important to remember that it took almost a century for the taboo against chemical weapons to be an accepted norm; and almost half of this century was also the period of the discovery of atomic power and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Yet, the taboo concerning nuclear weapons was a taboo against its use and not directed at its utility and possession. 
The search for a normative understanding for doing away with nuclear weapons also takes away attention from the current issues of concern. It is like an intellectual black hole in which all measures concerning nuclear issues can be lost. While global nuclear disarmament has not been achieved, the range of arms control measures and treaty agreements have fulfilled a function, even if through unequal perpetuation of the nuclear divide, and can perhaps serve as building blocks for the emergence of norms. Efforts towards global nuclear disarmament cannot wait for norms, but such measures should continue at their pace and needs, and the consensus on issues. These, in turn, could pave the way for the emergence of norms delegitimising and devaluing nuclear weapons.