Nuclear Ethics and Global Security: Reforming the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: POLSIS


This project has a close fit to the 'Ethics and Rights in a Security Context' call around key themes of legitimacy, jurisdiction, temporality, and protection, and draws on Security Studies, International Relations and Philosophy, falling into the remit of two of the funding agencies involved in this call, the ESRC and AHRC.

This project will develop innovations in nuclear and global security ethics to guide thinking on the strengthening of the nuclear non-proliferation regime so that it can better meet its fundamental purpose of preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons. The regime is under pressure because some states have used, or are perceived as using, the right to civilian nuclear energy in Article IV of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to develop covert nuclear weapon programs. At the same time, the NPT's so-called 'grand bargain' in which the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) pledged in Article VI to disarm in return for the Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) giving up their sovereign right to acquire nuclear weapons is in trouble, because the NNWS consider the NWS to have not lived up to their promises.

This trust deficit threatens to unravel the treaty in the longer term, but there are other possibilities that could restore trust in the treaty. The joint declarations by the United States and Russia to seek a world without nuclear weapons raise the prospect that, within a few decades, governments may have to face the challenge of managing the strategic uncertainties of a world with fewer, or even zero, nuclear weapons. But whatever trajectory nuclear disarmament may take in the future, there will always be the possibility of states reintroducing nuclear arsenals into interstate relations since the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons cannot be eradicated.

This challenge of living with nuclear knowledge and technology frames our primary research question: 'How far can an existing state-based international order be hospitable to the protection of individual and global security in a nuclear world?' The project will first map the implicit ethics underpinning this state-centric 'international' nuclear order, which will help to diagnose its flaws and weaknesses. It will then develop and combine cosmopolitan streams of moral thinking and International Relations theory to critically reflect upon how the non-proliferation regime can evolve so as to better protect humanity from the threat of nuclear war.

The research will explore the normative and ethical potential of the following alternative visions of future global nuclear order: a nuclear world government; a network of more powerful international agencies that have strong oversight of nuclear weapons policy, fissile materials, and nuclear energy and safety; or a sovereign based order in which disarmament remains stalled and there is continuing proliferation. Will key tenets of the non-proliferation regime, such as national rights to uranium enrichment and nuclear energy, or the freedom to set nuclear weapons policy, need to be modified or set aside, and how can this occur without fracturing the treaty's consensus?

As our principle research methods we will combine the methodologies of political theory and moral philosophy - ontic, deontic, and consequentialist reasoning - with policy research, utilising interviews with key diplomats, officials and stakeholders in strategic policy and nuclear governance, as well as literature review and open-source data analysis.

The project will produce a number of outputs, including briefing papers, a book focused towards practitioner and expert communities, and articles in refereed journals across the disciplines of the research. These will form part of our impact strategy that seeks to contribute to the shaping of a UK, European and global policy that serves to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime and enable it to meet the challenges of an evolving nuclear world.

Planned Impact

Research into how ethics can explain the crisis that the non-proliferation regime faces, and chart paths for its reform and strengthening to meet emerging challenges, is of great relevance and has the potential to benefit non-academic and academic users. The research aims to highlight the background ethical viewpoints and commitments of key actors and states in the non-proliferation regime, and thus identify strengths and roadblocks within it. It also aims to inform design proposals for new institutions, law, and practice that can grapple with the complexities of the three paths that a future nuclear order may be faced with: a troubled and increasingly tenuous status quo; a proliferation cascade; or a substantially disarmed world.

The connection of key ethical traditions of international security and world order with the problems of the non-proliferation regime, will generate impact for the following groups in a number of countries:

- Diplomats and policy-makers working in the areas of nuclear policy and the non-proliferation regime;
- Key UN organisations such as the Security Council, International Atomic Energy Agency, Conference on Disarmament, the General Assembly's First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, and the annual Review Conference on the NPT;
- Defence Departments and militaries charged with the development of (or advice on) nuclear weapons policy for national and international security;
- Parliaments charged with considering or oversighting new treaty frameworks, whether bilateral or multilateral, and national policy on nuclear issues;
- Media and journalists reporting on nuclear matters;
- Civil society groups seeking to influence national and international diplomacy and policymaking in the nuclear area;
- Academics and defence intellectuals working in the areas of nuclear and defence strategy, alliance politics, non-proliferation, arms control, disarmament, and human security;
- Citizens and communities affected by nuclear threats and activities.

The project team will utilise Knowledge Exchange opportunities, as well as traditional impact generation activities, that will increase understanding of the following areas:

1) The connection of national policy to global regimes and demands, so that national security can be better harmonised with global efforts to promote peace, strategic stability and reassurance, non-proliferation, and disarmament;

2) The ability of particular ethical perspectives and commitments to drive policy choices and behaviours, and thus shape strategic interactions that negatively or positively affect international security and the success of the non-proliferation regime;

3) The relation between future challenges, potentials for institutional and normative evolution, and strategic or political roadblocks;

4) The potential for clarity about ethics to impart stability and coherence to policymaking, and build international consensus around the global goods of disarmament and non-proliferation whilst contributing to states' national security;

5) The strategic and moral value of working towards a nuclear "world order" that places the security of human beings and ecosystems at its core, and recognises the equal right of all human beings to security, and the need for greater equality in the regime;

The project's findings would be factored into the work of both national policymakers and the major UN conferences and has the potentially to beneficially influence the further evolution of the non-proliferation regime so that is fairer, more effective, and more comprehensive. In doing so, the project promises to have significant benefits for UK, European and global security.


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Burke Anthony (2017) Uranium

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Burke, A. (2016) Nuclear time: temporal metaphors of the nuclear present in Critical Studies on Security

Description 1.The research has confirmed our initial hypothesis that the 'NPT bargain' between the nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) is fraying, evident most recently in the United Nations General Assembly (A/C.1/71/L.41) decision to begin negotiations on a treaty outside the NPT framework banning the possession and use of nuclear weapons.
2. We have developed a new and enriched understanding of political and ethical divisions within the global nuclear order. This has involved investigating the normative implications of three different conceptions of nuclear responsibility. These are: (1) Responsible Nuclear Sovereignty' (RNS) which is predicated on the idea that possession of nuclear weapons brings special responsibilities over stewardship and ethical restraint, and, potentially, disarmament; (2) 'cosmopolitan global governance' reform that is informed by the theory of Security Cosmopolitanism which the project has further developed as an ethical approach to nuclear weapons; and (3) 'Dialogic Cosmopolitanism' which has examined the development of the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) initiative from the perspective of overcoming democratic deficits within the NPT regime, democratising global nuclear governance, and enhancing the role of global civil society in diplomatic negotiations and public policy debates.
(3) The project is the first to interrogate the ethical claims of RNS in a practical normative context, revealing important differences among the nine nuclear-armed states on what RNS means. To explore the potential for harmonising different normative conceptions of RNS, the project has initiated an important global dialogue at the Track II level between the project investigators, nuclear experts, and current/former officials from a number of nuclear armed states, including the UK.

(4) The project has brought together different national and institutional perspectives on the potential of RNS to provide an ethical compass in managing the crisis in the global nuclear order, a crisis which our research indicates is growing for two key reasons: (1) the willingness of some states to use nuclear brinkmanship as a tool of foreign policy, and the response of the United States to this; and (2) sharpening great power antagonisms in which nuclear weapons are set to play an increasingly important role. A key, well reported, achievement of the project was the workshop, co-sponsored by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS), that was held in London in November 2016. An importantinitial aspect of this global dialogue has been recognizing how far progress will depend upon a sophisticated appreciation of the conflicting ethical and strategic predicaments facing nuclear armed states - inside and outside the NPT - and US nuclear allies. The project's key conclusion is that RNS has greater potential as a normative framework of restraint among the existing nuclear powers than it does as a normative framework to bridge the conflicting ethical positons of the nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. A key question generated by the research concerns how far the concept of RNS can be leveraged politically to bridge the expanding divisions among the five recognized NWS under the NPT, and between them and the 123 states voted for the Nuclear Ban Treaty. The project's impact work in the short and medium term expand its focus on this key dimension, critically examining the catalysing role of Transnational Advocacy Networks, to examine the most promising diplomatic and dialogic possibilities for compromise and movement.
Exploitation Route Building on the 'Pathways to Impact' statement, we envisage our research findings be taken forward through the following non-academic and academic routes. (1) members of the project Advisory Group who are familiar with the research findings of the project; (2) diplomats and ambassadors who the project has previously engaged with and some of whom will be invited to join the Policy Commission idea discussed below; (3) UK, NATO, EU, and UN officials working on NPT and disarmament issues who are managing the tensions between the nuclear-armed states, especially the P5 NWS, and those states that have voted for the nuclear ban treaty in the General Assembly; (4) Non-governmental organizations that are working in this space, especially The British-American Security Information Council, which has worked with the project team to produce a joint report as a result of the London roundtable held in November 2016. BASIC remains a key impact partner for the project; and (5) academics that are working on English school and cosmopolitan security conceptions of the nuclear order who would benefit from incorporating the theoretical contributions of the project into their own thinking and publications. A key area of future impact concerns the Principal Investigator's idea of establishing a new University of Birmingham Policy Commission (he was the academic lead on the highly respected BPC on the security impact of drones. Planning is underway for a new global commission to explore the possibilities for bridging the expanding divisions among the five recognized NWS under the NPT, and between them and the 123 states who have voted for the Nuclear Ban Treaty.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy