Human Security and Nuclear Disarmament

By Ray Acheson
Ban Ki-moon at Semipalatinsk test site, once the Soviet Union's primary nuclear test site, during an official UN visit to Kazakhstan, April 2010 [© UN Photo]

Why do nuclear weapons still exist in a modern, information-saturated and supposedly interdependent world? What purpose do they serve? What are they used for? And what is their relationship to security?

The answer to these questions can be found by rephrasing: Whose purpose do nuclear weapons serve? Who uses them? Whose security benefits from them?

Nuclear weapons have material, institutional, cultural and psychological bases and consequences. A state's interest in acquiring and retaining nuclear weapons is the product of multiple institutions and constituencies dispersed throughout its government, corporate, academic and political spheres of power. Nuclear-armed states wield these weapons because specific constituents benefit from investment in the weapons' production and maintenance. The general term "the military-industrial complex," when actually broken down, consists of elite constituents benefiting from and sustaining the hyper-militarism of the 21st century, of which nuclear weapons are symptomatic. This also includes academia, politics and the entertainment industry.

The Military-Industrial Complex

Whether the so-called complex referred to is in the United States or India, the political economies of nuclear-armed states are entrenched in the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons programs and infrastructure. The "complex" benefits economically from the research, production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, which in turn economically and politically supports a state structure which actively sustains the international and domestic environment necessary to keep the "complex" in business. As Andrew Lichterman, a lawyer and policy analyst at a California-based NGO called the Western States Legal Foundation, noted in an address on August 6, 2009: "The nuclear weapons establishment constitutes a formidable set of institutions. And they are part of a far broader constellation of powerful institutions and organizations, never far, if at all, out of power, that see their interests as being well served by a mode of . . . military dominance ultimately underwritten by nuclear weapons."

Nuclear weapons are a powerful tool for the governments that possess them--even if they are not dropped or detonated, they are used to coerce or deter actions by others. In fact, nuclear weapons are not about security, either global or national; they are antithetical to security and irrelevant to the perceived threats facing the world today--such as terrorism, climate change, food, water and energy shortages and increasing global economic disparity. Nuclear weapons exacerbate these converging crises, as the weapons' development, deployment and proliferation increases global tensions, disparities, polarizations and environmental degradation and squanders the economic, political and human resources that could otherwise be used to confront and solve these crises. Instead of deterring threats, nuclear weapons in fact only deter disarmament, peace, equity, justice and security.

Yet the mainstream discourse of nuclear weapons--vocalized by political elites from the nuclear-armed states and echoed in large part by their geostrategic and economic allies and even some of their nongovernmental organizations--continues to emphasize the importance of maintaining an "effective nuclear deterrent" until the achievement of the appropriate "international security environment" that could permit the elimination of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the nuclear-armed states simultaneously engage in activities that will indefinitely postpone this international security environment, by continuing to invest heavily in their militaries and weaponry--thus sustaining the military-industrial-academic complexes that in turn help keep the governments that feed them in power, resulting in a vicious cycle of weapons, war, global insecurity and inequality.

Nuclear Weapons and Human Security

To break this cycle, a new understanding of the relationship of nuclear weapons to elite structures and political economy is necessary. The economic connections between nuclear weapons and the rest of the world come into sharper focus once we understand whose security nuclear weapons are for. If the money the nuclear states spend per year on nuclear weapons were spent on social programs, infrastructure, education, health care or renewable energy projects, local and national economies could be retooled to build sustainable and equitable living conditions for a greater majority of the world's people.

People interested in promoting true and sustainable human security need to ask ourselves: Are we interested in promoting collective security, equality and the rule of law, or continuing down the path of hyper-militarized inequality and collective insecurity? Are we interested in creating the real conditions for a nuclear-weapon-free world? If so, we need to create a new discourse about the uselessness of nuclear weapons as a tool to prevent or deter the converging crises facing our world today and point out how they perpetuate the status quo of inequality and insecurity. This discourse also needs to be connected to the work of others who are striving for a more just and secure global system based on dignity for all, so that efforts to decrease militarism inspire broader conceptions about human security and foster a more cooperative and equitable world order.

To start with, concerted international, national and local action is needed to halt the continued production, modernization and proliferation of nuclear weapons and to stigmatize the possession and development of weapons. People everywhere need to renounce nuclear weapons as a legitimate tool of national or international security and make it clear that not only their use but also their possession is unacceptable. Governments that neither possess nuclear weapons nor shelter under security relationships with nuclear-armed states have a big role to play in isolating and putting pressure on such states. Governments could negotiate a nuclear weapon convention that makes the development and possession of nuclear weapons illegal. Governments and NGOs can use international humanitarian law to argue that the use, and therefore possession, of nuclear weapons is illegal. They can also conduct inquiries into nuclear modernization programs, to question how they are compatible with their "vision" of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

There are countless ways in which active and engaged citizens in all countries can help change the game. The starting point for any strategy is to understand the relationship between nuclear weapons and the power structures that maintain them and to recognize the incompatibility of nuclear weapons with true human security.

Ray Acheson is the Director of Reaching Critical Will, the nuclear disarmament project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She monitors and reports on nuclear weapons issues at the United Nations and maintains the online archive and information resource at She recently edited and coordinated a collaborative book, Beyond Arms Control: Challenges and Choices for Nuclear Disarmament.