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As long as nuclear weapons exist and some countries possess them, other countries will also wish to possess them. This is unavoidable.

Since we all want to avoid that, what stands in the way of some of the major countries of the world coming together (US, China, Russia, UK, France) and attempting to initiate a process with the ultimate goal of ridding the world of all nuclear weapons? Naturally, this would be a process which would require all countries' accept and transparency, but I don't think it will be that hard, since it's in literally everyone's best interest.

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    Interesting historical note: The only country ever to build nuclear weapons and then abandon them was South Africa. – Royal Canadian Bandit Sep 20 '17 at 8:47
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    The question in the header and the question in the text are very different questions; that's confusing. – Eric Lippert Sep 20 '17 at 12:55
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    I suspect that the reason that this is not clear to you is related to the fact that every sentence in your question is either false or unsupported. It's not logically required that other countries have nuclear ambitions; plenty of countries do not. Nuclear ambitions are avoidable if the incentives are right. And the notion that the problem is not hard because solving it is in everyone's best interests is both false and illogical. Curing cancer is in everyone's best interests too, but that doesn't make it easy. – Eric Lippert Sep 20 '17 at 19:10
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    Seems like the premise is uninformed, and the Question poorly framed. The 191 signatories and adherents to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty including the P5 have indeed already committed to nuclear disarmament, required by the second pillar of the treaty. The treaty, the IAEA, and the UN Security Council are all part of an existing process. – Basil Bourque Sep 20 '17 at 21:39
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    @MartinSchröder My point is about the poor quality of this Question, not the political details. The success of Stack Exchange sites has been built on high-quality well-informed narrowly-focused Questions, avoiding wide-ranging open-ended discussions. The up-votes here are undeserved. – Basil Bourque Sep 20 '17 at 22:20

10 Answers 10

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According to mutually assured destruction, you lose your insurance that other countries won't nuke you

A commonly cited reason is the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which is similar to the prisoner's dilemma. From Wikipedia:

The MAD doctrine assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate without fail with equal or greater force. The expected result is an immediate, irreversible escalation of hostilities resulting in both combatants' mutual, total, and assured destruction. [...]

The doctrine further assumes that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side would launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with surviving forces (a second strike), resulting in unacceptable losses for both parties. The pay-off of the MAD doctrine was and still is expected to be a tense but stable global peace.

In other words, if one country with nuclear weapons launched them at another country with nuclear weapons, the other would retaliate and the end result is that both countries would be destroyed. Since having your country be destroyed is not in your interests, that means that nuclear weapons don't get fired.

So now let's say that you are a country who is not on good terms with another country. If you remove your nuclear weapons, then other countries can fire nuclear weapons at you without fear of their country being destroyed. Thus a country following MAD may decide that removing their nuclear weapons is too big of a risk if other countries are allowed to keep theirs.

The converse is that if another country removes their nuclear weapons, but you keep yours, then you have an advantage over them because you can threaten to nuke them without fear of your own country being destroyed, so those who have nuclear weapons tend to want to keep them.

So why don't all countries just agree together to not use nuclear weapons?

That's exactly the point of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), in which countries that had nuclear weapons before 1967 (referred to as nuclear-weapon states) pledge not to expand their use, and countries that did not have nuclear weapons before that time pledge not to create them.

As of this writing, the NPT has been signed by 191 nation states. There are only five UN-recognized countries that have not signed it, and they include the only four countries that have nuclear weapons, but are not nuclear-weapon states recognized by this treaty. All of these countries declined to sign the NPT, except for North Korea which signed it, but withdrew in 2003.

The book Avoiding the Tipping Point notes that while NPT hasn't removed all the nuclear weapons of the world, it has drastically limited their spread. At the time of the NPT's creation in 1968, there were estimates that within twenty years, 25-30 countries would have nuclear weapons. Today, only the four countries beyond the initial nuclear-weapon states have nuclear weapons.

A stronger version of this treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (a.k.a. Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty), does provide a legally binding commitment against the stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons. Countries with nuclear weapons that choose to sign it are given a timetable to completely disarm their nuclear weapons. It was passed on 7 July 2017 and will be open for signatures on 20 September 2017. It will enter legal force 90 days after the 50th country signs it.

However, all current nuclear-weapon states and most NATO members (along with US allies Japan and Australia) have indicated that they do not plan to sign the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, with many stating it is because they believe that having nuclear weapons has maintained peace in the region for over fifty years due to MAD.

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    @DaxFohl And that's why nuclear-armed submarines exist. I can think of at least two countries off-hand whose entire nuclear arsenal is on submarines for exactly that reason. Unless you can eliminate their subs, they will still nuke you back if you nuke them first. – reirab Sep 19 '17 at 21:14
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    "The NPT is not a legally binding commitment" - this is wrong. It is binding. On the other hand, a country can leave it following certain order. – Anixx Sep 19 '17 at 23:49
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    As a much deeper analysis of MAD and why even reducing nuclear stockpiles to "just enough" to totally destroy the opponent may not be advisable, I strongly recommend chapter 10 of Thomas Schelling's "The Strategy of Conflict" first publish in 1960. (I actually recommend the whole book.) The chapter, Surprise Attack and Disarmament, points out non-intuitive consequences such as that we should focus on defending our retaliatory force rather than our cities and that larger stockpiles can lead to a more stable outcome. (1/2) – Derek Elkins Sep 20 '17 at 0:39
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    Under the MAD-Concept it is also worth noting that the US-Missile-Shield initiative is, despite it´s seemingly defensive nature, seen as aggression by other nuclear powers. It would allow the US to use aggressive force against these powers without being subject to the MAD consequence. – Daniel Sep 20 '17 at 10:45
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    It is probably worth discussing in your answer what happens when dishonesty is introduced. Even if all the major nuclear powers agreed to disarm and even allowed UN inspectors to verify disarmament, how do we know that all of their nuclear weapons were declared or disarmed? What happens once disarmament is done, but nuclear weapons still exist and are usable by those countries, despite claims to the contrary? Trust is a major issue here. – user5586 Sep 20 '17 at 16:35
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Why don't all countries attempt to get rid of nuclear weapons?

Because countries disagree with each other, and a single holdout rogue nation's (looking at you, North Korea) refusal to disarm makes it impossible. As long as there is war there will be a desire for weapons of increasing destructive power. Furthermore, it would be extremely difficult to make sure everybody actually destroyed all of their nukes at the exact same time - anything else and you've got somebody holding all the cards.

Why don't all countries attempt to get rid of nuclear weapons?

Because the cat's already out of the bag and will never go back - mankind will not forget how to split the atom. Slightly more technically put, nuclear bombs are a known technology - the only thing hindering their production is the rarity, expense, etc of key ingredients. Therefore, the question is who will own nukes, not whether or not countries will own them.

I believe an illuminating question is:

Why don't all countries attempt to get rid of weapons of mass destruction?

Biological weapons, chemical weapons, nukes... they're all the same thing really - an extremely potent force with the capacity to bring even great nations to their knees in a matter of days. It's a class of weaponry all its own - any sensible nation will have close allies who possess them or will acquire some independently. To do otherwise is to bring a knife to a gunfight on a grand scale, and to acquire WMD in parallel with your enemy's acquisitions is part of the doctrine of Mutually assured destruction.

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    @Mehrdad you'd need the remaining weapons to be able to cause sufficiently horrific casualties that couldn't possibly be acceptable "price for an attack" and would serve as an effective deterrent. This argument was sufficient for reducing the number of nukes from the cold war heights to the current (much lower!) number that's still sufficiently large, it might serve to reduce the numbers down to, say, 100 nukes each, but not to 1. Nukes grant you immunity from a conventional invasion - i.e., if I'm losing a war, I'll threaten mutual destruction unless you stop. One nuke isn't enough for that. – Peteris Sep 20 '17 at 9:22
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    @Mehrdad In addition to what Peteris said, one nuke can potentially be thwarted. 3,000, not so much (at least not with present technology.) If someone tried to fire one nuke at the U.S., for example, it would most likely be shot down before it got anywhere close to the U.S. This would be the case whether the delivery system was ballistic missile or bomber. The only exception might be a sub-launched missile that was very close to its target already, though even this could still potentially be shot down. – reirab Sep 20 '17 at 15:03
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    "Because the cat's already out of the bag". That's pretty much the answer and it also applies to pretty much ANY new technology out here, not only weapons. I always facepalm so hard when some movie ends with "let's just destroy prototype, case closed" idiocy. – Oleg V. Volkov Sep 20 '17 at 19:21
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    @Mehrdad With respect, expecting people to perfectly understand your comment when you wrote "1" but meant "some small number" is a bit silly. As Peteris and reirab have pointed out, there's a big difference between assured destruction and assured nasty damage. As I recall, US retaliation against a Soviet first strike would have involved launching multiple missiles at Moscow alone, so it's not at all clear how small a number could serve as an effective deterrent. And if the US used all their missiles retaliating against a Soviet strike, what's now deterring China and everyone else? – David Richerby Sep 20 '17 at 21:05
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    @Mehrdad You wrote something. I addressed what you wrote. It's not my fault that you meant something completely different. – David Richerby Sep 20 '17 at 21:09
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  1. Even in the impossible fictional world where US/Russia/China/UK/France get rid of the nukes, that wouldn't address your problem.

    • North Korea and Iran would STILL want nukes, since their desire for nukes have nothing to do with the fact that US and Russia have them (neither US nor Russia ever expressed any desire to nuke either country; and possess enough conventional power to not need nukes).

    • US allies like Saudi Arabia would want nukes even more since they would no longer be under US nuclear umbrella.

    • And given that even nuclear armed USA can't stop DPRK from getting nukes, the nuclear-disarmed US would be in far less position to do so. So the chances of other countries getting their own nukes rise.

  2. It's not in either Russia or US interest to get rid of their nukes, as that leaves them vulnerable to other side's conventional weapons.

    US nukes are meant to stop USSR's tanks from going through Western Europe like a wheat field. USSR nukes are meant to stop NATO armies from going through Russia like a knife through butter (as there are no natural defensive barriers, and Russian Winter isn't a factor anymore)

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    Your claims are unsubstantiated and actually conflict with facts. For example you say North Korea's desire to have them have nothing to do with the fact that the US have them. First of all, this is in direct contradiction to North Korea's stated AND presumed intent, and secondly, even if countries do want nuclear weapons regardless of whethers others have them, you have to understand that other countries would only give theirs up if all countries agree to it in the first place. Hence, if Saudia Arabia start acquiring nuclear weapons, the deal is off and the US keep them. – user16953 Sep 19 '17 at 16:41
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    @EmilioMBumachar - Because that's what Soviet propaganda always said (which I was fed for many years while living on the wrong side of Iron Curtain :) – user4012 Sep 19 '17 at 20:44
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    why do you think Russian Winter wouldn't be a factor probably because of superior Western logistics. (As if we'd be stupid enough to actually invade Russia...) – RonJohn Sep 20 '17 at 2:21
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    "Viewed very negatively" is not a serious factor if you're considering a loss in a major war. If Western Europe was being rolled over by Warsaw pact tanks, who'd care about opinions of others? If Russia was being rolled over by NATO tanks, why'd they care about opinions of others? In such an escalation that opinion only matters if it's likely to result in major, existential damage i.e. everyone else launching their nukes or sending millions of men at you. Furthermore, in the cold war both USSR and USA doctrine planned to use tactical nuclear weapons in Europe if a major conflict happened. – Peteris Sep 20 '17 at 9:29
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    @Pat No, he said, "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea." Which is entirely accurate and has been U.S. policy for quite a long time. – reirab Sep 20 '17 at 14:52
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What if one nation keeps them? If a country as poor as N Korea can build a nuke, just about any nation can. All they need is the will to do so. The one nation with nuclear weapons would have quite a military advantage.

How do you enforce that ban? N Korea is under just about every sanction that can be devised, and it still has them.

Yes, the world would be a better place if the darn things never existed. But, the genie is out of the bottle, and they are here to stay. We have to make the best of the situation we have, not the one we wish for.

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    Indeed, the only way to really stop them would be invasion. And that's assuming that both (1) you know they're building nukes ahead of time and (2) you can convince people that military action is necessary to stop them. North Korea's case proves that neither of these assumptions is reliable. – reirab Sep 19 '17 at 21:16
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    NK is not under just about every sanction - major nuclear players, namely China and Russia, have (at certain points of time) supplied them with all kinds of nuclear and missile technology. – Peteris Sep 20 '17 at 9:30
  • @reirab They had a pre-existing deterrent with loads of conventional artillery within range of Seoul that made an invasion costly. – JollyJoker Sep 20 '17 at 12:44
  • Actually, the NK artillery deterrent is false. Out of those thousands of guns, only a couple of hundred have the range to hit Seoul - it's over 20 miles from the DMZ. The special ammunition for them to achieve that range is in short supply and has a limited shelf life. Radar tracking would identify their location, counter battery missiles would eliminate them quickly. – tj1000 Nov 1 '18 at 14:57
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Somehow, your question seems to imply that all countries that have nukes did so kind of involuntarily, or against better judgement, or simply because their neighbours had some.

I don't believe this is the case. Every singly country that has nukes actually really really wanted to have them - and, by extension, still wants to have them. Badly. Since it is quite hard to acquire the technology to build and use nukes, a country will not get them just nilly-willy.

The actual reasons my be manifold, see the other comments (i.e., cold war, MAD, display of power internally and externally, etc.) and do not really matter.

So this is the ontological answer to your questions: countries (exceptions nonwithstanding) do not get rid of all nuclear weapons because they had strong reasons for getting them, and the reasons have not gone away.

Finally:

Since we all want to avoid that,

I sincerely doubt that. We normal people may wish to avoid someone using nukes, but I'm pretty sure that is a rather secondary consideration in the rather closed military circles where nuclear weapons are built, operated and potentially used. The reasons mentioned above will very likely be much more important (for example, being able to retaliate just in case; being able to demonstrate your power; madness; etc.).

This does not mean that every nation that has nuclear weapons is necessarily ruled by powerhungry madmen, but every nation will, in the end, have some condition in their doctrines where firing their nukes is considered more important than not firing.

1

There would likely be more wars or armed conflicts today if nuclear weapons didn't exist. The deterrent of nuclear strike is a strong incentive not to exploit political chaos or such to occupy disputed border regions, for example. Giving up such a deterrent would not be in some countries' best interests.

Also, do we trust each other? If we disarm, isn't there a possibility that some countries fake complete disarmament while we disarm? That would make our situation much worse compared to the current balance. Probably this issue with trust is why nobody really wants to do a full nuclear disarmament. They want to safeguard their positions in the negotiation tables in the future.

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Ukraine had the third largest nuclear weapons stockpile and already did that, and enjoying the consequences

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    It would be better to include the consequences in the answer itself rather than hiding them behind a link. Also, you might want to take the time to draw a relationship between the nukes and preventing the "consequences". I also find that link misleadingly labeled. It's not consequences but promises. This leaves a lot of work to the reader. – Brythan Sep 21 '17 at 12:54
  • Your point is valid, but part of a bigger picture. I've tried to cover it in my answer. – Burt_Harris Nov 3 '18 at 21:53
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Distrust and hegemony

Primary factor blocking this is that governments often don't trust each other. That could be overcome but it seems quite unlikely to occur. The successful bilateral establishment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and Russia initially built up trust because it was verifiable through inspections (among other factors.) But after 10 years the inspections provision ran out, and in the following 20 years, trust has deteriorated.

In fact, distrust between the two major players is still on the rise. Consider for example the US DoD 2018 Nuclear Posture Review which says "Recent Russian statements on this evolving nuclear weapons doctrine appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons." Even the perception of willingness or threat of first-use in more limited conflicts quickly erodes previous trust established on the basis verification, and threatens even the deterrent of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Consider the case of Ukraine, which after the breakup of the soviet union voted for independence. Ukraine was in physical possession about 1/3 of the former Soviet Union's nuclear warheads, making it numerically the 3rd most powerful nuclear state. But in the late 90s Ukraine chose to destroy them as part of a multilateral pact to assure Ukraine's territorial integrity. Less than 20 years later, after the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Russia placed military forces in Ukraine and annexed the province of Crimea, leading some Ukrainian politicians to say:

We gave up nuclear weapons because of this agreement. Now, there's a strong sentiment in Ukraine that we made a big mistake.

and

If you have nuclear weapons people don't invade you.

The Russian position on Crimea was that the territorial pact was invalidated by the revolution of 2014, while US and UK (who also entered into the pact) asserted it was still binding. Without assuming either position is correct, it can be seen that disputes settled by non-nuclear force rather than treaty further weaken trust between countries.

While the existing New START treaty will continue to reduce the number of strategic (long range) weapons, the matter of trust regarding smaller and short range weapons is quickly falling. The INF for example seems unlikely to survive. In 2011 Mark Stokes and Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute wrote that the actual Russian problem with the INF was that China is not bound by it and continued to build up their own Intermediate-Range forces. This opinion is well supported by public statements made by Vladimir Putin.

But the other substantial factor is nuclear weapons have in the past granted a form of hegemony. It does not require use of these weapons to exercise the power they bring. As an example, when the United Nations was created, the then-nuclear powers were granted United Nations Security Council veto power. Russia, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, vetoed condemnation of its action in Crimea, which might otherwise have resulted in UN peacekeepers being assigned there.

Though controversial, this veto power has generally lead to increased stability in international matters, but critics tend to label that stability as inaction. The annexation of Crimea being a notable example. Since all five permanent members of the UN security council have veto power, it tends to temper any potential of a single security counsel member gaining ultimate power, but can reward aggressive action by any of those same members.

It may be encouraging to note that while few countries have opted for total de-nuclearization, arms reduction is still working. Total inventories dropped from over 70,300 in 1986 to an estimated 14,485 in 2018. See the Federation of American Scientists, report on Status of World Nuclear Forces for well-researched estimates. Note that 2018 counts still include "retired" weapons awaiting disassembly, which amount to approximately 1/3 of remaining estimates. That's still a large number, and without new agreements, the rate of reduction is likely to slow after retired weapons are properly dealt with.

New START has a limited duration, and will expire in 2021 without further action. Indications are that without multi-lateral reductions there may not be further reduction after that, but at this point a goal of elimination seems far from likely.

  • This answer could be improved by citing a source for and labeling the graph. I take it to be number of nuclear weapons owned by country. I also note that North Korea isn't on there, but I believe they are thought to have some. – Joel Harmon Nov 3 '18 at 15:37
  • What I really wanted was a the measure over time but that's more complicated. I've replaced the graph with a link to FAS estimates, which are substantially more up-to-date and includes measures of retired, stockpiled, and deployed weapons. – Burt_Harris Nov 3 '18 at 18:06
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Owning nuclear weapons assures long-term peace between the countries that possess them, thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction. This is proven by the fact that nations possessing nuclear bombs never once entered into war and were in fact very careful to avoid direct confrontation. Therefore even if you had a magical wand to make all the nukes in the world disappear, no sane nuclear nation would choose to use it.

Therefore the core reason is simple: countries want peace rather than war and giving up their stockpiles will result in the opposite of that.

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If you have read the book -- 'The Three Body Problem' by Cixi Liu. You will known what is Deterrence.And why mistrust is always between different Civilization.

Civilization likes people, it's selfish. And the only way to peace and no-nuke is that let the whole world be one country.

BTW, it's impossible.

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