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"No Way Out": Nuclear Weapons Remain An Important Factor in International Politics

By Michael Rühle

While nuclear weapons carry the risk of annihilation for those who use them, their inherent contradictoriness can prevent wars – unlike conventional deterrence. Supporters of their abolition therefore leave themselves open to attack, ethically speaking, regardless of their arguments. Nevertheless, global-zero rhetoric is in vogue. For instance, President Obama’s commitment to nuclear disarmament, designed to attract public attention, not only failed to defuse any nuclear trouble spots, it also irritated NATO partners, delegitimized the United States’ own deterrence policy, and therefore proved counterproductive.

The same can be said of the attempt to ban nuclear weapons by means of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Instead of offering concrete paths to disarmament and verification, it relies primarily on moral pressure. This will have little effect on more or less authoritarian regimes, but it does widen the split between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states, while undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a basis for cooperation.

Even if it cannot be demonstrated that nuclear deterrence prevents wars, this idea cannot be relegated to the realm of myths. None of the numerous “deterrence revisionist” analyses of recent times offers intellectually convincing arguments, never mind solutions to real conflict situations. To prevent unchecked proliferation in the face of regional (conventional) imbalances or new nuclear threats, only the promise of U.S. protection has proven effective. Normative wishful thinking that cannot satisfy the fundamental need for security is not enough in the real political world. A global consensus to abolish nuclear weapons also remains an illusion, and would not survive the inevitable tensions in the community of states.

For Germany, this means that there is no alternative to nuclear sharing within NATO. And so far this has not been called into question by the German government. However, in the security policy discourse, it is important to defend nuclear deterrence as being morally acceptable, instead of keeping quiet about the nuclear issue.

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