Why are nuclear weapons so hard to get rid of? Because they're tied up in nuclear countries' sense of right and wrong

Every five years, the nearly 200 member states of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons meet to review their progress – or lack thereof. After being postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the monthlong conference is now meeting in New York and opened with a stark warning.

The world is “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Aug. 1, 2022, citing growing conflicts and weakening “guardrails” against escalation.

The treaty has three core missions: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to states that do not have them, ensuring civil nuclear energy programs do not turn into weapons programs, and facilitating nuclear disarmament. The last review conference, held in 2015, was widely regarded as a nonproliferation success but a disarmament failure, with the five members that possess nuclear weapons failing to make progress toward eliminating their nuclear arsenals, as promised in previous conferences.

At the heart of this dispute are states’ motivations for keeping nuclear weapons – often perceived as rooted in hard-nosed security strategy, by which morality is irrelevant or even self-defeating.

As a nuclear ethicist, though, I see these explanations as incomplete. To understand leaders’ motives – and therefore effectively negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons – other scholars and I argue we must acknowledge that policymakers express underlying moral concerns as strategic concerns. History shows that such moral concerns often form the foundations of nuclear strategy, even if they’re deeply buried.

National values

It is easier for many people to see how the nuclear abolitionist argument is fundamentally based in morality. The fear of nuclear winter – or even a less severe “nuclear autumn” – is rooted in the immorality of killing millions of innocent people and devastating the environment in long-lasting ways.

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