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Debate: Abolition of nuclear weapons

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Should Nuclear Weapons be abolished?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Bobby Webster. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 forever changed the face of war, and the half-century of Cold War which followed was dominated, above all, by the threat of nuclear destruction. Both superpowers raced to produce a greater arsenal than their opponents, leading to the point where they had the ability to destroy the world several times over. Added to the direct destructive power of the weapons was the consensus growing among scientists from 1970s onwards that a major war would plunge the world into a ‘nuclear winter’, destroying life even in places that had escaped attack. This led to the concept of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, a stalemate in which both sides knew that the use of their weapons would lead to their own destruction as well as their enemies’.The global situation has, however, changed substantially since the end of the Cold War. Nuclear Weapons have ceased to dominate world politics; however, the fear of proliferation – the spread of weapons of mass destruction to many more countries – is also on the rise.The Proposition in this debate will focus on the total abolition of the world’s nuclear arsenals as a realistic goal to aim for. The opposition is more pragmatic, not defending the weapons per se but insisting that they remain a necessary evil.

Argument #1


  • Argument: Nuclear weapons immorally threaten mass murder. Over the past fifty years, we have seen a general tendency towards limited warfare and precision weapons, allowing military objectives to be achieved with minimal loss of civilian life. The entire point of nuclear weapons, however, is their massive, indiscriminate destructive power. Their use could kill tens of thousands of civilians directly, and their catastrophic environmental after-effects would harm many more all around the world. These effects could never be morally acceptable.


  • The use of nuclear weapons would indeed be a great tragedy; but so, to a greater or lesser extent, is any war. The reason for maintaining an effective nuclear arsenal is in fact to prevent war. By making the results of conflict catastrophic, a strategic deterrent discourages conflict. The Cold War was in fact one of the most peaceful times in history, particularly in Europe, largely because of the two superpowers' nuclear deterrents.

Argument #2


  • The idea of a so-called 'nuclear deterrent' no longer applies. Peace during the Cold War was maintained only by a balance of power - neither superpower had an advantage large enough to be confident of victory. This eventually became the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction: both sides had sufficient weaponry to totally annihilate one another, and potentially the whole world. However, there is no longer a balance of power. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, some rogue states may develop the ability to strike at enemies who have no nuclear weapons of their own. It is not clear that the major nuclear powers would then strike back at the aggressor. This is further complicated by the fact that most of the emerging nuclear threats would not be from legitimate governments but from dictators and terrorist groups. Would it ever be acceptable to kill thousands of civilians for the actions of extremists?


  • The deterrent principle still stands. During the Gulf War, for example, one of the factors which prevented Iraq from launching missiles tipped with chemical weapon warheads against Israel was the threat the USA would retaliate with a nuclear strike. Although there is no longer as formal a threat of retaliation as there was during the Cold War, the very possibility that the use of nuclear weapons by a rogue state could be met a retaliatory strike is too great a threat to ignore. Moreover, although the citizens of the current nuclear powers may be against the use of force against civilians, their opinions would rapidly change if they found weapons of mass destruction being used against them.

Argument #3


  • Argument: Nuclear weapons encourage further nuclear proliferation To be a part of the so-called 'nuclear club' is seen as a matter of great prestige; when India and Pakistan recently declared their nuclear capability, it was seen in both countries as increasing their international status. Also, nations opposed to a nuclear power feel that they need to develop their own capability in order to protect themselves. The declared nuclear powers must therefore take the lead in disarmament, as an example for the rest of the world.


It's not possible to abolish nuclear weapons now that the are at large. Nuclear technology exists, and there is no way to un-invent it. Much as the ideal of global disarmament is fine, the reality is that it is impossible: it takes only one rogue state to maintain a secret nuclear capability to make the abolition of the major powers' deterrents unworkable. Without the threat of a retaliatory strike, this state could attack others at will.

Argument #4


  • Argument: Nuclear weapons could fall into terrorists' hands. This is particularly true in Russia, which now had control of all of the nuclear weapons which were distributed around the former Soviet Union. The military is disastrously underfunded; technicians and officers who were used to a high standard of living are now finding themselves without pay, sometimes for years. At the same time, other states and extremist groups are willing to pay substantial sums for their services, and to gain access to nuclear weapons. The danger of a weapon being stolen, or - in consideration of the current political instability in Russia - a nuclear base being taken over by disgruntled members of the military or other extremists, can only be ended by destroying the weapons.


  • The plutonium in nuclear warheads cannot simply be destroyed. Instead, they must be stored in special facilities; in Russia, there are some thousand sites were military nuclear material is stored. It is producing this plutonium which is in fact the most difficult stage in building a weapon - by dismantling missiles, you are therefore not destroying their most dangerous part, and hence the risk of theft does not decrease. In fact, it may increase: missile silos in Russia are still the most heavily funded part of the military, whereas in recent years it has become clear that security at storage facilities is often inadequate. Moreover, it is far easier to steal a relatively small quantity of plutonium than an entire Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Ironically, the safest place for plutonium in present-day Russia may be on top of such a missile.

Pro/con resources





  • This House would abolish nuclear weapons
  • This House would ban the bomb

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