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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


  • 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 is undemocratic The decision to use nuclear weapons is made by a very small group of people at the top of a nation's leadership. Given the fact that the use of nuclear weapons can affect millions of people and even civilization itself, the use of nuclear weaponis can be seen as highly undemoctractic.
  • Nuclear weapons must be abolished to avoid nuclear accidents Accidents are a common occurrence with nuclear weapons. Nuclear submarines have sunken many times in history. Military airplanes holding nuclear eapons have crashed in history has well. Nuclear missiles in silos, too, have exploded unexpectedly. These accidents can be minimized by never fully eliminated. The chances are good that at some point in the future a catastrophic nuclear accident will occur.
  • Nuclear submarine accidents are a global hazard Numerous nuclear submarines have accidentally sunk. Some of these have fallen to the bottom of the ocean where they are never to be recovered. The problem with this is that the nuclear missiles on board are likely to leak radioactive materials into the environemnt, causing significant harm.
  • Many leaders support abolishing nuclear weapons An impressive list of historic international leaders support the abolition of nuclear weapons. These leaders include Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, and Michail Gorbachev among others. Given that many of these leaders were heavily involved in the Cold War and nuclear deterrence national security formation, and that many of them are hard-core security "realists", their calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons is certainly significant.
  • The threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons depends on the threat of nuclear weapons to civilian populations of an opposing country. Yet, even the implicit threat of the use of force against civilian forces violates all international legal protections provided to civilians in time of war.
  • Many states that could build nuclear weapons haven't Many states are technically capable of building nuclear weapons, but have made a moral choice not to. Nuclear states should respect the responsibility this demonstrates on the part of non-nuclear stats, and should correspondingly take action to reduce their own stockpiles.
  • Terrorists are not deterred by the threat of nuclear weapons Terrorists are frequently willing to kill themselves to commit acts of terrorism. Therefore, the threat of retaliotory death and destruction against terrorists will not create a level of fear within them that will "deter" them from committing an initial terrorist act.


  • 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.
  • Great power rivalries maintain importance of nuclear deterrence Great power rivalries persist between such countries as the United States, Russia, and the United States, even though the United States' is more powerful at this time. Nuclear deterrence remains a factor in the relative stability that persists between these great powers, and the abolition of nuclear weapons would eliminate this stability.
  • Nuclear deterrence helps prevent conflict Nuclear deterrence can increase the risks associated with armed conflict, elevating fears that small conflicts can rise into nuclear conflicts with intolerably high costs. This can forestall the outbreak of violence.
  • Nuclear deterrence remains important in the post-Cold War era Many believe that the end of the Cold War spelled the end of the notion of nuclear deterrence. Yet, nuclear deterrence remains relevant and an important element of international stability. As mentioned above, great power rivalries between China the United States and Russia seem to persist, and nuclear weapons help maintain the level of sobriety between them.
  • Nuclear weapons deter even rogue states Rogue states are often thought to be irrational, making it impossible to deter them with the threat of nuclear weapons. But the leaders of rogue states are focused primarily on maintaining power, and will not jeopardize that power by taking actions that could lead to a retaliatory response by a nuclear power.
  • Nuclear abolition could not prevent covert nuclear programs While it may be possible to, at one point, achieve the abolition of all nuclear weapons, it is not possible to ensure that some states would not attempt to engage covert nuclear weapons programs. It's not possible to implement sufficient enforcement mechanisms to prevent a rogue state, for example, for covertly developing nuclear weapons. And, without nuclear arsenals, "well-behaved" states would be less capable of compelling rogue states to comply with the ban.

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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