Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Arms Control Versus Nuclear-Free World

March 4, 2011

Arms control will not lead to a nuclear-free world, asserted David Mutimer at a talk last semester at the Institute.

“While arms control can produce limits, it works against the overall elimination of arms," said Mutimer, who is deputy director of the Centre for International and Security Studies at York University.

Mutimer identified the continuity between President Barack Obama’s policies and nuclear arms thinking during the Cold War. There were three operative concepts in nuclear policies during the Cold War: vulnerability, strategic stability, and equality. This has not changed, said Mutimer, who analyzed language in Obama’s speeches and treaties to support his claim.

NATO’s “new strategic concept” did not strike Mutimer as new at all; NATO retains nuclear weapons at the heart of security policy, he said.

Mutimer viewed current arms control policies through Michel Foucault’s writing on “govermentality,” or government rationality. Arms control has become central to states’ conceptions of themselves as modern, rational states, he said, emphasizing that assumptions about arms control are not simply the products of Cold War thinkers, but are much more deeply rooted in nations’ histories.

Today’s realities of war prove that nuclear weapons are irrelevant to security, Mutimer said. As illustrated by 9/11, terrorists cannot be stopped by nuclear weapons.

“If the weapons don’t provide security, they aren’t really weapons at all,” he said.

As a result, Mutimer advocated nuclear disarmament outside the framework of arms control. Even without a bilateral treaty, NATO could safely disarm.

Mutimer sees some hope for a nuclear-free world in President Obama. While Obama has identified nuclear weapons as central elements of overall security strategy, his language provides scope for reducing their role, Mutimer said.

Still however, change will require a shift in thinking about nuclear weapons. Currently, arms control policy is “designed to make us safe in a world with nuclear weapons, not without them,” he said.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11