New Nuclear Initiative talk by Women in War and International Politics

Yesterday evening in the Kings College Maughan Library was a two-part event by Women in War and International Politics on being a woman in nuclear studies and so-called New Nuclear Initiatives. The panelists were:

  • Andrea Berger, Research Fellow in Nuclear Analysis at RUSI
  • Heather Williams, Research Fellow on Nuclear Weapons Policy at Chatham House
  • Dr. Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst in Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at IISS
  • Dr. Nicola Horsburgh, British Academy Post-Doc Research Fellow at Oxford


The first part of the event was off the record, but suffice it to say that the panelists gave frank advice on what can be expected in nuclear work as someone with a uterus. While slightly depressing, it was encouraging to see four successful women who had tackled academia, think tanks, and defense departments on the panel in front of me.

New Nuclear Initiatives

M. Berger began the second half of the talk by outlining the lack of leadership in the P-5 process: no state seems comfortable or interested in spearheading a public discussion on nuclear disarmament. While the UK began the initiative in 2009, it now is only interested in a supporting role; US domestic stakeholders are disinterested; Putin continues to benefit from taking a tough stance toward Washington and so won’t engage in bilateral disarmament; France  prefers to have nuclear discussions in private rather than public; and China is disinterested. The result is stagnation.

M. Williams focused on US-Russian arms control and outlined three possibilities for disarmament: unilateral reduction in nuclear arsenal on the part of the US; pressure for bilateral US-Russian disarmament from non-nuclear states; and status quo. Unilateral disarmament is attractive because it lends itself to informal discussions and potential reciprocity while bypassing a lengthy debate in Congress (see H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative); however any reduction of US missile defense in Europe would require NATO’s approval. Additional difficulties lie in Russia’s national identity as a nuclear superpower, and the declining credibility of Congress in Moscow (and elsewhere).

Dr. Horsburgh discussed China’s nuclear history and its current stance on disarmament. China was a “late-comer” to nuclear politics, but has since become a skilled and confident actor. Only possessing approximately 240 nuclear weapons, China does not consider the technology to be special in the same guarded way other P-5 states do. China’s approach to nuclear policy is supportive of the NPT regime but not the PSI, which it sees as too aggressive; weary of multilateral arms control, and as such is fairly obstructionist; and it is not an initiator in nuclear politics, excluding the No First Use Treaty. China is currently developing a glossary of nuclear terms, which sounds fluffy until you realize that the P-5 do not agree on the definitions of “warhead” and “fissile material”, impairing negotiations. Finally, China is less worried about nuclear terrorism than about a civilian nuclear accident which would affect economic growth.

Dr. Nielsen examined the humanitarian initiative with an eye toward the NPT review in 2015. States supporting the humanitarian initiative fall into two camps: those who promote salience regarding nuclear weapons and “ban fans”; while the former wish to prepare for the use of and potential accidents involving nuclear technology, the latter seek to challenge the role of nuclear arms in security doctrines, contesting the social construct of deterrence. She suggested that if the ban fans want to keep the P-5 on board with the humanitarian initiative, they should be careful and slow or else the P-5 will block it, as France as done with the February 2014 conference in Mexico.

Following questions from audience, the panelists discussed France’s difficulties regarding the Iran nuclear deal, the opaque nature of P-5 nuclear policies and the lack of confidence building measures taken by P-5 states, Egypt’s strong position regarding the Middle-East WMD-free zone, and the false distinction between “nuclear” and “non-nuclear” states. Finally, they summarized that any dialogue between P-5 states is a success, and that the NPT review in 2015 won’t make or break the regime but we should not expect much progress.

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