Peace, Democracy and Nuclear Weapons. Interview with Kjølv Egeland

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Kjølv Egeland. Nuclear Knowledges

Can nuclear weapons promote peace? Do they really secure peace? What about democracy? How democratic are nuclear weapons? Kjølv Egeland has joined CERI for a two-year period, within the Nuclear Knowledges programme. We are interested in knowing more about his research interests and his perspective on the relationship between nuclear weapons and peace and democracy.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background: What was the subject of your PhD and which were your thematic and geographic areas of focus?

I did my PhD in International Relations at the University of Oxford, Wadham College. In my thesis , I investigated the evolution of the institutional–legal framework for multilateral nuclear disarmament from the 1960s to 2017. I argued that regime innovation—and resulting institutional expansion—has taken place in relatively short bursts of activity following longer periods of stasis. The purpose of the thesis was to understand both the origins of these innovations and their political functions and effects on the wider non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Focusing on the multilateral system as such, I did not have a geographic focus beyond diplomatic sites such as New York and Geneva. However, there are a few states that stand out as having been particularly active in multilateral nuclear disarmament diplomacy over the years, perhaps most notably Mexico. I think there’s an element of path-dependency to states’ involvement in international issues, including non-proliferation and disarmament. For example, Mexico’s emergence as an unofficial voice of the neutral and non-aligned world in arms control and disarmament negotiations in the 1960s was in no small measure a product of the competence and eloquence of the Mexican ambassador for disarmament at the time, Alfonso García Robles. Mexico has retained its position as a champion of disarmament causes ever since.

Can you quickly describe and explain the project you are working for here at CERI?

I’ve been lucky to have been awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship to work on the politics of global nuclear order. I will be part of the Nuclear Knowledges programme at CERI, a unique research team headed by Professor Benoît Pelopidas. I’m really pleased to be here, as I think this is one of the best places in the world to be for someone who is interested in interrogating the fundamentals of the nuclear condition.

Specifically, I will be analysing the creation and diffusion by governments, companies, and international organisations of “strategic narratives” about nuclear affairs. Strategic narratives are usually defined as instruments of projecting a shared story about the past and future of an international issue in order to shape the behaviour and opinions of domestic and international audiences. The Nuclear Knowledges team and I are very keen to learn from and engage with the wider scholarly community at CERI and Sciences Po.

What do you currently focus on in your research?

I’m currently working on a paper on the politics of extended nuclear deterrence. In my view, the literature on extended nuclear deterrence has been impaired by a dependence on unreliable sources, in particular public statements by government officials. Given that such statements are frequently intended to produce a political or strategic effect—for example to convince someone that a particular threat is “credible” when it in reality is a bluff—they cannot be taken as evidence of an objective state of affairs. Nuclear deterrence, in this view, is an “illocutionary” phenomenon that invites all kinds of interesting language games that can and should be analysed by scholars.

In a chapter you recently published (“ Nuclear Abolition from Baruch to the Ban ”) you recall IR theorist Kenneth Waltz’ argument that “those who like peace should love nuclear weapons.” Would you mind commenting on this stance?

It’s an interesting and provocative claim, but also quite problematic.

First, Waltz doesn’t explain what he means by “peace.” Some would argue that, even if it were true that nuclear weapons fostered peace in the sense of an absence of war, a “pace” founded on implicit or explicit threats of mass murdering civilians across vast stretches of time and space is not a true peace. In fact, in a newspaper article entitled “You and the atomic bomb,” George Orwell theorised that nuclear weapons might produce a “peace that is no peace” already in 1945.

Second, Waltz does not take seriously the potential for accidents and miscalculation; we know that the non-use of nuclear weapons in war since 1945 has depended, in part, on sheer luck. Basing peace and global security on continued fortuity seems to me a pretty radical idea. Professor Pelopidas has written a brilliant paper about the reluctance of scholars and policymakers alike to face the facts and take luck seriously.

Third, the problem with Waltz’ argument that the presence of nuclear weapons fosters peace is that, even if deterrence “works” in some or even most cases, it is not clear that it will work perfectly or forever. In his novel Einstein’s Monsters English writer Martin Amis puts this well when he argues that deterrence “can’t last out the necessary timespan, which is roughly between now and the death of the sun.”

Would you mind explaining what the nuclear peace hypothesis entails?

The nuclear peace hypothesis is the notion that the so-called long peace between the major powers since the Second World War was (and remains) produced by mutual nuclear deterrence. This hypothesis is frequently made by bureaucrats and politicians alike, in countries like France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, but is difficult to verify empirically. The idea that nuclear weapons cause peace is at any rate only one hypothesis (or “bet” on the future ) among many alternative hypotheses.

After all, it is difficult to isolate the independent effect of nuclear deterrence from general deterrence, let alone other potential causes of peace such as the expansion of international institutions and law, economic development, and access to education. It seems clear that there has been a long-term global decrease in the likelihood of war, and that this decrease has taken place across nuclear and non-nuclear-armed states alike. The nuclear peace hypothesis is of course also vulnerable to the same critiques as Waltz’ suggestion that those who love peace should love the bomb.

Why is nuclear deterrence undemocratic?

In my chapter “Nuclear Abolition from Baruch to the Ban” I argue that nuclear deterrence policies are often undemocratic for the simple reason that the citizens of the states that possess or host nuclear weapons are rarely if ever consulted on matters of nuclear policy. As pointed out by Robert Dahl and other scholars, nuclear policy is typically managed by an unelected elite or “guardianship.” In France, for example, there is little to no public debate about quite significant issues such as the ongoing modernisation of the French nuclear armoury, the relationship between nuclear-use policies and international humanitarian law, or the positions taken by France on nuclear issues in diplomatic forums.

Moreover, all the major political parties in France agree on the fundamentals of French nuclear policy, meaning that individual citizens are prevented from voting for policy changes. Additionally, nuclear policy could be argued to be undemocratic also in the sense that the decisions of one person could have profound consequences for millions or even billions of people in other countries. We know, for example, that even a limited nuclear war would have serious ramifications for the global climate and, by extension, staple food production worldwide. These and other humanitarian and environmental concerns have recently contributed to the emergence of renewed efforts to stigmatise and abolish nuclear weapons, such as the adoption in 2017 of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by 122 non-nuclear-weapon states.

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI