The Ban on Nuclear Weapons – Austria’s Perspective - and a Compromise


The Ban on Nuclear Weapons – Austria’s Perspective - and a Compromise 

Heinz Gärtner

Presentation of our member of the Advisory Board, Prof. Heinz Gärtner at a panel on the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at the Stanford University, July 19, 2017.

At a United Nations Conference on July 7, 122 state parties voted in favour of a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. No nuclear-weapon state nor their allies participated (except the Netherlands, which voted against). The treaty expresses concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and calls for their complete elimination.

Eventually, these two positions are not compatible. Those who want to ban nuclear weapons oppose those who want to keep them. Even though the catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons are widely recognized, nuclear weapon states will not give up what the root causes of the existence of these weapons are: the concept of nuclear deterrence, what they think protects them from a nuclear or massive conventional attack.

The perspectives of non-nuclear weapon states are different. They renounced nuclear weapons and joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1969. Most of them thought that it would be one way to avoid becoming a primary target in the case of a nuclear war. Even some neutral countries, which wanted to stay out of the military/nuclear blocs of the Cold War, experimented, like Sweden and Switzerland, with the development of nuclear weapons, as did Canada and Germany.

Take Austria for example, which can be seen as representative for non-nuclear weapon states. After the adoption of its neutrality declaration in the second half of the fifties, Austria became a model for a zone of disengagement without nuclear weapons in Central Europe (the Rapacki-Plan, named after the Polish Foreign Minister). Because of the emerging concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) it was not implemented, although the idea never died. (On the Website of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, you can find a plan for a modernized plan for nuclear weapon free zone in Europe.)

Not least because of its neutral status, Austria became host of several international organizations like the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the CTBTO (Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization), the secretariat of the OSCE (Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, earlier CSCE), the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Control of Conventional Arms, and many others. The legendary Austrian chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, who founded the Vienna Center of these organizations, famously said in the seventies, that Austria might be able to avoid becoming a first target during a nuclear war because of the existence of these negotiating fora. This was an early version of self-declared “negative security assurances”, which are a declaration not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. In 1979, US President Carter und the Soviet Secretary General Brezhnev signed the SALT II Treaty in Vienna. In 2015, the five members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Iran chose Vienna, not least because of its neutrality, to negotiate the nuclear agreement (JCPOA).

Since 2010 Austria became the main sponsor of the initiative of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. An “Austrian Pledge”, which later became the “Humanitarian Pledge”, was signed by 127 states in 2014. Austria hosted one of the three conferences on this issue after Norway and Mexico. The Austrian President Heinz Fischer said before the UN-General Assembly: “Abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish you!” In 2016 the UNGA adopted a resolution, which calls “for a total elimination” of nuclear weapons. Austria’s representative proposed to hold the first meeting of signatory states to the Treaty of July 2017 on United Nations premises in Vienna.

Is there room for compromise?

There are two opposing views of security. The nuclear-weapon states feel more protected with nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear-weapon states think they are more secure because they have none. They also believe that the nuclear-weapon states and their population are more in danger because they are a primary target in a nuclear exchange.

The non-nuclear-weapon states have the feeling that they sacrificed something by renouncing nuclear weapons, however. They did not get what they expected in exchange. The nuclear-weapon-states did not meet their obligations to seriously negotiate “general and complete disarmament” as required in Article VI of the NPT. There were two classes of parties to the treaty: the “haves” and the “have nots”. That is why non-nuclear weapon states pushed for the ban treaty to close the gap, which has to be legally binding. They will not get the ban from the nuclear weapon states, however.

What else could they get in return, instead?

It could be the promise by nuclear-weapon states not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. These “negative security assurances” (NSAs) have to be legally binding and not only self-declared. This is not asking for too much. NSAs are less than non-first use pledges, because they would only apply to non-nuclear-weapon states.

What about allies of nuclear-weapon states? They are under the umbrella of the “extended deterrence”. Extended deterrence is the opposite of NSAs. NSAs are the promise by nuclear weapon states not to use nuclear weapons. Extended deterrence is the promise to use nuclear weapons. Allies still could get the benefits of NSAs if nuclear-weapon states renounce their reservation not to use nuclear weapons against states that are in a military alliance with a nuclear-armed state.

NSAs in the protocols of the treaties on nuclear-weapon-free-zones (NWFZ) are already legally binding. The nuclear-weapon states would have to sign and ratify these protocols. Iran, for example, is a strong supporter of the NWFZ in the Middle East, so are the Arab States. Iran could join the NWFZ-Treaty in Central Asia if the US ratified its protocol. Iran would get NSAs and at the same time allay concerns about its nuclear program in the future. If the Arab States would do the same with the NWFZ in Africa, Israel’s rational of nuclear weapons would also fade.

If a ban of nuclear weapons is not acceptable for nuclear-weapon states, and their disarmament efforts are not sufficient for non-nuclear-weapon states, NSAs could be a compromise at low costs. NSAs would not be an alternative to the ban treaty but one realistic step closer to it.


Heinz Gärtner is Professor for Political Science in Vienna, currently at CISAC in Stanford, advisor to the Ministry of Defense and member of the advisory board of the International Institute for Peace.