Earth Rise as Seen From Lunar Surface 5052124921 wikimedia commons 1

Everything you need to know about the Programme on ‘Nuclear Responsibilities’

1. What are ‘nuclear responsibilities’?

‘Nuclear responsibilities’ are the responsibilities of states and other actors around nuclear weapons. These encompass the full range of activities and policies associated with nuclear weapons, including declaratory policy, force structure, safety & security, non-proliferation, risk reduction, and disarmament.


2. Who has nuclear responsibilities?

All actors with the power to influence nuclear weapons policies, behaviours, and cultures have nuclear responsibilities. What these responsibilities are in practice depends upon the actor.

Nuclear responsibilities are principally associated with states in possession of nuclear weapons. These have the greatest ‘special responsibilities,’ because they have the direct power to use nuclear weapons, keep their arsenals safe and secure, and maintain stable relations in their deterrence relationships. Beyond these key responsibilities, they also directly impact nuclear weapons policy by setting their doctrine, promoting non-proliferation, and engaging in nuclear diplomacy at the highest level. This includes nuclear possessor states that lie outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan), in addition to the five that are members of the NPT (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). It is sometimes said that the United States and Russia have the greatest responsibilities, though what this means in practice is the subject of the Programme’s enquiry. 

Non-nuclear possessor states have responsibilities around nuclear weapons too, particularly in relation to adhering to and promoting non-proliferation, ensuring regional security and facilitating dialogue, particularly on risk reduction and disarmament. However, the non-nuclear possessor states are a diverse group, meaning that their responsibilities are differentiated according to their military power, financial and technical capabilities, legacies, and willingness to play a leadership role.

A range of non-state actors also have nuclear responsibilities. These include: 

  • International organisations, such as the United Nations and the OSCE who can influence nuclear diplomacy;
  • Alliances, such as NATO, which is involved in nuclear planning and deployments of nuclear weapons;
  • Researchers at think tanks, universities, and other academic institutions, whose research can educate policymakers and influence change in nuclear weapons policy;
  • Civil society, NGOs and transnational advocacy organisations, who can mobilise influential campaigns to shift public opinion around nuclear weapons;
  • Journalists and the media, who have the potential to influence wider public opinion and democratic debate;
  • Politicians and other public influencers, whose words can have serious effects at both the public and international levels;
  • Private sector organisations such as companies involved in the manufacture of arms and their components, banks, funds, consultancies, and the civil nuclear industry, which can influence financing and procurement of nuclear weapons systems;
  • Scientists and technologists, as far as they can be separated from the above groups, have responsibilities to consider the potential military applications and impacts of their research and inventions.


3. Where do nuclear responsibilities come from?

Nuclear responsibilities come from both legal and normative sources. 

Legally-binding nuclear responsibilities, which we tend to refer to as ‘obligations,’ derive from national and international law. National law can derive from legislation and the courts. International law, under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, is derived from multilateral treaties like the Non-Proliferation Treaty or arms control agreements; customary international law; general principles of international law; and jurisprudence offered by courts and legal scholars, such as the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. By definition, legal obligations supersede normative responsibilities.

Normative nuclear responsibilities originate at both the national and international levels. At the national level, states assign themselves responsibilities around nuclear weapons from a number of sources, which collectively contribute to a unique strategic culture around nuclear weapons. These include the moral convictions of state leaders and voters past and present, national military culture, national religions, and political traditions, as well as more pragmatic considerations. These are codified over time in national policy documents and official statements, or simply ‘felt’ in custom and unwritten rules. The ‘Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities’ aims to bring these felt responsibilities from the unconscious part to the conscious part of the national psyche.

At the international level, nuclear responsibilities derive from international norms of acceptable behaviour, which often take the form of unspoken political agreements among states. These could be codified in soft law documents like best practices, codes of conduct, and guiding principles on responsible conduct. Strangely, few documents like this exist at present, despite equivalent attempts to produce guiding principles around the use of offensive cyber weapons, which are relatively new in international security. Soft law documents can ‘fill in the gaps’ between the fraying patchwork of legal obligations, which are difficult to agree and can often leave large governance vacuums, with negative implications for confidence and predictability.


4. How are nuclear responsibilities allocated among states?

The existential security threats posed by nuclear weapons affect everybody, meaning all states have a common responsibility in the eyes of the law to try to create trust, reduce risks, advance multilateral disarmament. This might also include designing a robust cooperative security architecture to replace nuclear deterrence. Nevertheless, in practice nobody would reasonably expect – say – a small non-nuclear nation like the Marshall Islands to have an equal level of responsibility to the United States or Russia. This is because the United States and Russia have the greatest share of nuclear weapons due to their historic arms racing (whereas the Marshall Islands was a victim of nuclear testing), and because today they have far greater financial or technical capabilities to deal with the effects of the arms race. They have also assumed greater responsibilities in this domain historically, which has created a norm of expectation from other states.

States responsibilities around nuclear weapons, therefore, exist on a spectrum. For some states, responsibilities may be greater in some areas than others, or they may have responsibilities that are altogether different from each other. To express this principle, the Programme has offered the language of “common but differentiated responsibilities, and respective capabilities” (CBDR-RC), which is used to distribute responsibilities in the climate change regime. In other words, all states have common but differentiated nuclear responsibilities, and it is the task of national policy communities, diplomatic officials, and transnational non-governmental networks to agree how responsibilities are allocated between states.


5. What is the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities’ main objective?

The Programme works to contribute to the development of greater trust, assurance, confidence, and transparency between states in relation to nuclear weapons, by building international consensus on the core norms and responsibilities that surround nuclear weapons. In turn, the Programme works on the principle that the improvement of state relations will pave the way for an improvement in the security environment, such as through nuclear risk reduction and multilateral disarmament. By embedding norms and responsibilities, this may lay the political groundwork for new and mutually beneficial legal obligations in the future.

At the discursive level, the Programme aims to foreground states’ responsibilities around nuclear weapons, in order to balance out a general over-reliance upon thinking based on states’ rights or interests in their possession of nuclear weapons. Thinking only in terms of rights primarily at the national level, has led to a resurgence of strategic competition and arms racing; what is needed is greater attention to the ways in which one states’ actions can affect another’s, and particularly to the way in which actions perceived to be defensive by one side can appear offensive to another. Nicholas J. Wheeler and Ken Booth call this ‘Security Dilemma sensibility.’ 

This task is especially urgent given the strains upon the global strategic environment. International legal agreements like the NPT and arms control treaties offer unparalleled opportunities within the global nuclear order to manage strategic relationships, reduce nuclear risks, and facilitate steps towards disarmament. In their absence, however, only robust and shared international norms and responsibilities stand in the way of nuclear anarchy. As key treaties crumble and strategic adversaries rattle their nuclear sabres, clarifying and foregrounding credible nuclear norms and responsibilities is becoming urgent and essential.

There may also be a need to imagine new norms and responsibilities to fill gaps in the remaining patchwork of legal obligations. This requires cooperative, joint-leadership from nuclear and non-nuclear possessor states in an inclusive and pluralistic process. 


6. How does the Programme build consensus on nuclear responsibilities? 

Consensus-building requires both introspection and dialogue. The Programme puts a heavy emphasis on process, by teaching states and experts how to think and talk to each other about their nuclear responsibilities in a respectful and empathic way. This requires officials and experts from each policy community to first go through a process of national reflection and introspection about their conceptions of their own responsibilities, before coming together for an exchange of views mediated by a common language and careful chairing.

The Programme has four key activities to serve the introspection and dialogue processes:

  1. Research, interviews and consultations: to produce baseline understandings of state responsibilities around nuclear weapons and advance the conceptual framework;
  2. National roundtables: in both nuclear and non-nuclear possessor states, so far including Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (Track 1.5);
  3. International Nuclear Responsibilities Dialogues: bringing states together for an exchange of views on core nuclear responsibilities and fostering a new kind of interstate dialogue (Track 1.5);
  4. The Nuclear Responsibilities Hub: the online presence of the Programme, to disseminate findings and bring research together under a single site (forthcoming).

The Programme works on the assumption that conceptions of responsibility evolve over time. Behaviours that were viewed as responsible during the Cold War are today viewed by many as irresponsible – such as the practice of delegating authority to launch tactical nuclear weapons to ground troops – and behaviours seen as responsible today may well be viewed as irresponsible in retrospect. While radical and immediate normative shifts are difficult to pull off, they can be achieved over longer periods of time. In other words, it is possible for norms to shift through an incremental process. This may require setting the benchmark lower than the ideal, in order to help nudge states in the right direction, but to see it as part of a process of longer-term normative change.


7. Does the Programme condone the notion of a ‘responsible nuclear possessor state’?

No. In recent years, all states in possession of nuclear weapons have described themselves as a ‘responsible nuclear possessor state’ or similar (see Suh and Meier, p.8). However, such statements pose several risks and have very limited value without common agreement of what this would entail. Instead, the Programme advocates for discussion among officials and experts of states’ responsibilities (plural noun) around nuclear weapons and against a discussion in which states are labelled as either ‘responsible’ or ‘irresponsible’ (adjective).

The Programme has three main reasons for opposing the ‘responsible nuclear possessor state’ language:

  • First, a nuclear doctrine is made up of numerous nuclear policies with numerous attendant ‘nuclear responsibilities’. It is likely that a state is doing well in some areas of policy and less well in others, and it is for this reason that we speak of nuclear responsibilities, in the plural. To use the binary of responsible vs irresponsible nuclear weapon states is not only reductive, it fundamentally confuses an investigation into states’ behaviours with an investigation into states’ identities.


  • Second, the international community cannot afford to accidentally convince itself that there can be such a thing as responsible (and by implication) indefinite nuclear weapons possession. The stakes here are high, and imagining a ‘responsible nuclear weapon state’ runs the serious risk of reifying the notion that the world can hold onto nuclear weapons safely and securely forever, as long as it does so ‘responsibly.’ The history of nuclear accidents, fallibility of nuclear deterrence, potential of nuclear theft and terrorism, and the unstoppable rise of untold emerging technologies with strategic effects each alone offer sufficient evidence to know this belief should be viewed as misplaced. Moreover, the possession and justification of nuclear arsenals encourages proliferation in other states. Authentically rejecting the ‘responsible nuclear weapon state’ title contributes to a more nuanced and balanced conversation and outweighs any political or diplomatic convenience that such a title might bring in the present day.


  • Third, there is a large segment of the international community – not least, the states of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ – that will not accept the use of the ‘responsible nuclear weapon state’ label on principle, echoing a sentiment by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: ‘There are no “right hands” that can handle these “wrong weapons.”’ Accordingly, to do so is inherently divisive and will likely provoke strong negative reactions (‘there is no such thing as a responsible nuclear weapon state’) that will rapidly stultify dialogue and pull states back into the old tit-for-tat impasse. This is diametrically opposed to the purpose of this Programme, which seeks to provide a forum for genuine collaborative discussion among Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States to have a values-based discussion and build trust, aiding assurance in the long-term disarmament process.


8. When was the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities founded?

The Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities was jointly founded in 2016 by the London think tank BASIC and the academic research centre ICCS (Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security) at the University of Birmingham. Since 2018, the Programme has been principally funded by the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Some funding for the Nuclear Responsibilities Hub has been provided by the University of Birmingham. 


9. Who works on the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities?

Current Staff:

Past Staff:

  • Nina Sofie Pedersen (Researcher, BASIC)
  • Rochelle McKenzie-Spooner (Research intern, BASIC)
  • Charlotte Duffy (Intern, ICCS)
  • Natalie Alfred (Intern, ICCS)

Get involved! The Programme would like to actively encourage people to get involved in the programme by emailing Alice Spilman ([email protected]) with your ideas.


10. What are the Programme’s activities to date?

November 2016, London – Track II roundtable in London with distinguished international participants, making an initial exploration of the frame of responsibilities. Read the report: Responsible Nuclear Sovereignty and the Future of the Global Nuclear Order (February 2017).

June 2018, London – Track 1.5 roundtable held between BASIC and the Centre for Science & Security Studies at King’s College London, making an initial exploration of India and Pakistan’s responsibilities around nuclear weapons. Read the report: Indian and Pakistani Nuclear Responsibilities (January 2019).

October 2018, London – Track 1.5 roundtable at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office exploring the United Kingdom’s responsibilities around nuclear weapons.

January 2019, Tokyo – Track 1.5 roundtable at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) exploring Japan’s responsibilities around nuclear weapons. Read the report: Common but Differentiated Nuclear Responsibilities: Perspectives from Tokyo (February 2019).

February 2019, Kuala Lumpur – Track 1.5 roundtable at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) exploring Malaysia’s responsibilities around nuclear weapons. Read the report: Nuclear Responsibilities in an Interconnected World: Perspectives from Kuala Lumpur (April 2019).

March 2019, Geneva – Track I roundtable at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) bringing the nuclear responsibilities framework to a wide range of NNWS. Read the report: Common Security through Nuclear Responsibilities: Perspectives from Geneva (August 2019).

May 2019, New York – Side Event at the 2019 Prep Com with a panel of officials from the United Kingdom, Japan, Malaysia, and Geneva events feeding back on the framework in a public setting. Read the write-up: Nuclear Responsibilities at the NPT Preparatory Committee 2019 (June 2019).

August 2019, The Hague – Track 1.5 roundtable at the Clingendael Institute, exploring the responsibilities of the Netherlands around nuclear weapons. Read the report: (January 2020).

November 2019, New Delhi – Track 1.5 roundtable at the Centre for Air Power Studies, exploring the responsibilities of India around nuclear weapons.

November 2019, São Paulo – Track 1.5 roundtable at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, exploring the responsibilities of Brazil around nuclear weapons. Read the report: (January 2020)

If you are an interested expert or represent a state and are interested in hosting a consultation on nuclear responsibilities in your country or region, write to Sebastian Brixey-Williams: [email protected].

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard