Report: Nuclear Responsibilities – A New Approach for Thinking and Talking about Nuclear Weapons

Co-Authors: Sebastian Brixey-Williams and Nicholas J. Wheeler

Nuclear Responsibilities: A New Approach for Thinking and Talking about Nuclear Weapons responds to the heightening nuclear risks in the world today and the deep polarisation in global politics over how to reduce them. Strategic competition among the nuclear possessors is growing, while traditional risk reduction mechanisms like arms control have uncertain futures. Between nuclear possessors and non-possessor states, the polarisation is exemplified in the heated debate between those who support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – which in October 2020 secured the 50 state ratifications necessary to come into force – and those who declare that nuclear weapons remain essential tools for deterrence.

This report, by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham, makes the case for a new way of thinking and talking about nuclear weapons: the nuclear responsibilities approach. We argue that the dominant global conversation about nuclear weapons is characterised by a chronic culture of blame. This feeds dynamics of mistrust and distrust between states, holding back serious progress on nuclear risk reduction including, crucially, disarmament.

Reaching out to those of all perspectives, we seek in this report to suggest ways, and crucially propose a new method, to gradually shift the nature of the contemporary global conversation on nuclear weapons away from one characterised by rights, blame, and suspicion towards one framed by responsibility, empathic cooperation, and even trust.  

The Nuclear Responsibilities Method we propose distills the approach into a facilitated two-stage process, designed to support officials, non-governmental experts, and publics to better understand their own responsibilities and those of others in relation to nuclear weapons. In the first stage, critical introspection, parties are invited to critically reflect on how they perceive and understand their own nuclear responsibilities. In the second stage, empathic dialogue, parties are brought together and given the opportunity to see themselves through the eyes of others, and as a result, look to develop new shared understandings of responsibilities that can lead to policies and practices reducing the risks of nuclear conflict. 

We ‘road-tested’ a prototype of the Method between 2018-2020 with diverse stakeholders in the capitals of five states with traditionally different perspectives on the legitimacy of nuclear weapons – Brazil, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom – before bringing representatives together for a meaningful conversation in London in January 2020. The results suggested great potential for the nuclear responsibilities approach to promote a more constructive dialogue on nuclear weapons, as well as be adapted in the future to facilitate a cross-domain dialogue that incorporates space, cyber, and other strategic domains.

Read the report below:

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