A new debate on nuclear arms


"There are nine nations sitting on top of 15,000

nuclear weapons."

Tom Sauer


The threat presented by nuclear weapons is dire, with nuclear-armed nations maintaining enough firepower to destroy the world many times over. But nuclear disarmament expert Tom Sauer, associate professor of international politics at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, says there are reasons to be hopeful — if you know where to look and are willing to act.

For two years in the late 1990s, thanks to a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship (sponsored by the Rotary Club of Tessenderlo, Belgium), Sauer was a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the Kennedy School of Government — "an academic paradise," he says.

Sauer has written on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nuclear terrorism, and NATO’s role in nuclear policy. In June, at the Rotary International Convention in Hamburg, Germany, he received the Rotary Alumni Global Service Award.

THE ROTARIAN: How dangerous are nuclear weapons to the world right now?

SAUER: Nuclear arms control is not in the news much except for stories about North Korea and Iran, so-called rogue states. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Iran probably would like to. But there are nine nations sitting on top of 15,000 nuclear weapons. In the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, nucleararmed states promised to get rid of nuclear weapons. Based on this promise, more than 180 states agreed never to produce nuclear weapons. The states that don’t have nuclear weapons feel that they fulfilled their obligations, while the five states that had nuclear arms at the time of the treaty [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States] have not fulfilled their obligations. These nuclear nations have kept their nuclear weapons and have not eliminated their arsenals as agreed.

TR: What are non-nuclear states doing about it?

SAUER: Two years ago, 122 states negotiated the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or "the ban treaty." It bans nuclear weapons because they’re too destructive. If that treaty enters into force, then the states that have signed this treaty will regard nuclear weapons as immoral, inhumane, and illegitimate, but also illegal.

TR: What do supporters of the treaty hope it will accomplish?

SAUER: The purpose of the treaty is to strengthen the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons and even the possession of nuclear weapons, and to start a new debate, especially inside the nuclear-armed states like France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

We can see already some positive indications in this regard. The managers of Norway’s pension fund, one of the largest in the world, decided to stop investing in nuclear-weaponsrelated business. The biggest Dutch pension fund followed last year. And I was involved in convincing one of the biggest Belgian banks, KBC, to do the same. Why did the banks decide to switch? Because of pressure from the public. People who have savings accounts can email their banks.

You have to think about the longer term and ask: Do we want a world with more nuclear weapon states and maybe nonstate actors — terrorist organizations — acquiring nuclear weapons, and then risk that they will be used? There’s only one way to eliminate the possibility that they can be used: eliminate the weapons systems. I know that it will be very difficult. I’m not talking about tomorrow or the day after. But if you want to do that, we have to start to think about it now.