Dong-Joon and Gartzke – Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation 

This week we move on from military human enhancement to nuclear proliferation. We begin this topic by looking at ‘Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation‘ by Dong-Joon Jo, and Erik Gartzke (Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume: 51 issue: 1, page(s): 167-194), available here. It is a great study using mixed methods to analyse what factors affect nuclear proliferation. Here are our thoughts:

In this paper the authors conduct a statistical analysis of nuclear proliferation and offer some insight into factors influencing proliferation, and trends going forward. While I have little to offer in terms of the practical application of the study itself (I am not a statistics scholar), I find some of the conclusions quite interesting. Most notably perhaps is the fact that the authors claim ‘there is no difference between democracy and autocracy in terms of a tendency to pursue nuclear weapons production programs’ (186). To be honest, I’m not really sure how much we can take from this conclusion, as I would suggest this trend has more to do with the outcomes of the Second World War, and the following Cold War, than it has to do with nuclear weapons per se. I wonder then if perhaps the authors are confusing symptom and cause? 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

I found this paper to be excellent. I love the surety that the quantitative analysis brings to this study, and indeed found the conclusions to be wonderful. It must be disappointing to those who put so much effort in to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and continue to work for its application for it only to result in ‘modest or marginal impacts on nuclear proliferation.‘ The article also looks at reasons for this. But it made me wonder if there are better option for arms control? If the NPT does very little, what options could there be to create a greater impact? As mentioned in previous weeks, soft law might be an option, but is also problematic. I remember in Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature the suggestion that taboo plays a very large role in preventing WMD use, but negative press are hardly going to be of concern to a nation using a nuclear strike as the last hope for state survival. Perhaps, a concerted effort from all angles is required. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

How should states strike the best balance between medical ethics, human rights, national security, and international law? 

This week we go back to thinking about questions, and answering:

How should states strike the best balance between medical ethics, human rights, national security, and international law?

It is, of course, a difficult one. Here’s what we thought. Let us know your answers below.

For me, this question highlights the problematic and abstract nature of the state, ethics, law, the human and ‘human rights’. While we (for the most part) assume these concepts are all set in stone, the reality is that they are anything but, and we exist in a permanent situation of Orwellian ‘double think’ in which we tell ourselves the world works in a different way to that in which it actually does.  

The question then for me is one of presentation vs representation – or rather ‘what states say’ and ‘what states do’. We shouldn’t then be asking so much how states should balance the four categories in this question, but rather why they should balance them. Without a proper debate on the question of why, then the question of how we go about achieving balance doesn’t make much sense. 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

To me, this question is difficult to answer. Quite honestly I don’t see anything wrong with the current set up that deal with military human enhancement.  

In terms of international law, there is nothing wrong with using enhanced soldiers. What would be problematic about having military personnel be less tired, more accurate, and take greater care in terms of the two central tenants of the law of armed conflict to only attack lawful targets and reduce civilian suffering? If we could have current military personnel do a better job of those we would think it great, but some people falsely believe that this is suddenly problematic if the individuals are medically enhanced. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to argue that if super soldiers would reduce civilian harm, that the law of armed conflict would require their use. 

In terms of national security, better soldiers mean more efficient forces and a likely quicker end to conflicts. Who doesn’t want that? The only national security issues I could think of would be if soldier-spies were used to infiltrate foreign countries under the guise of being ordinary humans only to begin a violent campaign from within, or the increased likelihood of other states wanting to steal information on super soldier programmes in order to create their own and compete (with all the issues that creates). 

I don’t really see any issue of human rights for using super soldiers. However, there are clear rights issues for the soldiers themselves if the enhancement programme creates unexpected results, or if they are somehow coerced into participating. These issues are, however, not new and are present in all medical experiments.  

Not having much experience in medical ethics, the key issue that jumps out at me it’s whether these super soldiers would still be human after enhancement.  

It seems to me that although there are clear issues, I don’t see any reason why current frameworks would not be sufficient in international law and human rights. National security frameworks would seem to be sufficient as they currently recognise and prevent foreign intelligence agents and transnational espionage; although they obviously have trouble identifying this, perhaps all that is needed is greater vigilance. I doubt medical ethics would allow for procedures taking personnel beyond humanity, so I don’t see any problem there. So, apart from greater vigilance in terms of national security I do not see what is wrong with current frameworks.  

It would be possible to improve the current situation, but the terms of that improvement would be ideologically biased. Either decision-makers would want to ease, or salt, the path towards super soldiers, so any ‘improvements’ to the current framework would only be seen as positive if they align with your ideological bent. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Mehlmann, Lin, Abeny – Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy

We are continuing our look at military human enhancement, with ‘Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy‘ by Maxwell Mehlman, Patrick Lin, and Keith Abney, available here. It is a very wide-ranging about through consideration of pretty much every aspect of military human enhancement for a policy audience.

Here are out thoughts:

This long, detailed report attempts to define key terms and principles in relation to warfighter enhancements in order to create a framework with which to understand military risk, ethics and policy. Unfortunately, I do find many of the authors’ distinctions arbitrary, and certainly problematic in terms of how they choose to define ‘enhancement’ – a word on which much of this report is based.

Another problem for me is that perhaps too little thought is given to the robot in warfare. While I certainly agree that robotics and bio-enhancements are (sort of) aiming towards the same goal, I don’t think the authors quite understand the ethics and implications of the machine when compared with the human. To suggest, as they do in the conclusion, that machines don’t have a sense of ethics (and we must assume, that humans therefore *do*) (86), is for me, to mistake the point, and not to engage with what is in reality quite a complex and detailed debate. I for one certainly don’t ascribe to the authors’ implied sentiment that a human will always be more ethical than a machine. Are human soldiers not ‘machines’ already?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

There is no denying that this report is thorough. It seems to cover every possible base. I did, however, often wonder to myself why the authors were dealing with a lot of the points mentioned. Many seemed to be irrelevant, or able to be removed from consideration straight away for a lack of relatability. Perhaps i viewed the report negatively because I did not like the executive summary. It wasn’t a summary. More of a blurb to advertise the report to a potential reader. Still, this is a systematic review of many relevant issues, and definitely worth reading if you are interested in the topic. I just wish it had been executed better.

Joshua Hughes,  Lancaster University 

Dinnis and Kleffner – Soldier 2.0: Military Human Enhancement and International Law 

This week we continue our look at military human enhancement to look at ‘Soldier 2.0: Military Human Enhancement and International Law ‘ by Heather A. Harrison Dinniss and Jann K. Kleffner (International Law Studies 92 (2016): 432–82), available here. It is a brilliant and fascinating look at many different legal aspects of military human enhancement, and I recommend you take a look.

Here’s what we think about the piece. Let you know your thoughts below.

I’ve been a part of the TTAC21 reading group for almost 18 months now, and this may well be one of the most interesting articles we’ve covered. In it, the authors explore the implications of human enhancement for the law of war, investigating various aspects of biochemical, cybernetic and prosthetic enhancements, and how they influence soldiers’ abilities on the battlefield and what they may then mean for the interaction between belligerent states.  

One of the best points about this paper in my mind is that it demonstrates an awareness of issues that go beyond the practical application of law, and it is willing to engage with issues that many other legalistic papers tend to ignore. The blurring of the human in particular is a key issue in future warfare and the working of law – especially when it becomes difficult to distinguish between the human and the machine. 

In other readings for TTAC21, I have criticised papers for ignoring issues relating to human enhancement and the role of soldiers once their service ends. I’m therefore really pleased that this paper seeks to engage with some of these issues. I was particularly interested in the question of the ‘ownership’ of enhancement, as this was something that hasn’t really come up in the course of my own related research. I was also interested to read the authors’ take on autonomy in light of the altered state of individuals subject to enhancement. While I certainly agree that enhancement impacts on the question of human responsibility, I believe we need to reassess the question of human autonomy in light of the ongoing ‘robotization’ of soldiers within a programmatic military framework.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

This article is, undeniably, a thorough and systematic consideration of one of the most fascinating topics in modern war. However, a lot of the worries about super soldiers seems to be based on the idea that they will become almost machine-like and could act without mercy or humanity, perhaps not taking compassionate actions to spare the lives of those who need no die. It seems odd to me that this would even be a consideration. Surely human elements are key to all soldiers. After all, that is why we still have humans in our armed forces, and have not yet just replaced them with robots. I have yet to hear of anybody suggest that machines should play any role that it not totally subordinate to humans. I presume this is because something intrinsically human is key to military success. If that it so, then keeping human traits in super soldiers can only be a good thing. If they are kept, and human enhancement focuses on physical improvement (better eyesight, less fatigue, etc.) Then this could give us a situation whereby not only do advanced militaries gain a lot for the improvements to their soldiers, but do not loose key human elements. In terms of the law of armed conflict, greater awareness of a situation can only lead to better appreciation of the impact which operations will have, and therefore should only lead to better compliance with  the law of armed conflict unless this appreciation is ignored. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  


Parasidis – Emerging Military Technologies: Balancing Medical Ethics and National Security

This week we consider ‘Emerging Military Technologies: Balancing Medical Ethics and National Security’ by Efthimios Parasidis (Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 47, no. 167 (2015): 168–81), available here. This is an interesting look into several different aspects related to bioethics and the military.

Let us know what you think in the comments below. 

In this article the author examines the many difficulties of balancing medical ethics against the needs of national security. He cites for example the case of the pre-emptive vaccination of soldiers after 9/11 (169), in which the smallpox vaccine was administered against the risk of biological attack, only for many service members to suffer vaccine-related adverse health effects (169). While on the one hand the move might have proved prescient were smallpox to be used as a chemical weapon against US forces, as it wasn’t, the vaccination actually had a cumulative negative effect, for which the US military cannot be held to account.

Clearly, responsibility is a major issue to emerge out of the use of bio-technologies, especially as soldiers are effectively ‘forced’ to obey the military chain of command. Without a clear line of accountability, there seem at present to be insufficient checks and balances in place to protect soldiers against flagrant abuse from the powers that be. While would seem clear that the military does have a certain right to treat soldiers in a different way to civilians, this should not preclude the application of technologies that have not gone through certain checks and balances to ensure authorities do not abuse their power and cause lasting effects to soldiers who are, at the end of the day, also civilians too.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

When reviewing pieces for TTAC21, I much prefer to focus on the substantive issues rather than anything methodological in the readings. But, I found this article a bit odd. The main bulk of the article was good and explained a lot. But it then switched focus to identity politics in the conclusion to consider the apparently disproportionate effects on lower-social class and ethnic minority personnel. It seems an odd view point considering that military promotions are meritocratic. Furthermore, the way the conclusion as written felt as though it had an undercurrent reinforcing the stereotype that the military is where the stupid and poor go for work because they cannot do anything else in the West. This really annoys me. Modern war is highly complex, and those fighting in them are highly-trained professionals. Indeed, the US military will not accept anybody with an IQ score in the bottom 10% because they are so stupid that they would be counterproductive on the battlefield. Furthermore, Western militaries often take considerable time and effort to educate their personnel. Famously, Andy McNab, of Bravo Two Zero fame, could barely read when he entered the British Army and left it not only as the most highly decorated soldier in the force, but also with the skills to go on to become best-selling writer. Frankly, if the author had stuck to the bioethics focus of the paper it would have made for a much better read.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

Mehmann  and Li – Ethical, Legal, Social, and Policy Issues in the Use of Genomic Technology by the U.S. Military

This week we look at the use of DNA technologies in an enthralling article by Maxwell J. Mehmann and Tracy Yeheng Li, ‘Ethical, Legal, Social, and Policy Issues in the Use of Genomic Technology by the U.S. Military’ (Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 47, no. 1 (2015): 115–65.), available here.

Here’s what we thought. Let you know what you think in the comments below, or send us a message to join to network.

This long but incredibly interesting paper explores many of the bioethical issues associated with the use of genetic and genomic science by the US military. Such is the scope of the paper that there are almost too many points to discuss in a short blog, so for this reason I’d therefore like to focus on the question of genomic enhancement (pp. 161–164). While I am sure many people can agree that genomic enhancement has great potential to improve the effectiveness of warfighters, I wonder what the implications will be for soldiers once their term of service comes to an end? The author doesn’t address this question, and it remains for me perhaps the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ when we come to consider bio-technology and the military. While I agree there are certainly distinctions to be made between the civilian and military paradigms when it comes to ethics and responsibility, we should not forget that the two worlds are of course interlinked. What this means on a practical level is that any civilian can potentially become an enlisted member of the military, and of course any member of the military is always already a member of the civilian world as well.

My concern here is that by introducing bio-enhancements to the military (which we must assume will slowly filter through to the civilian world) we will in effect be creating a new category of the human, entrenching difference within human society. Indeed, we should ask, are these ‘enhanced’ soldiers even human at all? This question becomes even more significant when we consider the author’s claim that the most powerful enhancements may well need to be engineered at the embryonic stage, thus leading to the possibility that we will ‘lab grow’ our future soldiers. If they are lab grown and effectively enlisted from birth, what happens when their term of service ends? Does it ever end? Or will they rather be put down, like a dangerous dog, when they no longer demonstrate value for the military machine?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

This article was absolutely fascinating. However, it made me think of things far closer to home than the US military. For a while, I have been considering having my DNA sequenced as a shortcut to find out how I will react to different physical fitness training programmes (and in the vain hope that it will reveal I’ve got the genetic talent to be a world-beating talent at an obscure sport that I’ve never tried!). At least one of the companies offering this also look at corporate wellbeing, allowing employees to volunteer to have their DNA sequenced in order for their employer to be able to optimise their staff’s efficacy and work plans. What this article made me think of is why not use DNA sequencing to optimise military personnel? We know that all people have different skills and aptitudes, so why not inform commanders through genetics about which of their subordinates will be best for different tasks? Of course, this does not incorporate the impact that the environment has upon the individuals, so it is not foolproof. But, if DNA sequencing can help troops train and perform better, then it is surely beneficial to military effectiveness. However, it is currently expensive. Perhaps when prices drop it will be worth it for militaries to test all their personnel. At the very least it will be less problematic than enabling troops to use performance-enhancing drugs.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

UPDATE: added 27/5/19

This article may be one of the most disarmingly dystopian that we have looked at yet. Examining the issues surrounding genomic tech. within the US military, the authors outline the present state of affairs, distinguish between the different bioethical approaches required by both military and civilian research, the deployment of derived technologies and the potential difference between genomic medicine and genomic enhancement.

On the topic of bioethics, they write that ‘civilian norms and values are a poor fit with the military’. Concern for patient welfare should be replaced with a test of ‘proportionality’, the focus on voluntary choice should be replaced with ‘the principle of paternalism’ and the ‘civilian principle of justice’ should be replaced by the ‘principle of fairness’, requiring consent when ‘commanders impose a biomedical risk only on a subgroup of subordinates or when the risk is especially great’. As Mike has said, a member of the military is not distinct from the civilian populace, nor are they so in perpetuity.

The part that most got under my skin, however, was when the authors suggest that ‘the military may be interested in germ line therapy, for example, in order to reduce the frequency and costs of care for heritable genomic disorders in military families.’ The long-term evolution of some sort of distinct warrior caste within (and, eventually, distinct from) the general population is bad enough, particularly paired with the fact that ‘both DoD and HHS regulations forbid IRBs from considering “possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research (for example, the possible effects of the research on public policy) as among those research risks that fall within the purview of its responsibility’, but consider the issue,particularly acute in the US, of military tech. filtering down into the hands of domestic police forces.

What do you think?

Williamson – Hard Law, Soft Law, and Non-Law in Multilateral Arms Control: Some Compliance Hypotheses

This week, we are looking at Hard Law, Soft Law, and Non-Law in Multilateral Arms Control: Some Compliance Hypotheses by Richard L. Williamson (Chicago Journal of International Law 4, no. 1 (2003): 59–82), available here. It is a great overview of the different pros and cons that hard law, soft law and political norms have in the arena of arms control. Definitely worth reading. Let us know what you think in the comments below, or get in touch to join the network.

Here’s what we thought:

In this article the author provides a broad overview of legal vs non-legal approaches to addressing the question of arms control. In it, he argues that the ‘overall compliance record in arms control is a good one’ (61), but points to the fact that law is not always the best option to make the world a safer place. While law is an important factor, the author calls for a mixed approach adopting ‘a full complement of treaties, modified or supplemented over time to meet changing conditions, and supported with soft law and non-law measures’ (82).

The author’s analysis is certainly interesting, and a useful reference for those factors that make law more or less of an effective measure in the context of international arms control. However, while the author asserts that the overall compliance record in arms control is a good one, this is not to say that there aren’t further transgressions taking place that we don’t know about, given the fact that, by their very nature, States will attempt to avoid detection when it comes to breaking terms of any agreements or international laws that may apply.

The author’s arguments apply only because they apply to the world as we understand it (or rather understood it in 2003); but this is not to say that they won’t change in the future, or as our understanding of the present-day world changes. We must also then consider the role of non-State actors and even big business in the control of arms, and even the competing forces at works within individual nation States that again, serve to raise questions about the validity of the author’s arguments when made on such a broad, sweeping scale.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster  University

This piece was excellent and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately for the purposes of comment, it was an overview of an area, rather than making an argument. Something that the author mentions in terms of verifying that states are complying with the relevant measures is the actions of foreign intelligence agencies. We have seen this recently where Israeli intelligence found evidence of Iran breaching its obligations under the nuclear deal they agree with the P5+1. This did make me wonder if, in circumstances where an arms control measure has no verification body, are revelations made possible due to the behaviours of intelligence agents part of a bigger political game? For example, if the American CIA found evidence of Russia cheating on its arms control obligations, the obvious next action would be to expose them in order to force compliance with their obligations. However, it would also be rational for the Americans to sit on this intelligence if a larger win could be gained. For example, Russia could be blackmailed, the timing of the intelligence release could be done at a crucial moment for Russia in international politics, or it could be released to move focus away from American arms control compliance.

As we know, international law cannot be separated from international politics. But, perhaps in thinking only in legal logic, we international law thinkers miss key bits of information that could inform a greater level of understanding.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

In contrast to the previous paper, and though they concur that the Biological Weapons Convention is a failure (for traditional reasons rather than any of indeterminate language), this paper argues that soft law certainly has its place in the diplomat’s arms control box of tricks, along with hard law and ‘non-law’. The authors propose that hard law is best suited to situations where invasive monitoring is required, or when compliance is easy, whilst soft law wins out ‘if it is a derivative of, amplifies, or interprets a binding obligation’. The analysis of the pros and cons of ‘non-law’ instruments (e.g. the threat of mutually-assured destruction or a technological inability to not comply) is a little less developed, but the authors conclude that these are likely to be effective ‘when the military utility of acquiring or deploying a particular armament is modest, and the political costs of noncompliance would be large’.

It seems that effective soft law can best be thought of as chipping the final details off of a sculpture built up out of hard law. I’m less convinced about the efficacy of non-law such as ‘parallel restraint’, as the current lack of restrictions on the use of cyberwarfare and its subsequent prevelance suggests the lack of a clear red light is equivalent to a green one in the eyes of military planners. As one final criticism, the authors write that, ‘[w]hile the record of compliance with arms control treaties is far from perfect, it is statistically quite good’ and that ‘...most countries will comply most of the time’. The issue with this is that an arms control regime is better thought of as a High Reliability Organisation, and Normal Accident Theory and talk of compliance being ‘statistically quite good’ doesn’t have much of a place in the control of weapons that can cause catastrophic damage with a single use.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


N.B. For those interested, the main image is of Ford and Brezhnev signing a joint communique folowing the Vladivostok Summit Meeting on Arms Control (Photo from the Gerald R. Ford Library, taken by David Hume Kennerly 1974).

Beard – The Shortcomings of Indeterminacy in Arms Control Regimes

This week we continue our look at arms control. Here we consider the article ‘The Shortcomings of Indeterminacy in Arms Control Regimes: The Case of the Biological Weapons Convention‘ by Jack M. Beard (The American Journal of International Law 101, no. 2 (April 2007): 271–321, avaialble here). It is a fascinating look at the Biological Weapons Convention using game theory and rationalist positions on arms control, and gives an intriguing insight into how states operate in this area.

Take a look and let us know your think about the issues. Here’s what we thought:

In this article the author argues that the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 is fundamentally flawed in a modern context as it is based on a ‘soft law’ approach that relies too heavily on indeterminacy of meaning. To demonstrate this failing, the author cites the suggestion that rogue States and terrorists possess biological weapons, and points to the fact that a significant number of States have still not joined the convention after all these year years. In response, the author calls for the United States to re-evaluate its position on the BWC and for all parties to embrace a new hard-law approach.

While I certainly agree with the premise of the author’s argument, I can’t help but wonder what impact the BWC could possibly have in a world where (by the author’s own admission) non-State actors have access to these types of weapons, that pose perhaps one of the biggest threats to our modern-day world. While the author is right to draw attention to the BWC’s failings in a modern context, the author steers away from dealing with economic, regulatory and trade-related factors that give non-State actors access to the sorts of tools and equipment that enables the production and/or trade in biological and chemical weapons.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster  University

I thought this paper was really interesting. I myself have done some work around game theory and international legal regulation of weapon systems controlled by artificial intelligence. I find game theory to be really useful for understanding arms control. After all, states do try to play games and defect from agreements when it is in their interests.

We see today the potential falling apart of the Iran Deal. The article notes Iran reneging on agreements from previous deals. This obviously raises the issue that if Iran is a nation that plays international games, what is the point in having any deal? Simply put, some regulation is better than nothing. This reminds me of the work of Marxist historian E.P. Thompson on the rule of law. He suggests that the rule of law is an ‘unqualified human good’ because even in stares that oppressive states that often act unlawfully, they must give the appearance of acting lawfully. In doing so, this limits their very worst behaviours. So even where the rule of law is almost ignored, it still does something positive however small an impact that may be.

I think this can apply to arms control regimes also. Even where Iran (or any other defector nation) plays games, tries to get around arms control rules, or breaks rules, they do so whilst giving the illusion that they comply with the arms control regimes. These regimes therefore act to hamper and impair acts contrary to the rules, however small that impact may be. Arguably, we could therefore view arms control as an unqualified human good in much the same way that Thompson viewed the rule of law.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

UPDATE: added 6/5/19, written earlier

With a damning indictment of the failure of the Biological Weapons Convention, this paper argues that the convention was doomed from the start not only, as is often assumed, ‘because it lacks mandatory transparency measures and a dedicated monitoring organization’, but due to its ‘use of indeterminate language in key provisions’. The failure of the BWC ‘illuminates the hazards of choosing indeterminate language to perform critical regime functions amid unstable security conditions’. It grants would be cheaters the chance to ‘[cloak] defection in plausible legality’, thus legitimizing non-compliance. The paper was interesting, and it’s hard to argue with its conclusions that the BWC is unfit for purpose, although I’m still inclined to believe that biological weapons are such a poor and unreliable tool that reality serves as a sufficient check on proliferation.

Ben Goldsworth, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think below.

Fuhrmann and Lupu – Do Arms Control Treaties Work?: Assessing the Effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

This week begins a series of discussions on arms control. Whilst we’ve looked at this topic before, this series (and the next two) are all the suggestions of TTAC21 member Maaike Verbruggen. We thank her for the great spread of interesting articles she has found and submitted to the rest fo the group.

The paper this week is ‘Do Arms Control Treaties Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’ by Matthew Fuhrmann and Yonatan Lupu (International Studies Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2016): 530–39; available here).

Without further ado, here is what we think. Please let us know your thoughts in the comment below.

In this paper the authors outline research that addresses the question of whether the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has limited the spread of nuclear weapons. While the authors point to the range of debates on this subject, with significant studies falling on both sides of the fence, the authors’ study demonstrates that the NPT has had a significant impact on reducing the probability that States will pursue or acquire nuclear weapons.

While this study is of course interesting in its own, one of the other useful contributions it makes is its role in demonstrating that international treaties can indeed make a significant impact on the global landscape. As the authors argue: ‘Policymakers therefore should not be overly dismissive of treaties as a tool for meeting key challenges in the 21st century’ (23). However, while I find the conclusions of the study encouraging, I would still question the wider context surrounding the NPT itself, as the NPT does not exist in isolation, and sits within the context of many decades of Cold War anxiety that has left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of many people, which may then have fed into the likelihood of State actors ratifying and then adhering to the strictures of the NPT. Can we ever say for certain that the NPT is the defining causal factor behind the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons? I’d argue perhaps not.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster  University


The main thrust of this article is to show that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) works. I would have expected it to for those states who are signatories. Seeing as states cannot be bound by rules they do not consent to in international law, it makes sense that only states who agree with the NPT rules would sign up to abide by them. Considering that nuclear proliferation is in nobody’s interest, this also makes sense from a security perspective. However, North Korea are notable state parties who have left the treaty. We see currently the US, South Korean, and international attempts to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear warfare capability. Considering this is outside of the NPT, it would seem that the attempted de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is taking place using pure diplomacy (including altering sanctions). If concerted diplomatic efforts (and possibly even military action) is needed to keep states with WMD ambitions in check, then the NPT alone is not enough. Preventing the spread of WMDs is something which all states have an interest in, and the NPT should be recognised as a part of the solution, as this article claims.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

UPDATE: Added 29/4/2019, written earlier

The author attempt to assess whether NPT ratification correlates positively with nuclear nonproliferation, controlling for a range of variables such as the side taken in the US-USSR rivalry, membership of an existing rivalry and whether they are a ‘personalist regime’. Not only do the authors discover ‘the strongest evidence to date of a causal relationship between the NPT and nuclear proliferation’, but the use of multiple controls enable them to also find that ‘the size of the effect of NPT ratification on the probability of nuclear weapons pursuit is about 3 times the effect of belonging to an enduring rivalry and about 7 times the size of the effect of belonging to an alliance with the U.S. or Soviet Union’ (although that one’s a binary-encoded value, which rather leaves the Non-Aligned Movement in the cold). The conclusions seem promising for future arms control regimes, although as we shall see in a later paper that may not always be the case.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think!

In relation to autonomous weapon systems, how much human control is ‘meaningful’? 

This week we consider what level of human control over killer robots is meaningful. This has been a topic of great discussion at the UN as part of the deliberations about whether or not these systems should be banned. Indeed, Paul Scharre has just written an interesting blog on this very subject, see here. 


Here’s what we think: 


It’s great that this question should come up on TTAC21 as it’s something I’m particularly interested in at the moment. From my position, human control isn’t really very ‘meaningful’ and hasn’t been for a long time. If anything drone pilots don’t so much represent a lack of control so much as highlighting for us the lack of control, or lack of human agency, that’s been present in the military for a very long time. I mean even go so far back as the Second World War and already technology was starting to take over many of the duties of actually ‘waging war’. Skip on a few years and you get to the nuclear bomb, wherein one single individual ‘presses the button’, though in reality the decision to use the bomb was made many years before and by a great many people. At what point is the single decision to press the red button meaningful? I argue not at all, if the weapon exists alongside the common will to use it. If not pilot A pressing the button, then the military can simply send pilot B or pilot C. And while we’re at it, we better make sure it lands where we tell it to. Better get a machine to do the job… 


Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


This question really is an important one. Despite studying international law, perhaps it is more important than the legal questions over AWS. I think the approach which Paul Scharre suggests, that if we had a technologically perfect autonomous weapon system what role would we still want humans to play is a great one. I think it is the question which will lead the international community towards whatever answer they come to in relation to meaningful human control. 

For me, I’m coming to the conclusion that unless an instance of combat is of a high intensity and military personnel from your own side or civilians are going to die without immediate action and the speed of decision-making that only an AWS will have, then it would always be preferable to have a human overseeing lethal decisions, if not actually making them. Whilst the legal arguments can be made convincingly for both no automation and full automation of lethal decision-making, I cautiously argue that where technology has the required capabilities then lethal decision-making by an AWS could be lawful. Ethically however, I would prefer a higher standard which would include humans in the decision-making process. But, ethically desirable is more than ‘meaningful’ and this is why I think Scharre has gotten the jump on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots; reaching a ‘meaningful’ level of human involvement is a minimum threshold, but ethically desirable can go as high as anybody wants. Of course, this then makes it harder to discuss and so may tied up the CCW discussions for longer – although I hope it will be worth it. 

For me, ‘meaningful’ comes down to a human deciding that characteristics XYZ make an individual worthy of targeting. In an international armed conflict, that might be them wearing the uniform of an adversary. In a non-international armed conflict, it may be that they have acted in such a way to make them an adversary (I.e. directly participating in hostilities). But, that human decision can still be pre-determined and later executed by a machine. The temporal and physical distance does not alter the decision that XYZ characteristics mean that the potential target becomes a definitive target. Others will disagree with my conception of ‘meaningful’, and I hope it will generate discussion, but this is also why I favour Scharre’s method of moving forward. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University