The independent resource on global security

5. National governance of nuclear weapons: opportunities and constraints



I. Introduction

II. Governance in the states possessing nuclear weapons

III. Layers of accountability for controlling nuclear weapons

IV . Conclusions


Read the full chapter [PDF].


More than 60 years after the dawn of the nuclear age, the discussions of the governance of nuclear weapons still focus on the governance of nuclear weapons at the international level and in particular in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In contrast, much less attention has been paid to the governance of nuclear weapons at the national level. However, the rather disappointing record of the NPT raises the question of whether the global governance of nuclear weapons can work without first ensuring their democratic governance at the national level.


The issue of civilian control and oversight of nuclear weapon programmes has become more pertinent in the post-cold war period and particularly so following the events of 11 September 2001. Effective civilian control may be considered an important factor in preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons. This is a vital concern as can be demonstrated by recent events such as the discovery of the activities of the A. Q. Khan network in 2004.


It is no coincidence that much of the recent talk of nuclear weapons in the media focuses on countries like Iran, where the weak democratic system of checks and balances has led to a general belief that bad governance of nuclear affairs is inevitable. The international community, however, has not expressed anxiety about other, more democratic countries that may be at a turning point in their nuclear policies.


The matter of democratic accountability regarding nuclear weapons should not be a concern only in transitional or authoritarian states, but also in consolidated democracies. Indeed, problems exist in all nuclear weapons states:


  • there is ambiguity in the UK about the special relationship with the USA;
  • in France, nuclear weapons are considered part of the domaine réservé of the president;
  • Indian governments have used nuclear weapon tests to boost their domestic popularity;
  • in Russia, the breakup of the Soviet Union has resulted in the near impossibility of civilian control;
  • Pakistan poses concern in the eventuality that President Musharaf is no longer in power and the nuclear arsenal falls into the wrong hands;
  • Israel’s opaque nuclear posture leaves little grounds for transparency or control;
  • the USA constitutes the best and yet imperfect standard, with a strong Congress but an even stronger president as commander-in-chief.


It is therefore essential to explore how nuclear weapon states (both democratic and non-democratic) balance the need for the usability and security of nuclear weapon systems with the need for political control and oversight. It is also important to broaden the debate on the control of nuclear weapons beyond the prevalent ‘command and control’ approach.


Dr Hans Born (Netherlands) is a Senior Fellow in Democratic Governance of the Security Sector at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF).