Speaker: Heather Williams, Research Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom

Why would states give up nuclear weapons? What can historical cases of disarmament teach scholars and policymakers about a pathway to nuclear elimination? One model of disarmament is delegitimization, when humanitarian concerns, legal mechanisms, or changes in international norms cause the elimination of weapons. Another explanation is that disarmament occurs when there is an easing of tensions in geopolitics. But both of these models fail to consider advances in military technology and how these changes inform reliance on certain weaponry. This seminar offers a third model, disarmament by replacement, whereby the relative military utility of a weapon is a decisive factor in disarmament.

The seminar examines two historical case studies—military balloons and biological weapons—to explore how ethical, security, and technological factors informed decisions to disarm. It finds that developments in military technology affect perceptions of weapons' military utility and disarmament results when something "better" comes along that can fulfill a similar function more effectively.

This argument has implications for scholarship on disarmament, deterrence, the “nuclear revolution”, and for policy issues, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Additionally, the rapid rate of technological development raises the question: will a future technology replace the deterrent capability of nuclear weapons, and is that a safer world than the one we live in now?

Everyone is welcome to join us online via Zoom! Please register in advance for this seminar:

For more information, email the International Security Program Assistant at susan_lynch@harvard.edu.