The obstacles ahead for nuclear deterrence

An interview with international security expert dr. Michal Onderco
Ilja Nedilko

How do new technologies affect the possibility of a nuclear war? And how does the public view nuclear disarmament? These are some of the questions that dr. Michal Onderco, an international security expert, studies. Michal started his academic career as a History and International Politics student in Germany. He pursued a PhD in Political Science and now enjoys researching International Security with different disciplines such as historians, psychologists, and lawyers. In 2019 he joined the strategic research pillar Global Social Challenges as the academic lead of the research project Governing Future Security.

Michal Onderco
Marie Nemeckova, Peace Research Center Prague

In the faculty magazine Spark, you called nuclear weapons and climate change two of the biggest threats to humankind. As an international security expert, what other kinds of threats are you wary of?

Among security experts, there are three threats that we frequently talk or hear about. First of all, there is the fear of a “Cyber Pearl Harbor”. This is a significant cyberattack that knocks out the whole infrastructure, including all the electricity production. Then there is a new technology that causes worry: killer robots or lethal autonomous weapons systems. These autonomous systems can act without a human in the loop and autonomously execute certain military missions.

And last but not least, we also have risks related to embedding many new technologies in existing military systems. Countries used to have people doing the initial analysis of their satellite data. Now more often, this is done by artificial intelligence. These systems are not performing as well as humans.

Do you think there is enough attention to nuclear risks and these other technological risks inside governments?

If you're a policymaker, you have a lot of things on your plate. And even though these security issues are on their plate, policymakers will give attention to whatever is in the news today. That creates a problem because very little sustained attention is given to these questions.

Do you have any hope for the disarmament of nuclear weapons in the near future?

There is certainly a lot of enthusiasm among many societal actors for advancing nuclear disarmament. However, there are not enough ideas on the global political level on how that can be practically done and how this can be effectively accomplished. I will be meeting with civil society leaders in one of my following research projects. I want to try and understand why they think nuclear weapons still exist and why there hasn't been any progressive nuclear disarmament. We also want to understand better how they do their campaigning. How do they go about engaging other actors? How do they build coalitions and so forth?

How do you think civilians can become more involved and concerned about these security developments?

More involved civilians start with a more active government. I see a role for governments to start explaining these questions to the public because, for a long time, governments were happy that people didn't pay attention. Governments, for example, refused to engage in the topic of nuclear weapons and they hid behind secrecy. We have seen that anti-nuclear activists from different civil society organisations have taken over the whole nuclear discussion. In the Netherlands, for example, PAX is a leading voice. And now, for example, parts of the public are against NATO's nuclear deterrence. And governments wonder why is this? Well, part of the reason is that the government never explained why nuclear deterrence matters. We see now in the current war that Russia is waging in Ukraine that nuclear deterrence, at least to a degree, dissuaded Russia from attacking the countries in the Baltic. And so for that reason, we also need governments to step up and become a part of the conversation. I think they are the voice that is missing to a large degree in the current debate.

How do you, as a scientist, hope to play a role in this debate?

I am in the advisory group on nuclear arms control and disarmament convened the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As experts on nuclear questions, we come together about three times a year to discuss different issues. About three years back, in one of these meetings, we discussed whether hypersonic weapons, which can fly at a speed of over 5000 km/h through the atmosphere, would mean that nuclear deterrence is becoming more stable or more unstable. All the experts in that meeting couldn't agree, so I proposed empirically studying this question. With funding from the Ministry, I was able to carry out research on this topic, and we found, amongst others, that academic experts hold very different opinions on this than policy officials. This is one example of how I, as a researcher, can give valuable research insights to policymakers and have an impact. But I also hope to have an impact by raising awareness, providing public talks, and explaining the issues to the public.

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes