Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects

Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects

Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects

Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects


The book reflects the author's experience across more than forty years in assessing and forming policy about nuclear weapons, mostly at senior levels close to the centre both of British governmental decision-making and of NATO's development of plans and deployments, with much interaction also with comparable levels of United States activity in the Pentagon and the State department. Part I of the book seeks to distill, from this exceptional background of practical experience, basic conceptual ways of understanding the revolution brought about by nuclear weapons. It also surveys NATO's progressive development of thinking about nuclear deterrence, and then discusses the deep moral dilemmas posed - for all possible standpoints - by the existence of such weapons. Part II considers the risks and costs of nuclear-weapon possession, including proliferation dangers, and looks at both successful and unsuccessful ideas about how to manage them. Part III illustrates specific issues by reviewing the history and current policies of one long-established possessor, the United Kingdom, and two more recent ones, India and Pakistan. Part IV turns to the future, examines the goal of eventually abolishing all nuclear armouries, and then discusses the practical agenda, short of such a goal, which governments can usefully tackle in reducing the risks of proliferation and other dangers while not surrendering prematurely the war-prevention benefits which nuclear weapons have brought since 1945.

This book is a project of the Oxford Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War.


In the preface to this book, Michael Quinlan does me the honour of quoting a remark I made in a recent lecture to the effect that ‘the nuclear dragon is not dead, but sleeping’. This if true—and it is hard to believe otherwise—would be sufficient justification for his writing this book, and good reason why we should all read it. For Quinlan is uniquely qualified to enlighten us about the dragon. Not only has he spent a lifetime studying the problem of nuclear weapons, but as a senior civil servant he has played a leading role in formulating British policy for their acquisition, possession, and use. He has, to put it succinctly, taught our masters how to think.

Unfriendly critics may therefore be tempted to dismiss him as a mere apologist for government policy. They had better read this book. They will find themselves engaged with a protagonist who possesses not only a brilliant mind but also a sense of profound moral responsibility. Quinlan faces head on the inescapable moral dilemmas confronting anyone who, as he puts it, cannot content himself with ‘hand-wringing’ but has to take decisions and act on them. Such decisions cannot be taken without a clear moral compass, a sense of practical possibilities, and a capacity for hard analytic thought. All these qualities Quinlan possesses in abundance. He explains, sharply but courteously, why he is sceptical about such nostrums as no first use, massive arms reductions, and the development of anti-ballistic missiles. He is deeply concerned about the problem of nuclear proliferation; and while understandably sceptical about the total abolition of nuclear weapons before all major sources of international conflict have been resolved, he nevertheless believes that we should think seriously about the manner in which this highly desirable goal might be approached.

Quinlan warns the reader not to expect any interesting revelations about the people he has encountered or the politics, domestic or . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.