Nuclear Ethics and Global Security: Reforming the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

How far can an existing state-based international order be hospitable to the protection of individual and global security in a nuclear world?

At a moment of profound crisis, uncertainty, and yet potential opportunity in the nuclear non-proliferation regime, this project will investigate possible paths for the reform and strengthening of the regime through an engagement with ethical and normative thinking in the fields of Philosophy and International Relations. The project straddles the related sub-fields of global ethics, political theory, normative international relations theory, and security studies.

The project questions how far the bargain at the heart of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is ethically defensible and whether the relationship between hierarchy and sovereignty within the treaty can endure. It will also explore how far a new ethical dispensation in the nuclear field would require new legal, institutional and normative arrangements to successfully protect future human, national and global security.

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council under the Ethics and Rights in a Security Context theme.

Introduction to the project by Professor Nicholas Wheeler

Project Team

  • Dr Anthony Burke
  • Professor Nicholas J Wheeler
  • Dr Scott Wisor
  • Dr David Norman

Advisory Group

  • Andrew Barlow
  • Lord Browne of Ladyton
  • Professor Avner Cohen
  • Professor the Hon. Gareth Evans
  • Dr Nicola Horsburgh
  • Paul Ingram
  • Dr Patricia Lewis
  • Dr Tariq Rauf
  • Mr Paul Schulte
  • Professor William Walker

Research aims

The project has four primary objectives:

  • To identify the major challenges facing the nuclear non-proliferation regime in both the near, medium and longer-term, and the related questions of national, regional and global governance.
  • To understand the ethical principles and related policy implications guiding the exiting nuclear non-proliferation regime.
  • To develop new ethical approaches that can contribute to policy debates and proposals in relation to the reform and development of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, especially in relation to the strategic, moral and governance challenges of a world with few or no nuclear weapons.
  • To contribute to the growing body of work at the intersection of security, nuclear weapons, and ethics, via a dynamic multi-disciplinary study that combines and integrates ideas in philosophy, international law, strategic studies, international security studies, normative political theory, and International Relations.

To address these aims, the project will focus in three main areas of enquiry: (1) ethical analysis and advocacy; (2) responsible nuclear sovereignty and ethical governance; and (3) regime architectures and global governance.

Project Team

Dr Anthony Burke (Co-I)
Anthony Burke is currently an Associate Professor of International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales, in Canberra, Australia. He is a political theorist and international relations scholar who has made contributions to the critical study of international security, war and peace, the Asia-Pacific, and international theory. Most recently he has been developing a new approach to cosmopolitanism in philosophy, world politics and security studies. As part of the project, Dr Burke will take the lead on regime architectures and global governance.

Professor Nicholas J Wheeler
Nicholas J. Wheeler is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security at the University of Birmingham.  He is co-editor with Professor Christian Reus-Smit of the prestigious Cambridge Series in International Relations and the Academic Lead for the Sixth Birmingham Policy Commission on The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK. As part of the project, Professor Wheeler will take the lead on responsible nuclear sovereignty and ethical governance.

Dr Scott Wisor (Co-I)
Dr Scott Wisor is a Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics.  His teaching and research are primarily engaged with contemporary debates in global ethics and global justice. He has worked both with and for several NGOs focused on conflict prevention and international development. As part of the project, Dr Wisor will take the lead on ethical analysis and advocacy.

Highlighted news

Report: Responsible Nuclear Sovereignty and the Future of the Global Nuclear Order
The British American Security Information Council (BASIC), in partnership with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security (ICCS), have written a report which seeks to foster an international dialogue about the responsibilities of nuclear-armed states.

Podcast: The Next Great Hope: The Humanitarian Initiative and Nuclear Weapons
Dr Jan Ruzicka from the University of Aberystwyth visited the University of Birmingham on 04 May 2016 to give a paper on the role of the Humanitarian Initiative in dealing with the problem of nuclear weapons.

The Limits of States: Ethics, War, and Migration (PDF 181KB)
On the 28 June 2016, Professor Nicholas Wheeler will present an overview of the ICCS' current research project on 'Nuclear Ethics and Global Security: Reforming the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime’'at Friends House, London. For attendance enquiries please contact

Nuclear Ethics After Nye: Governing Nuclear Weapons in a World of Non-Compliance (PDF 771KB) (June 2015)
In June 2015, Professor Nicholas Wheeler and Dr Scott Wisor presented their work at the British International Studies Association (BISA) conference in London. The paper was part of an ESRC research project on Nuclear Ethics.

Nuclear Futures after the #NPT2015 (June 03 2015)
Written by Dr Anthony Burke. Watching global governance fail is a sobering thing. The 9th Review Conference of the NPT ended late in the evening of Friday 22 May with no final outcome document - no frank assessment of progress, no benchmarks, and no plans.

The Disarmament Puzzle at #NPT2015 (May 13 2015)
This week's blog from Dr Anthony Burke looks at the 'big' disarmament proposals put forth at the NPT, and questions recent nuclear posture, policy and doctrine that are a silent cancer at the heart of the disarmament process.

ICCS goes to the #NPT2015 (May 05 2015)
The ICCS is in New York City to observe the negotiations and conduct research for our ESRC/AHRC funded project, "Nuclear Ethics and Global Security: Reforming the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime". Anthony Burke will be blogging weekly on the conference.