This article will share some reflections and thoughts on the January-February nuclear weapons topic. While not actively debating, I did have the chance to judge at some tournaments (and e-tournaments), and actively coached throughout the topic.
It was rough to be Neg
This was one of the rare topics where the simple, straight down the middle Aff was actually really good. The aff was able to say that all countries could have nuclear weapons, poof, be gone, and actually get to a plausible extinction scenario. This Aff had a natural, built-in answer to country PICs (about how individual countries not taking part in the regime would hamper confidence and trust, spurring potential future defections), and actual substantive answers to “rearmament” beyond just fiat (more on that in the second section).
I think part of what made this consistently so deadly for the neg was the way that many judges evaluate risk. Getting to a large, existential impact usually trumps all else with how most debaters prioritize impact assessment (and, subsequently, how many judges evaluate impact assessment). Being able to sprawl 5-6 scenarios for how nuclear existence would cause extinction would force the Neg to read defense to nearly all of them, making it easy for the Aff to win a shred of a risk of one and win that extinction outweighs; neither of conventional shift and CBWs could plausibly access an impact that large. This relegated the Neg to reading bad terminal impact defense cards to nuclear winter, which, at best, just meant that the Aff accessed the death of several billion. Even assuming the full weight of Neg defense, such an impact was very winnably larger than any impact the Neg could access.
I was personally surprised to see less innovation against such “whole res” big nukes Affs – I would have expected teams to lean more into process CPs, weapons PICs, or even trying to manufacture a new DA.
The Neg needed to push a lot harder on “rearm”
At the beginning of the topic, I was sure that most debates would be decided on the question of the scope of fiat. For the aforementioned reasons, the Neg is in a decently rough spot if the debate becomes solely “are the nukes scary or not” in an activity that prioritizes big impact assessment. However, rearm disads/turns definitely offered the ability for the Neg to level that, at least somewhat. The cards about the incentives that any individual actor has to actually commit to durably following through on elimination are shockingly good for the Neg. Beyond just serving as terminal defense (and defense compatible with disads about perception, such as politics or soft power disads), there were plausible ways to impact it offensively. Claiming that a resurgence in armament would spark an even worse arms race, or cause countries to immediately fight because they would assume the worst if they saw a rival re-arming were all plausible options.
However, community consensus quickly seemed to settle on the Aff being able to fiat out of rearmament. Here, the argument goes, durable fiat would allow an “elimination” to be permanent, letting the Aff eliminate nuclear weapons indefinitely. While this is definitely a debate to be had, I thought the Neg’s argument could have been at least as good, if not better; this relies on a misunderstanding of what the scope of initial Aff fiat is to begin with. The Neg should have pushed on the premise that the Aff ever got to just “eliminate” the nuclear arsenal; rather, they should have said that the scope of legitimate Aff fiat was just a policy pledging to commence elimination of the nuclear arsenal. Durably fiatting this policy would shield the Aff from objections like “rollback” (that a new government would just decide to ditch disarmament), but would force the Aff to answer circumvention-esque arguments like rearm that claim that, while the policy may remain on the books, it wouldn’t be followed. When compared to how we view other arguments, this seems abundantly reasonable: plenty of judges were happy to let the Neg fiat a “no war pact” between countries, but fiatting indefinite commitment to that pact was a step too far. Similarly, eliminating nuclear weapons can entail a durable policy adjustment, but fiatting indefinite adherence to a policy seems distinct
Weapons Affs were great
As mentioned above, the generic options for the Neg were not ideal – against most Affs, winning a good link to CBWs or conventional shift was difficult, particularly given the plethora of smart Aff answers. Take CBWs – the Aff could very plausibly win that CBWs were either inevitable (because of existing acquisition or capabilities), forbidden by international agreements, incentived by nuclear weapons, or have no incentive to be used – all while the disad started with an impact substantially smaller than that of the Aff’s. In the context of specific weapons, the Neg’s job became even harder. How many teams had cards about Russian intermediate range missiles being a direct substitute for CBWs? Or Indian subs? How about the Chinese DF-21D? Most weapons Affs forced the neg to actually cut a case neg, or, in the likely eventuality they didn’t have one, go for T, which gave the Aff one debate to prep for. On a small topic, T didn’t seem like such a bad 2NR to beat.
DAs about countries outside the scope of the plan were under-utilized
By this I mean DAs that were about countries that the plan did not disarm. These were great because they actually could get the Neg to an extinction impact, unlike conventional shift or (most plausibly) CBWs. The most common example was the “China-India” DA that China would ramp up aggression towards India if India was no longer a nuclear power. Some of the link cards were surprisingly good, and, critically, it got to a real impact. Other variants of this DA existed against specific country Affs (e.g., the China-US DA vs the North Korea Aff)
Nothing that people said was a net benefit actually was
There’s no plausible way that the deterrence DA or CBWs DA were net benefits to the NFU CP. Every explanation of this was completely at odds with the Neg’s corresponding explanation for counterplan solvency. This highlights the difficulty of trying to thread the “nukes are good” but “we make nukes less bad” needle. With a CP like NFU, the Neg would say that they make nuclear use less likely because states couldn’t threaten use against other states to compel them. Yet the thesis of a DA like conventional war (or CBWs) was that having a potent nuclear option limits the need for states to turn to other, less deadly but more usable forms of warfare. While there are cards that do explain why NFU wouldn’t erode deterrence, those authors are universally from a different ideological stance than the usual deterrence authors the Neg reads, and none of it lines up at all. The NFU people are saying that because of (for example,) US conventional overmatch, what we do with nuclear policy doesn’t really matter, because nobody will challenge us; if true, then the conventional war DA itself is incoherent because we wouldn’t face challengers.
The Neg got away (theoretically and substantively) with absurd amounts of fiat
The aforementioned “no war pact” CP that fiatted not only the pact, but countries actually not fighting is one prime example. The issue with these counterplans that fiat indefinite non action (e.g., not fighting a war) is that they don’t have a good answer to “fiatting an action indefinitely solves your offense and is a more reasonable way to read this.” In short, the Neg can read a counterplan that says “sign a no war pact,” and can fiat countries take cooperative steps/be nice to each other, but they absolutely don’t get to defend countries indefinitely refrain from fighting wars. The purpose of counterplans are to demonstrate an opportunity-cost to the Aff, a foregone opportunity by nature of the affirmative taking place. A counterplan that illogically introduces a consideration present to no policymaker completely obviates that question. No policymaker would reasonably, when considering a change to the defense posture, contemplate their adversary permanently never fighting them again. They would contemplate possible dialogue and improvements in relations, but never contemplate unequivocally believing a pinky-promise not to start a war. Pretending that that’s reality in debate leads to illogical counterplans zapping virtually any advantage. Just as on any other topic, if the Aff read an advantage about US-China war, it would be seen as illogical to counterplan “don’t fight a war,” it equally defies reason to do that here.
Additionally, all but the most egregious (fiatting that a war never takes place) versions of this CP lack solvency evidence that even contemplates it, which makes it difficult for the Neg to frame counterplan solvency. In contrast, good Aff cards that mistrust was inevitable and that the existence of nuclear weapons would render any hostility potentially existential practically fell off the page when researching. Being able to spin the Aff narrative that the counterplan had the enforceability of the Kellogg-Briand Pact was even more threatening in the face of no real Neg cards defending the counterplan substantively.