Roundtable: Ban the bomb?
08/01/2014 - 05:11

Escaping the fishbowl

In their 2010 book The Grand Design, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow discussed a decision by the city council in Monza, Italy, to ban the use of curved fishbowls. It was cruel, the council believed, to force fish to see reality in a distorted manner. But how, Hawking and Mlodinow argued, can anyone be sure that his or her own view of reality isn't distorted? Reality, the authors argued, is a permanent distortion. How it looks depends on how you view it.

The authors in this roundtable—including Bharat Karnad, who believes that chances for achieving disarmament through a treaty banning nuclear weapons are very, very poor—seem to agree that "nuclear zero" is a worthwhile objective. But what is the correct perspective from which to observe the reality of disarmament efforts?

Héctor Guerra has focused mainly on the humanitarian initiative—an effort led by non-nuclear weapon states that he believes "generates well-founded hope that a treaty will be established that bans nuclear weapons outright." Karnad argues that disarmament's groundwork will be laid only when the United States and Russia "cull nuclear weapons from their inventories at a much faster rate"—but that, in the meantime, establishing a convention to ban the first use of nuclear weapons would "inch [the world] closer to the starting line of disarmament." Both Guerra and Karnad, then, see politics as the central variable in disarmament—but Guerra thinks about politics mainly in terms of "foreign policy principles, practice, and … experience" while Karnad thinks mostly in terms of "power politics." That is, Guerra sees disarmament as a process originating from below while Karnad understands it as something dictated from above.

My own view is that non-nuclear nations will not prevail on nuclear weapon states to disarm until they are capable of exerting much greater political power. Likewise, as long as nuclear weapon states retain the political power they now enjoy, achieving "zero" will remain highly improbable. This would seem to align me more with Karnad than with Guerra. But in truth I differ from both my colleagues in that I tend to view nuclear issues both from above and below. I don't believe that disarmament will be achieved any time soon—but in response to this unfortunate reality, I would emphasize that nuclear and non-nuclear nations can take concrete steps to minimize nuclear threats.

Non-nuclear weapon states, for example, can push more vigorously to achieve universality for existing disarmament and nonproliferation instruments such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states can both implement a set of steps endorsed by the Nuclear Security Governance Expert Group ahead of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit—steps including the universalization of the nuclear security regime and the establishment of a nuclear security framework convention. And additional countries, whether nuclear-armed or not, could join the roughly three dozen states that, by signing on to the "Trilateral Initiative" at the 2014 Summit, have obligated themselves to taking concrete steps toward meeting high standards in nuclear security.

Would such actions eliminate nuclear weapons? No. But they would reduce the chances of catastrophe while nuclear weapons remain on Earth. And, along with existing disarmament structures and pressure from civil society, they might one day make "zero" an achievable goal.