A constructive ban-the-bomb movement

By Adam Mount, Naomi Egel | April 23, 2015

On Monday, diplomats will gather in New York for a conference to review the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Held once every five years, the Review Conference is an opportunity to assess progress on the treaty’s basic bargain: States without nuclear weapons promise not to build them if the five nuclear states promise to get rid of theirs. This conference comes at a critical time. For 70 years, the nonproliferation regime has limited the spread of nuclear weapons. Today, it is marked by deep discord.

The steps that NPT states have agreed upon to strengthen the regime have stalled, while nuclear arsenals around the world are undergoing rapid modernization. Frustrated with the lack of progress toward nuclear disarmament, a broad coalition of states and nongovernmental organizations has been moving toward drafting a ban on nuclear weapons, as part of a series of conferences focused on the humanitarian impacts the use of nuclear weapons would have on all countries. Some non-nuclear countries have begun to whisper that the NPT is obsolete.

The humanitarian initiative represents a challenge for the United States. Will the movement complement or undermine the NPT? To what extent would a ban on nuclear weapons conflict with US interests?

The movement consists of a diverse collection of states and civil society groups. Many support the idea of a nuclear weapons ban. The movement has rapidly gained momentum since its first meeting in Oslo, Norway in March 2013. At the second meeting, in Nayarit, Mexico in February 2014, the Mexican chair’s summary called for a legally binding nuclear weapons convention—although not all states attending agreed—and at the December 2014 meeting in Vienna, Austria issued the “Austrian pledge,” recognizing the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons and calling for actions to eliminate them. Since then, 70 states have signed this pledge.

It is unclear how these efforts will result in global nuclear disarmament. Many hope that a ban on nuclear weapons could strengthen global antinuclear norms and encourage domestic groups to put pressure on their governments. As more states support a ban, advocates contend, it may gain the status of customary international law. However, there is little agreement about how these steps could gain the assent of the existing nuclear powers.

To date, the United States has expressed apprehension about the movement. US diplomats avoided the meetings in Oslo and Nayarit, but did attend the Vienna conference. There, the United States was sympathetic toward the movement’s goals but repeated that it “does not support efforts to move to a nuclear weapons convention, a ban, or a fixed timetable for elimination of all nuclear weapons. Rather, achieving lasting disarmament will take sustained effort and commitment.”

Despite what may seem like an impasse, a constructive relationship between the United States and the humanitarian movement is in the interests of both parties.        

The United States has much in common with a movement that highlights the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and seeks to delegitimize them as tools of coercion and warfighting. Statements by US policymakers echo much of the Austrian Pledge, both in spirit and in concrete proposals. President Obama’s statement in Prague that “there is no end to what the consequences might be [of a nuclear detonation]—for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival” is a refrain familiar to the humanitarian movement. Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller regularly discusses the government’s “clear understanding and recognition of the humanitarian consequences of the use of these weapons.”

In fact, there is little in the Austrian Pledge that conflicts with US policy, provided that other nuclear states are also subject to steps to limit their nuclear forces. The pledge calls on states with nuclear weapons to decrease the risk of nuclear weapon detonations by reducing the size and alert levels of nuclear arsenals and diminishing their role in military doctrines. The Obama administration has reduced the role of nuclear weapons in national security and sought an agreement with Russia that would reduce each country’s deployed strategic warheads by one third. Unfortunately, Russia has refused this overture.

Even so, the United States should think twice about discouraging the ban movement. After the Vienna meeting, the United States reportedly pressured  its allies to ignore the pledge. Yet many US allies care deeply about nuclear disarmament and value the steps the Obama administration has taken toward it. Signing the Austrian Pledge would commit US allies to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”—hardly a step that would spell the end of NATO as a nuclear alliance. Even if the United States decides it cannot publically support the Austrian Pledge, it should not pressure its allies to refrain from participating. Laying on the pressure may do more to harm alliance cohesion than to help it.

For its own part, the humanitarian movement has much to gain from US participation. The United States possesses a tremendous amount of expertise on and funding for nuclear disarmament issues that can help contribute to the work of the ban movement. For example, the United States already supports research on disarmament verification, next-generation international safeguards, and disaster relief. Most important, keeping nuclear powers engaged with the humanitarian movement also gives it a better shot at achieving its goal.

For this reason, the movement should consider adopting a provision that allows a nuclear weapon state to remain in good standing if it credibly demonstrates a desire to quickly reduce its arsenal and advance the work of the movement. In this way, a state that hopes to comport with the ban on nuclear weapons is not forced to take destabilizing unilateral steps and is not punished for the recalcitrance of other nuclear powers. The requirements for good standing can be negotiated within the ban movement and, if movement supporters desire, with the nuclear powers. These requirements can be calibrated to reflect the current state of the nuclear balance: For example, the United States might be required to accelerate dismantlement of retired warheads and to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons stationed overseas, but not to reduce deployed strategic warheads ahead of a verifiable treaty under which Russia agreed to do the same; Britain’s or China’s requirements for good standing might look very different.

The practical effect of such arrangements would be to direct pressure toward the nuclear states most reluctant to disarm. To start, the movement could pressure Russia to respond to the US overture on strategic and tactical arms reductions. Although civil society pressure has been an effective tool to change the behavior of Western democracies, these tactics may be less effective in influencing other states. In these cases, the ban movement may choose tactics like limitations on these countries’ conventional arms exports.

Steps that encourge nuclear countries to engage with the humanitarian movement will have another advantage for ban advocates: By including nuclear states with progressive attitudes toward disarmament, the movement would challenge solidarity among the NPT's nuclear states, the permanent members of the UN Security Council with nuclear weapons, often called the P5. Disrupting P5 unity puts pressure on recalcitrant powers to justify their refusal to make progress toward disarmament, rather than allowing them to hide behind one another.

At the NPT Review Conference over the next month, many of the world's countries will express their disapproval of the nuclear powers’ failure to live up to their disarmament commitments under the treaty. Ideally, the ban movement can serve as a lever to pressure states to live up to their NPT commitments. In doing so, the movement could help more activist states channel their frustrations in a constructive manner and keep them involved in the NPT process. By providing flexibility in how a nuclear weapons ban is applied, the ban-the-bomb movement could support rather than undermine the NPT and become a constructive player on the long road to a world without nuclear weapons.

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