The UN makes history on a nuclear weapons ban. Does the US care?

By Joe Cirincione, November 2, 2016

If a treaty rises in the United Nations and US media don’t notice, does the treaty make a difference?

This is the situation confronting proponents of the process begun October 27, when—by a vote of 123 for, 38 against, and 16 abstaining—the First Committee of the UN agreed “to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.”

It was a historic moment. Despite dozens of nuclear crises and war scares, UN members have never in the 71-year history of the body voted for such a sweeping measure. Yet no major US paper covered the vote. Why not?

Whether for or against the treaty, delegates clearly thought it important. “There comes a time when choices have to be made and this is one of those times,” said Helena Nolan, Ireland’s director of disarmament and non-proliferation. “Given the clear risks associated with the continued existence of nuclear weapons, this is now a choice between responsibility and irresponsibility. Governance requires accountability and governance requires leadership.”

Ireland, Mexico, Austria, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa helped spearhead the effort to forge a treaty banning nuclear weapons, and scores of other nations joined in, many enthusiastically.

The United States, however, adamantly opposed the resolution and, according to some observers, fiercely lobbied its allies, particularly those enclosed in the US “nuclear umbrella,” to vote against the new process. “How can a state that relies on nuclear weapons for its security possibly join a negotiation meant to stigmatize and eliminate them?” argued Ambassador Robert Wood, the U.S. special representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. “The ban treaty runs the risk of undermining regional security.”

The lobbying worked to some degree, but not well enough to block the lopsided 3-to-1 vote in favor of negotiations toward a ban treaty. And US lobbying may not hold all the countries who initially voted against the nuclear weapons ban. “Although Japan voted against the resolution due to pressure exerted by the US,” wrote Jiji Kyodo for The Japan Times, “Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday that Japan intends to join UN negotiations to outlaw nuclear weapons.” Other states may feel the same way. Kishida said he has strong doubts about the treaty, preferring more “concrete and pragmatic measures,” but he wanted to “proactively join” the talks. 

Kishida is not alone. There are legitimate concerns about the treaty process in many nations and among experts and former officials. Treaty proponents should treat these doubts seriously and respectfully. Does it really matter if 100-plus countries sign a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, but none of the countries with nuclear weapons joins? Will this be a serious distraction from the hard work of stopping new, dangerous weapons systems, cutting nuclear budgets, or ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty?

The ban treaty idea did not originate in the United States, nor was it championed by many US groups, nor is it within US power to control the process. Indeed, this last point seems to be one of the major reasons the administration opposes the talks.

But the ban treaty movement is gaining strength. Two years ago, I covered the last of the three conferences held on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons for the Defense One website. Whatever experts and officials thought about the goals of the effort, I said, “the Vienna conference signals the maturing of a new, significant current in the nuclear policy debate. Government policy makers would be wise to take this new factor into account.”

It would help clarify the humanitarian impact and nuclear weapons ban debate if there were some coverage of it in US media. So, why hasn’t there been? There are three main reasons.

First, the media doesn’t care much about anything that happens in the United Nations. If a US president isn’t speaking, or the vote doesn’t involve Israel, or there isn’t a showdown in the Security Council, there is a media vacuum. Many US reporters see the UN–not without some justification–as irrelevant. As one reporter told me, “Most think the UN is ineffectual, just theater, a place where far-fetched ideas get debated and resolutions passed that don’t go anywhere.” I haven’t actually done a survey, but I would bet Kim Kardashian gets many more column inches each year in US newspapers than the entire United Nations.

Second, many reporters take their cue from US officials. Here, the official line was that this vote on a nuclear weapons ban treaty is a waste of time. “Successful nuclear reductions will require participation from all relevant parties, proven verification measures, and security conditions conducive to cooperation,” Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said. “We lack all three factors at this time.”

The reporters seemed to agree. Not one asked a question about the treaty vote at the State Department daily press briefings that week. In fact, besides Ambassador Wood’s remarks to the UN First Committee, which deals with disarmament and other international security issues, the entire issue was ignored on the administration’s websites. 

Third, and this may be the most important, we have our heads in the sand when it comes to nuclear dangers. With some notable exceptions, such as the comprehensive stories by the Associated Press on problems with the US missile force, the main way that the risks from nuclear weapons are discussed in the US media and in the body politic involves an adversary that presents a nuclear threat. Iran may get nuclear weapons. North Korea is testing nuclear weapons. Russia is rattling the nuclear sabre. The problem is not the weapons themselves, it is bad guys with the weapons.

This is not how most of the world sees it.

“We have reiterated many times our basic and firm position that the possession and deployment of nuclear weapons can never be the basis for a sustainable security for mankind. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons are well documented and irrefutable,” said Swedish representative to the First Committee Eva Walder. “Sweden’s position is clear. The only guarantee that these weapons will never be used again is their total elimination.”

Sweden’s view is very close to those of past US presidents who saw, as Bill Clinton did, the grave threat to the nation “from the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons,” and sought, as Ronald Reagan did, “the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”

President George W. Bush, reflecting the ideology of many of his neoconservative advisors, changed that formula. He said in his 2003 State of the Union address, “The gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.” Bush subtly changed the focus from “what” to “who.” He sought the elimination of regimes rather than weapons. He believed that the United States could determine which countries were responsible enough to have nuclear weapons, and which ones were not. American power, not multilateral treaties, would enforce this judgment. 

After the complete failure of that strategy, President Barack Obama switched American policy back onto the weapons. In speeches and statements well known to readers of the Bulletin, he stigmatized nuclear weapons, vowing to reduce their number and role in US strategy and to seek their elimination.

Despite his best efforts, he failed. Now, the Bush view has crept back into policy and reporting. It dominates thinking in the Department of Defense. Nuclear weapons are only dangerous when they are sought or held by adversaries. Our weapons are essential. Those held by our friends, including India, Pakistan and Israel, are not a problem.

This blindly optimistic view holds that nuclear weapon are beneficial to our security–the “bedrock” of our security, as the current defense secretary so often states. That their presence enhances international stability. And some, including one of the candidates for president this year, believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, but manageable. The bulk of the media follows this unofficial but clearly held line.

There is hope for a more optimistic and safer view of nuclear threats to re-emerge. The treaty vote is one sign that many nations have lost patience with the barely discernable, “step-by-step” process that nuclear-armed nations have followed in regard to arms control and eventual nuclear disarmament. The alternative process the countries voting for the ban treaty have begun–encouraged and aided by civil society groups–is having an impact, and may spur the nuclear-armed states to move faster.

Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Thomas Countryman also offered a thoughtful and constructive response to the treaty vote. While he said the United States would not participate in the ban treaty talks, “that does not mean we question the intentions of those with whom we disagree on process.” In a post on the State Department’s official blog, he promised to redouble efforts to advance key US goals:

“Our priorities are supporting and sustaining key agreements, like the New START and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaties; strengthening the NPT; improving strategic stability with the Russian Federation and China; implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran; working with allies and partners to address the North Korean nuclear program; pushing for negotiations on a treaty that would halt production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons; securing the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; expanding programs to combat nuclear terrorism; and developing technologies that will help us verify nuclear reductions in the future.”

The US presidential campaign has highlighted the dangers of our own nuclear weapons for the US domestic audience, asking the question: Can we allow an unstable individual to “have his finger on the button?” The American electorate is being forced to confront nuclear fears in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. It may be possible to translate this fear into a broader discussion: Should anyone be able to launch a nuclear war in 15 minutes–without debate, without a vote, without even a vestige of democracy? And such a debate could lead to discussion of constructive solutions.

There may be a new openness to consider such solutions. The Democratic Party platform pledges actions “reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons.” It promises that "Democrats will also seek new opportunities for further arms control and avoid taking steps that create incentives for the expansion of existing nuclear weapons programs. To this end, we will work to reduce excessive spending on nuclear weapons-related programs that are projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.”

If elected, will Hillary Clinton keep these promises? Her campaign has a strong focus on nuclear dangers and has run ads evoking the famous “Daisy” ad from 1964. The Democratic candidate also said just this week in an appearance with Global Zero founder Bruce Blair, “President Ronald Reagan once said–and he worked hard for arms control, and I admired what he did working with the Soviet Union–that he feared ‘some fool or some maniac or some accident triggering the kind of war that is the end of the line for all of us.’ That has been the fear and the commitment of Democratic and Republican presidents since the dawn of the nuclear age.” 

We may get the chance to reaffirm this commitment in the year ahead, both in Washington and in the negotiating halls of the United Nations. The probability of that occurring would increase, if major US news organizations gave negotiations toward a nuclear weapons ban treaty and the dangers from existing nuclear arsenals the attention they so clearly deserve.


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