Does the fight over a nuclear weapons ban threaten global stability?

By Heather Williams | February 9, 2017

Despite or perhaps because of bellicose statements by world leaders, the past six months have seen a groundswell of international support for a ban on nuclear weapons. Though a ban-the-Bomb movement has existed in one form or another almost as long as nuclear weapons themselves, and countries have reached agreements to reduce nuclear arsenals and limit the spread of nuclear technology and materials, no multilateral agreement to ban atomic weapons altogether has ever come about. Now, it seems closer than ever: In October 2016, members of the UN General Assembly voted to begin negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons. With talks set to begin in March, by the end of 2017 there could be a ban treaty with dozens of state signatures.

The primary existing vehicle for limiting nuclear weapons is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which was struck in 1968 and currently has 190 members. The NPT was founded on three pillars: to promote disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses for nuclear energy. At its root is a so-called “grand bargain,” under which non-nuclear members agree not to pursue atomic weapons in exchange for a commitment by the five recognized nuclear weapon states—also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, known as the P5—to work towards nuclear disarmament.

Unfortunately, the NPT is affected by a growing rift between these two groups. The nuclear weapon states do not understand the depth of frustration among the non-nuclear weapon states that gave rise to the ban movement. For their part, the non-nuclear states do not understand that a ban treaty is unlikely to compel the nuclear weapons possessors to disarm any faster. Additionally, many of the ban supporters do not understand the security motives of dozens of states that continue to rely on nuclear deterrence.

For the NPT to work as intended—actually achieving steps toward disarmament and addressing nuclear dangers—these two groups will have to reconcile and cooperate. The onus is on both sides: For the nuclear weapon states, that means reaching out to non-nuclear weapon states to stop the polarization, and for non-nuclear states, it means prioritizing the NPT over a ban.  

How did we get here? Underlying the growing rift within the NPT are different interpretations of when nuclear weapon states are required to disarm. The treaty is intentionally vague in its Article VI, which calls for negotiations in good faith to bring about an end to the arms race, and “a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Matthew Harries, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, highlights several underlying historical disputes at the root of the current polarization. First, at the time of signature, the parties recognized that sustaining the NPT would depend on progress towards disarmament, but that disarmament in and of itself was not necessarily the ultimate objective. Over decades of implementation and an indefinite extension of the treaty in 1995, this dynamic has shifted, with some non-nuclear states seeing disarmament as the treaty’s ultimate objective, or at least a higher priority than non-proliferation or peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Second, the NPT is meant to serve not solely as a legal commitment but also as a forum for disarmament discussions. However, due to a perceived lack of progress towards disarmament, many states would like to urgently see more emphasis on the legal commitment. Finally, while discontent with existing disarmament mechanisms is the primary motive for pursuing a ban, there is a perception among some nuclear weapon states that ban proponents are actually driven by a wish to undermine other initiatives, such as non-proliferation, within the NPT.

Nuclear and non-nuclear states alike are at least in theory committed to disarmament as part of their NPT membership. For the nuclear weapon states, the preferred path to disarmament was articulated as 13 steps in the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document. Such documents are drafted by consensus but not legally binding, and are meant to outline principles and concrete measures for taking the treaty forward. Steps outlined in the 2000 document include entry into force of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, and a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in international politics on the pathway towards verifiable nuclear disarmament; the steps do not necessarily have to occur in sequence. There has been little progress on these three steps since 2000, though more success among other items on the list, such as the call to conduct research on how to verify dismantlement. The nuclear weapon states explain the lack of progress by saying that they cannot take steps toward disarmament without taking the overall global security context into account, and that ethical and security concerns must be addressed in tandem. While some countries, such as the United States prior to the new presidency, have attempted to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in recent years, others, such as Russia, are increasing the role of nuclear weapons in their national strategies. For example, throughout the Ukraine crisis, Russia issued numerous thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, and conducted nuclear-armed exercises against European targets. Russia’s behavior, along with other countries’ security-based justifications for continuing to possess nuclear weapons, demonstrate that the 13 steps as a model for disarmament are outdated.

Against the backdrop of this lack of progress on disarmament, a new movement was born: The humanitarian impacts initiative launched in Norway in 2012, sparked by frustration with both the NPT process and the Conference on Disarmament. (After successfully working on chemical arms control and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Conference on Disarmament, which was established in 1979 and has 65 members, has frozen and cannot agree on a path toward a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.) Members of the movement have gathered at three major conferences—in Norway in March 2013, Mexico in February 2014, and Austria in December 2014—with each meeting attended by more than 100 countries. Only the Vienna gathering drew members of the P5, and then only the United Kingdom and United States. Speaking at these meetings, civil society groups and survivors of nuclear bombings and testing helped bring public awareness to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons.

Some supporters of a nuclear weapons ban now claim the humanitarian impacts initiative was politically motivated, that is, aimed at highlighting nuclear weapon states’ perceived hypocrisy for failing to achieve nuclear disarmament and fulfill their commitment under Article VI, despite other countries having upheld their end of the “grand bargain.” However, at its inception and for many participants, particularly the Norwegian hosts, the goal of the humanitarian initiative was to provide a “big tent” forum for fact-based disarmament discussions with a diverse set of actors, particularly civil society groups and smaller states that are often excluded from nuclear debates. Ireland, a leader in the nuclear weapons ban movement, observed that presentations at the Mexico conference were “scientific and dispassionate.” But while many, such as Japan and Germany, came to the conferences hoping for fact-based, dispassionate discussion, another contingent was eager to transform the gatherings into mechanisms for political change and advocacy.

The Austria conference resulted in a Humanitarian Pledge signed by 159 countries to pursue a legal mechanism banning nuclear weapons. A UN General Assembly working group took up the cause, and on October 27, 2016, 123 states voted in favor of starting negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban in 2017, with 38 voting against and 16 abstentions. Of the nuclear possessor states, only North Korea voted in favor of negotiations, with China, India, and Pakistan abstaining. The rest—France, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—all voted against the ban negotiations. With strong engagement by the younger generation and widespread civil society participation, the international effort to achieve a nuclear weapons ban has momentum, whereas the step-by-step approach to disarmament favored by the nuclear weapon states suffers from bad publicity to the extent that it is known at all.

A new kind of nuclear “silo.” Today, increasing polarization between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states has resulted in deep distrust. The nuclear weapon states are skeptical of non-nuclear weapon states’ intentions, distrusting the motivations behind the push for a ban treaty and claiming it to be a distraction from non-proliferation initiatives. They fear that ban proponents might undermine the NPT, even going as far as a mass withdrawal in order to gain leverage over the nuclear weapon states. The United States, in particular, may see the non-nuclear weapon states as ungrateful: President Barack Obama made one of the boldest statements any American leader ever has about nuclear disarmament in his 2009 Prague speech, reduced America’s reliance on nuclear weapons in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, and concluded the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. Whereas American leaders may have hoped these actions would be positively received, instead they were often criticized for “not doing enough.” (One can’t help but wonder if Obama’s policies and views will be missed in the days to come.) For example, in an August 2016 editorial, the New York Times argued that Obama’s modernization plans for a new nuclear-armed cruise missile would “contradict [his] promise to change American nuclear policy in ways that would make the nation safer.”

Distrust on the part of the non-nuclear weapon states has a longer and deeper history. For decades, groups of states like the New Agenda Coalition have pointed to lack of significant progress towards disarmament and continued nuclear modernization as evidence that the nuclear weapon states have no intention of ever disarming. As many states have argued, NPT members agreed in 1995 to extend the treaty indefinitely with the understanding that a more ambitious regime would be put in place to advance disarmament. In the absence of such progress, as nuclear weapon states continue to insist on the need for deterrence for security reasons, non-nuclear weapon states see a ban not only as a possible means of hurrying disarmament, but also as a source of leverage within the NPT.

The result of this distrust is an increased silo effect, whereby like-minded groups of states and experts, defined by a single issue, gravitate towards each other, self-segregating and failing to engage with other silos. Polarization between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states is dangerous, however, as it can blind them to risks.

In the context of the NPT, one effect of these silos is a lack of creative thinking to solve big challenges to both non-proliferation (like difficulties implementing the Iran nuclear deal) and disarmament (like the need for better verification measures). Additionally, the polarization has led to a failure to address shared nuclear risks, such as the increasing reliance by some states on nuclear weapons, North Korea’s continued nuclear aggression, the impact of emerging technologies on strategic stability, and the lack of arms control in South Asia. These dangers have a global impact and require a coordinated global effort for as long as nuclear weapons exist.

The two nuclear “silos” have created such tunnel vision that the NPT itself may be at risk. While some states acknowledge the importance of the treaty to the global nuclear order, some supporters of a ban are considering a mass withdrawal from the NPT. As Ukrainian professor and non-proliferation expert Polina Sinovets recently observed, “If the new [ban] treaty fails to abolish nuclear weapons and weakens the NPT without effectively replacing it, the dangers for the global nuclear order could be grave.” At present, the two nuclear “silos” appear to be moving further away from each other, though much will depend on the evolution of the ban treaty. 

Ban membership and objectives. Supporters of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons draw on at least three arguments. They say any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences and the only way to ensure they are never used is to eliminate them. Also, they argue, continued investment in nuclear weapons, particularly modernization, undermines progress towards nuclear disarmament. And finally, they say that nuclear deterrence is illegitimate under international law. The goal for the ban treaty is to stigmatize nuclear weapons and sway public opinion to pressure governments to give up their weapons, similar to the model used to ban land mines and cluster munitions.

Numerous questions remain as to how negotiating a ban will proceed. Who will participate? Allegedly all are welcome, though it seems unlikely most of the NPT-signatory nuclear weapon states will take part, particularly given the change of leadership in Washington. China, which abstained from the UN General Assembly vote to begin negotiating a ban, may choose to participate. Among countries that have nuclear weapons outside the NPT, only North Korea, which voted in favor of negotiations, would be almost certain to participate. Nuclear weapon possessors India and Pakistan participated in all the humanitarian impacts conferences and may continue engagement with the initiative, despite abstaining from the UN vote. (They said they abstained because the Conference on Disarmament, not the UN General Assembly, was the appropriate forum for such a vote.)

Among states under the US nuclear “umbrella,” such as NATO members and Japan and South Korea, all voted against the resolution to negotiate a ban except for the Netherlands, which abstained on the grounds that at this time a ban would not be verifiable, could undermine the NPT, and did not have the support of nuclear possessors. The United States actively encouraged allies to vote against ban negotiations, as NATO is at a particularly fragile point given Russian aggression, and many member states continue to rely on nuclear deterrence for security.

Statements by new US President Donald Trump suggest that such American engagement with allies may not be as prominent in 2017 and beyond. If American pressure is removed, and allies instead prioritize public opinion in their home countries, some NATO members may decide to participate in ban negotiations for domestic political gain, and to distance themselves from an increasingly hawkish United States.

What would a ban treaty contain? The content will be largely driven by which countries participate and whether or not there is a consensus among them. Proponents are following a model used for treaties banning land mines and cluster munitions, which offer examples of what the proposed treaty might look like. It could range from being extremely detailed, including a timeline for reductions, to being extremely vague, merely expressing an intent to proceed to more detailed discussions. The latter approach appears more likely, with an initial statement of intent to prohibit the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, and transfer of nuclear weapons, to be followed with a more detailed convention at a later date that would include comprehensive action plans.

A six-point strategy. To date, nuclear weapon states have done relatively little to challenge the ban movement. As a result, nuclear discussions are often one-sided, with members of each group preaching to their own silos. Both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states now have an opportunity to embrace a spirit of cooperation and strengthen the NPT, the treaty at the foundation of the global world order. Nuclear weapon states can adopt an outreach strategy focused on rebuilding trust with non-nuclear weapon states and civil society. The most obvious shared interest is to reduce nuclear risks for as long as nuclear weapons exist, and ultimately ensure that nuclear weapons are never used.

Both nuclear weapon states and supporters of the ban, including advocacy groups, can take the following six steps to bust silos, reach out, and rebuild trust.   

  • Nuclear weapon states can prioritize engagement and dialogue with non-nuclear weapon states and supporters of the ban, potentially through new forums. One such option would be to expand the P5 process—under which the five countries officially recognized as nuclear weapon states meet annually—to include more non-nuclear weapon states in some discussions. The P5 process has recently shifted from focusing exclusively on developing a reporting template and glossary of terms to also looking at “strategic stability.” P5 members have different views on the meaning of that term, and what the balance between offensive and defensive strategy should look like, and non-nuclear weapon states would provide a different perspective on how stability should be defined. Another forum for reaching out would be on the sidelines of the preparatory committee meetings that are part of the NPT process, where nuclear weapon states could meet with ban supporters to discuss how to ensure that a ban does not undermine the treaty. A final means of engagement would be for some of the nuclear weapon states to either participate in the ban negotiations or attend with observer status. This would provide first-hand insight into the non-nuclear weapon states’ frustrations.
  • Nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states can work together to address nuclear risks, particularly crisis communication and consequence management. While nuclear possessors could learn much from non-nuclear weapon states, the reverse is also true: The latter group could develop a better understanding of nuclear command and control, escalation, and the role of deterrence in national strategies. Both sides could work on plans for responding to a nuclear detonation, an issue highlighted by the humanitarian initiative and groups like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.
  • Discussions and research on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation should continue, particularly for incoming specialists in the nuclear field. The ban treaty need not be the pinnacle of the humanitarian impacts movement. One option would be for a non-nuclear weapon state to host a humanitarian impacts conference separate from ban discussions, incorporating the nuclear weapon states, or for a nuclear weapon state to host a conference. Academics like political scientists Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino are increasing the body of knowledge on public attitudes towards nuclear weapons and their effects.
  • As part of the current NPT review cycle, nuclear weapon states could update the step-by-step approach they have favored so far or develop a new model outlining their plans to comply with Article VI of the treaty. Lewis Dunn, an independent contractor for the Center for Global Security Research and a principal with Science Applications International Corporation, has suggested one such model–which he calls “looking long and throwing short”—whereby NPT members would work towards the symbolic date of 2045, the centenary of the first nuclear detonation, as a goalpost by which time atomic weapons would be “eliminated as tools of statecraft,” though not necessarily entirely abolished.
  • Nuclear weapon states can make a case for the enduring need for nuclear deterrence. They have done so largely in academic and expert circles, but should expand to the public domain. Nuclear deterrence—the theory that the threat of nuclear retaliation will prevent nuclear attacks and preserve the status quo—is often mocked or presented as satire, as in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove. However, it remains an important tool of security for dozens of states. Proponents of deterrence can do more to sell their case to a wider, younger audience.
  • Above all else the NPT needs good leadership. It remains unclear how Trump will engage with the global nuclear order, but it appears that he will not be as involved as his predecessor. This disengagement comes at a dangerous time, as the NPT needs leaders who will continue to work towards the P5 goal of strengthening the three NPT pillars—disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear energy—through meetings among the nuclear weapon states, reaching out to non-nuclear weapon states, and continuing to promote non-proliferation initiatives like the Iran deal. In short, the NPT community needs leaders with a vision for the future of the global nuclear order. This may prove to be the most challenging of the steps suggested here. One potential leader is the United Kingdom, a nuclear weapon state with an active civil society engaged in the humanitarian impacts initiative, that also has a history of deep nuclear reductions (in terms of both platforms and weapons) and initiating new forums such as the P5 process. There are few other contenders for nuclear leadership at the moment.

It is important to distinguish between members within the two silos. Some nuclear weapon states, like Russia, will have no interest in reaching out to non-nuclear weapon states for the sake of a stronger NPT. Similarly, some supporters of a nuclear weapons ban would be content to threaten mass withdrawal from the NPT, risking its collapse, rather than acknowledge that nuclear weapon states still rely on nuclear deterrence for their security. Both groups need leadership to ensure the ban movement does not further undermine the treaty. 

Of course, the options suggested here come with challenges. Expanding membership in the P5 process could actually jeopardize transparency and thereby progress on nuclear disarmament. Similarly, participation in ban negotiations by some P5 members without the group’s consensus could be interpreted as supporting the ban’s motives. There is also the possibility that the ban proponents’ frustration with the nuclear weapon states will not be assuaged by anything other than immediate and radical steps towards disarmament, which is politically inconceivable in the current climate.

Regardless of these challenges, all members of the NPT need to address the treaty’s fragility, and that will require silo-busting. In an interview in British journalist Gillian Tett’s book, The Silo Effect, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney makes this case: “Breaking down silos isn’t about a series of actions but an attitude of mind—it’s about having curiosity and a generosity of spirit [to listen to others].” Such a new “attitude of mind” is in order for nuclear discussions. 

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