Editor’s note: This article is part of a collection to mark the occasion of the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The vast majority of countries in the world do not have nuclear weapons. Exasperated by the arms control reversals, fed up with slow progress on disarmament that was promised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and motivated by humanitarian concerns, they have asserted their agency to take back nuclear legitimacy. The changed legal structure that will begin when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enters force January 22, 2021 will recalibrate the balance of costs and benefits to the net detriment of nuclear possessor states and create a deepening crisis of legitimacy for their status.
It will also add to the domestic difficulties for some umbrella states. Although Japan benefits from US extended nuclear deterrence, a poll by the Japanese public broadcaster NHK last December showed two-thirds support among Japanese for joining the ban treaty, and only 17 percent opposition.
Detractors will claim that, realistically, the ban treaty does nothing to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. But even during the substantial culling of US and Soviet/Russian nuclear warheads that began with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and continued with their successors, not one warhead was eliminated through a multilateral agreement. Nor has a single multilateral disarmament negotiation ever been held under the NPT.
So, on one hand, the ban treaty’s inability to eliminate any warheads will be no worse than 50 years of NPT history. On the other hand, it will rob all nuclear-armed states of the fig leaf of international legitimacy, devalue nuclear weapons as the currency of international politics, and degrade both their military utility and political value.
This could also unlock some frozen bilateral frames. For example, the authors of a recent paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described China’s dismissive attitude to India as a function of India’s being outside the NPT. This gives Beijing cover to refuse nuclear dialogues with India. Now, both countries will find themselves on the illegitimate side of the nuclear weapons divide. Perhaps Beijing’s rejection of India’s nuclear status will soften enough for the two to enter into a dialogue on a bilateral crisis stability and a nuclear restraint regime.
And while some have suggested that the ban treaty will undermine or weaken the NPT, these fears are overblown. All ban treaty signatories are NPT members in good standing. They support the new treaty as a sincere effort to complete the normative agenda of the old one.
The real significance of the ban treaty lies in its successful delegitimization of the possession and doctrines of use of nuclear weapons for all countries. It has the great advantage of being non-discriminatory and universal, which sets it apart from the NPT.
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