Last month, 75 years after nuclear weapons were first used, a treaty came into force that bans them. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), also known as the ban treaty, is the culmination of a decade of work by civil society leaders and diplomats who, frustrated by stagnation in traditional venues, focused the lens of international humanitarian law on nuclear weapons. This approach, dismissed at first, resonated with many states that understood nuclear weapons to be inherently indiscriminatory and inhumane.
The new treaty outlaws the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, prohibits their development and possession, bans their transfer or receipt, and prohibits stationing, deploying, or assisting with nuclear arms.
But does any of this matter? The treaty lacks verification and enforcement mechanisms. No state with nuclear weapons will join anytime soon. The nine nuclear-armed states and their allies boycotted the negotiations and pressured other states to abandon the treaty. Each has nuclear modernization programs that will stretch for decades.
Skeptics of the treaty claim it is worse than irrelevant; it will accentuate tensions, undermine collective action on urgent proliferation challenges, diminish alliance cohesion or strategic stability, and potentially establish an alternative to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). We should not, they argue, take any steps that might undermine this bedrock agreement that for 50 years has helped limit the spread of nuclear arms.
These objections are overstated. Collective action against proliferation has been, and will remain, a challenge with or without the ban treaty. Moreover, the treaty was carefully drafted not to conflict with existing nonproliferation obligations, including the NPT.
But the broader point holds: The treaty does little to reduce short-term nuclear risks. That is not its point. What the treaty does is establish, in clear and certain terms, that nuclear weapons are unacceptable. Over 122 countries supported the adoption of the treaty, 51 states have ratified it, and these numbers will continue to grow. Even within states that oppose the treaty, many citizens agree with its premise. Various polls suggest more than half of Americans believe the United States should work to eliminate all nuclear weapons, and support for this view is even higher in Japan and among NATO countries. In the words of former US Defense Secretary William Perry, the ban treaty “rightly establishes abolition as the standard that all nations should be actively working to achieve, rather than an indeterminate future goal.”
The status quo, with its 16,000 nuclear weapons, is far from stable. Everyone alive today lives in the shadow of a potential nuclear war. Climate modeling suggests that even a limited nuclear war, such as one between India and Pakistan, could result in a billion deaths as the ash from burning cities “could blot out the sun, starving much of the human race.”
The treaty represents a refusal to live forever under this nuclear shadow. It reflects a belief that the status quo represents a grave inequity, in which nuclear costs are imposed upon all, while the benefits of nuclear arms accrue to the few states privileged to possess them. In a world of inequities, this is especially pernicious because it is hidden from view. In its preamble, the ban treaty calls out the disproportionate effects on marginalized communities, including indigenous peoples, societies harmed by testing, and women.
At least from a humanitarian point of view, the question has been settled: Nuclear weapons are unacceptable. That alone will not make them disappear. But, in the meantime, the ban treaty need not distract from bilateral arms-control and threat-reduction efforts. The recent agreement to extend New START should be commended, and we must establish new mechanisms to build confidence and reduce tensions. The existence of a treaty banning nuclear weapons does not contradict these efforts; on the contrary, it should help build support for more sensible nuclear postures and for prohibitions on nuclear explosive testing and the production of weapons-usable materials.
The nuclear age is in its eighth decade, a mere dot on the timeline of human history. In this brief span there have been dozens of known close calls and near misses. So long as these weapons exist, ready to use at a moment’s notice, we court disaster. The nuclear powers find themselves, as Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, in a tightening knot. Untying this knot will require a multi-generation project that brings together verification science with extraordinary foresight, diplomatic skill, and political leadership. But first it requires a change in our collective beliefs about nuclear weapons. This is the contribution of the ban treaty, and it should not be underestimated.
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