At the July 7 United Nations Conference, 122 participants voted in favor of a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. No nuclear-weapon states, nor their allies, participated (except the Netherlands, which voted against).
At first glance, there is little common ground between those who want to ban nuclear weapons and those who want to keep them; these two positions seem so far apart that it would be impossible to overcome their differences. There may, however, be a possible compromise through promises by nuclear-weapon states to not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, and through the use of nuclear-weapons-free zones.
But first, some background. The newly passed Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty expresses concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and calls for their complete elimination.
Even though the catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons are widely recognized, states armed with nuclear weapons will not give them up because of the root cause for the existence of these weapons in the first place: the concept of nuclear deterrence, which weapons-possessors think protects them from a nuclear attack or a massive conventional attack.
The perspectives of non-nuclear weapon states are different. They renounced nuclear weapons entirely and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1969. Most of them thought that it would be one way to avoid becoming a primary target in the case of a nuclear war. (Although some neutral countries—such as Sweden and Switzerland—did experiment with the development of nuclear weapons, even while they wanted to stay out of the military blocs of the Cold War. Western-bloc nations such as Canada and Germany did the same.)
Take Austria for example, which can be seen as representative of the position of non-nuclear weapon states today. After declaring its neutrality in the second half of the 1950s, Austria became a model for the concept of a geographic zone without nuclear weapons in Central Europe—a concept known the Rapacki Plan, after the Polish foreign minister who expanded upon the idea and formally introduced it to the world. Because of the emerging concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, however, the plan was not implemented, although it never died. (On the website of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, you can find a modernized plan for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Europe.)
Austria certainly has a solid track record in this area. Partly because of its neutral status, Austria became host to several international organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, the secretariat of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Control of Conventional Arms, and many others. The legendary Austrian chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, who founded the massive office and conference complex known as the Vienna International Center to house most of these organizations and several UN ones as well, famously said that Austria might avoid becoming a first target during a nuclear war because of the existence of all these international organizations. In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter and the Soviet Union’s Secretary General, Leonid Brezhnev, signed the SALT II Treaty in Vienna. In 2015, Iran and six world powers—the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany—chose neutral Vienna to negotiate the Iran Agreement about that country's nuclear ambitions (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).
Since 2010, Austria became a major sponsor of initiatives regarding the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and an “Austrian Pledge”—which later became the “Humanitarian Pledge”—was signed by 127 states in 2014. (The humanitarian pledge calls for a ban on nuclear weapons because of the unacceptable consequences of a detonation, which include tremendous loss of life and injury, radiation poisoning, and the possibility of a nuclear winter—all of which would be inflicted upon not just the combatant states, but upon neighbors and bystanders.)
Austria hosted one of the three conferences on this issue. Austrian President Heinz Fischer said before the UN-General Assembly: “Abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish you!” In 2016 the UNGA adopted a resolution, which calls “for a total elimination” of nuclear weapons. Austria’s representative proposed to hold the first meeting of signatory states to the treaty of July 2017 on United Nations premises in Vienna.
Taking into consideration Austria’s experiences as a neutral, non-nuclear weapon state, is there room for compromise when it comes to the competing perspectives on the nuclear ban treaty?
The talks about both the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the ban made it clear that there are two opposing views of security. The nuclear-weapon states feel more protected with nuclear weapons, while the non-nuclear-weapon states think they are more secure because they have none. The latter also believe that the nuclear-weapon states and their populations are more in danger because they are primary targets in a nuclear exchange.
But the non-nuclear-weapon states do have the feeling that they sacrificed something by renouncing nuclear weapons, however. They did not get what they expected in exchange for their stand, because the nuclear-weapon-states did not meet their own obligations to seriously negotiate “general and complete disarmament” as required in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That is why non-nuclear weapon states pushed for the Nuclear Ban Treaty to close the gap, which has to be legally binding. They will not get the ban from the nuclear weapon states, however.
What else could they get in return, instead?
It could be that they get a promise by nuclear-weapon states to not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. These “negative security assurances” have to be legally binding and not only self-declared. This is not asking for too much. Negative security assurances (NSAs) are less encompassing than no-first-use pledges, because they only apply to non-nuclear-weapon states.
But what about the allies of nuclear-weapon states, who are essentially protected under the umbrella of the “extended deterrence” of their nuclear-armed friends? This concept of extended deterrence is in some ways the opposite of a negative security assurance; instead of a nuclear-armed country saying “We will not drop a nuclear weapon on any country without nuclear arms,” they instead say “We will use our nuclear weapons to defend our allies who lack nuclear arms of their own.” (Think of the real-world example of the nuclear-armed United States and its nuke-less ally Japan, for example.) Put simply, extended deterrence is the promise to use nuclear weapons, while NSAs are the promise by nuclear weapon states to not use nuclear weapons.
And these two approaches to the legal status of non-nuclear allies have been at loggerheads, which contributes to the division between those who want to ban nuclear weapons and those who want to keep them.
There is a way, however, where allies could still get the benefits of a negative security assurance.
Nuclear-weapon states have always stressed that there is an exception to their promises to not use a nuclear weapon on an unarmed state: They have made it clear that they would indeed drop a nuclear weapon on an unarmed nation that is in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state. Instead, they should commit themselves to the opposite—to not use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons themselves but are in a military alliance with another, nuclear-armed state. Under this thinking, Russia, for example, would have to respect the non-nuclear status of the non-nuclear allies of the United States in Europe and Asia.
This raises some interesting possibilities. Negative security assurances that are in the protocols of the treaties on nuclear-weapon-free-zones (NWFZs) are already legally binding—although the nuclear-weapon states still have to sign and ratify these protocols. Iran, for example, is a strong supporter of a NWFZ in the Middle East, and so are the Arab States.
The initiative on a NWFZ in the Middle East did not make much progress, however. Many hoped that the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons would give the idea new momentum; it did not. Iran could demonstrate its willingness to commit to peace and stability by joining the NWFZ-Treaty in Central Asia. Geographically, historically, and culturally Iran is closer to the countries of the Central Asian Treaty of Semipalatinsk (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) than to the other Middle Eastern states. Iran’s only condition should be that the United States ratifies its protocol. Under this scenario, Iran would get an assurance that it would not be bombed with nuclear weapons, and at the same time allay concerns about its own nuclear program in the future. This would help to support the goals of the Iran Agreement.
And to play this out further: If the Arab States would do the same with the NWFZ in Africa, Israel’s rationale for its nuclear weapons would also fade. If the Arab states and Iran are serious about the creation of a NWFZ in the Middle East, they should support this idea and try to join one of the NWFZs. In legal terms, only an additional protocol to the treaties would be necessary. If Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia were to become members of one of these zones, it would give Israel a greater feeling of security. At the same time, the rationale for Israel to possess nuclear weapons would also change over time. This stability might pave the way for Israel to join a zone later itself. This strategy could be more successful over time rather than an aggressive diplomatic offensive against Israel. As long as a NWFZ is being used as an instrument by Iran and some Arab states against Israel, the United States and other Western powers will never support its implementation. If, however, Israel were surrounded by NWFZs, the international pressure for it to change its nuclear weapons policy would be difficult to ignore. The Arab states and Iran would not have to give up anything themselves if they joined such zones.
And this is just one example. It can be readily seen that such a strategy—of interlocking and expanding NWFZs—could be applied to a variety of potential hotspots around the globe, using their built-in protocols of negative security assurances.
If a ban on nuclear weapons is not acceptable for nuclear-weapon states, and their disarmament efforts are not sufficient for non-nuclear-weapon states, negative security assurances could therefore be a compromise with not much of a burden for the nuclear weapon states. NSAs would not be an alternative to the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty but one realistic step closer to it.