Ban the bomb?

Decades after several nuclear weapon states committed themselves to pursuing disarmament "in good faith" and "at an early date," frustration over the pace of disarmament is growing more conspicuous. For example, calls are emerging to establish a treaty banning nuclear weapons, essentially making outlaws of nuclear-armed nations. Below, authors from Mexico, India, and Chile address this question: How would prospects for disarmament be affected if non-nuclear nations established a treaty that banned nuclear weapons outright—and how might such a ban be enforced?

Round 1

Power for non-nuclear nations?

Dictionary definitions of "radical" include "advocating extreme measures to retain… a political state of affairs." This definition nicely describes the behavior of nuclear-armed nations. These countries depend on their nuclear capability as the linchpin of their strategic positioning and practice nuclear radicalism to ensure their continued reliance on nuclear weapons. Nuclear idealists, on the other hand—idealists include many, though not all, of the states without nuclear weapons—view disarmament as an urgent security imperative and an important moral priority. The radicals and the idealists remain permanently at odds, and achieving the disarmament objectives of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has come to seem a distant dream.

The two camps, despite their built-in tensions, have cooperated to develop political and technical mechanisms to control and manage nuclear technology. This global architecture has achieved a lot in nonproliferation, in nuclear safety and security, and even in reducing weapons stockpiles—but it has fallen far short of achieving complete disarmament. Even worse, perhaps, it has severely limited the role that non-nuclear states can play in the "nuclear realpolitik" of negotiations toward general disarmament. Relations between nuclear states and non-nuclear states have long been, and continue to be, completely asymmetrical.

The non-nuclear weapon states may have lost their best chance to redress this asymmetry in 1995. That was the year when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came up for indefinite extension—indeed, the extension was the single most important element of the negotiations that surrounded the 1995 NPT Review Conference. The non-nuclear states had leverage, and they might have used it to compel improvements to the treaty's Article VI, which requires states to pursue negotiations toward disarmament in good faith and at an early date. But Article VI remained unaltered—as flawed as ever. Ever since, countries without nuclear weapons have had cause to look back on 1995 with regret.

Having failed to utilize their leverage then, can non-nuclear states ever play a serious role in disarmament? Can they meaningfully push the nuclear-armed states to disarm—or even force them to do so?

One thing is certain: Non-nuclear states seem to be running out of patience with the established channels of disarmament. An example is the lawsuit that the Marshall Islands filed this year against the nuclear-armed nations, over their failure to disarm, at the International Court of Justice. The problem with the suit is that even if the court rules in favor of the Marshall Islands, it will have no means of enforcing its ruling. And even if sanctions of some sort were imposed on the nuclear radicals, they would probably treat the sanctions as irrelevant to the disarmament process.

What's needed isn't legal action, but rather political action. Only through politics can non-nuclear nations hope to redress the asymmetry that characterizes their relations with nuclear-armed countries.

One way to attack the asymmetry might be to establish a global nuclear-weapon-free zone. Large swaths of the world—Africa, Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific—are already covered by nuclear-weapon-free zones. If these zones banded together, and encouraged the creation of new zones elsewhere, the result would be a new, very large political bloc that, even if it couldn't force the nuclear-armed states to dispense with their weapons, could at least engage in dialogue with them on a much more equal basis. Likewise, non-nuclear nations could initiate a process to amend Article VI of the NPT to make it tougher and more specific. The new language might require that "Twenty-five years after the date of the treaty's indefinite extension, a conference shall be convened to establish a clear process for total nuclear disarmament on a defined schedule."

But when all is said and done, how likely are non-nuclear states to gain control of the disarmament process? How likely are they to compel nuclear-armed states to eliminate their arsenals? In truth, odds are low in both instances. Because nuclear-armed nations enjoy an asymmetry of power over other countries, altering their behavior will be very, very difficult.

Banning nuclear weapons: A hollow exercise

Nearly 300 years ago, in his Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift satirized the intellectuals, scientists, technicians, and tinkerers of his era, along with their obscure, esoteric interests. At the fantastical Academy of Lagado, Swift’s Gulliver discovered a place where eminences sought to distill sunbeams from cucumbers, to breed lambs that would produce no wool, and to sow the land with chaff rather than grain. Gulliver also found an architect who endeavored to build houses "beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation." The architect’s endeavor bears real similarities to today’s efforts by non-nuclear weapon states to establish a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

All six of the leading nuclear-armed states—the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and India—rank among the world’s top 10 in gross domestic product. Together, these nations account for about 45 percent of global economic activity. Is one to believe that the world’s six most muscular states, from an economic and military perspective—nations that command the direst kind of coercive power—would be troubled if countries without much global clout entered into a treaty declaring nuclear weapons illegal? Especially when North Korea and Pakistan—the most unpredictable, socially fragile, and politically unstable of the nuclear-armed nations—provide compelling reasons for the six to retain, augment, and modernize their nuclear forces?

In an age rife with uncertainty, disarmament initiatives tend to make little impression. The Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held in Mexico in February, was but a blip in the news. The Marshall Islands’ lawsuit against nuclear-armed nations at the International Court of Justice seems a mere curiosity, something of interest only to experts in disarmament and nonproliferation. Any treaty banning nuclear weapons would be similarly ignored. It would run against the grain of the international system—a system based on power politics, one in which economic heft and military might indeed make right.

Moreover, many nations that might favor a treaty banning nuclear weapons, including Scandinavian countries and some of East and Southeast Asia’s "dragons," rely for their overarching security on the very US nuclear deterrent that a treaty would seek to eliminate. These nations therefore enjoy little credibility when it comes to establishing a treaty—but at the same time, if these prosperous countries were excluded from a treaty initiative, the initiative would matter even less than it already does.

Threats of economic and technological sanctions, not moral arguments, induce nations to accept nonproliferation and disarmament norms. Therefore it is the most powerful nations—the countries recognized as nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—that have primarily enforced the treaty’s strictures. Iran has been forced to compromise on its nuclear program, to stop short of the weapons threshold, because powerful countries such as the United States have implemented sanctions and exercised levers available under the global nonproliferation regime. (It is also pertinent that Iran, unlike Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, wants to be part of the international mainstream.)

If a treaty were established that banned nuclear weapons, what could compel the compliance of the nuclear-armed nations? Only moral suasion. This may have counted for something in the early years of the Cold War, as when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru cleverly used the disarmament issue to put the superpowers on the moral defensive and as political cover for his "Janus-faced" nuclear ambitions. But moral arguments don’t matter much today. Thus we see Japan, long at the forefront of disarmament, reinterpreting its "peace constitution" so its military can play an expanded role. Depending on Tokyo’s strategic calculus and the actions of rival China, Japan may even decide to acquire nuclear weapons. So nations’ strategic calculations are shaped to only a limited extent by notions of the universal good.

A better idea. The foundation for achieving "global zero" will be laid, and the pillars for structured disarmament will be erected, only when the United States and Russia, under an internationally verifiable regime, cull nuclear weapons from their inventories at a much faster rate than they do  now. But there is something else that nuclear-armed nations can do right now to inch closer to the starting line of disarmament: establish a convention, as advocated by India, barring the first use of nuclear weapons. Most nuclear-armed states would lose nothing by agreeing to such a convention—they already claim to be rational and reasonable and either disavow first use of nuclear weapons entirely or disavow it outside of extreme contingencies.

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine contains no provision against first use of nuclear weapons. And North Korea, though it has enacted a law containing language that approximates a no-first-use policy, engages in behavior and rhetoric that tend to undercut any no-first-use assurance. But even nations that espouse a first-use philosophy in order to frighten countries supposedly threatening their existence could be expected to sign a no-first-use convention—as long as the six primary nuclear powers got on board first.

Establishing such a convention would help build confidence in the viability of efforts to achieve complete disarmament. Then again, the history of armaments suggests that nations will rid themselves of nuclear weapons only when more lethal armaments are available to replace them. In the meantime, though, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would amount to empty symbolism—a hollow exercise performed by lesser states that seek, perhaps, to even the world’s strategic playing field. It would be a prick to the conscience—little more.

Enforcing a ban, preventing treaty capture

In these early years of the 21st century, the international system seems increasingly unstable. Relations between Moscow and Washington exhibit renewed tensions. The Middle East seems to be developing into one big conflict zone. Some areas of the world, including my own region, Latin America and the Caribbean, are experiencing widespread violence outside the context of conventional armed conflict, partly due to transnational organized crime and the prevalence of small arms and light weapons. Meanwhile, global income inequality stands at very high levels. In a world such as this, it simply isn’t safe to maintain arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Over the last several decades, the movement against nuclear weapons has registered some successes—but has also suffered some failures. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has checked the spread of weapons technology (even if North Korea joined the nuclear club in recent years) but has not achieved as much in disarmament. Hopes for establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East are slipping away. The Conference on Disarmament has done virtually nothing since the 1990s. All in all, existing disarmament mechanisms have not lived up to the principles expressed in the UN Charter—for example, the responsibility to prevent war and to uphold fundamental human rights.

A promising way forward is "the humanitarian initiative," a new disarmament effort centered around a series of conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. (Norway hosted the first conference, in 2013; Mexico the second, in February; and Austria will host a third in December.) The initiative seeks to place two facts front and center: that the mere existence of nuclear weapons threatens the security of nations and peoples the world over, and that no country is prepared to respond to the humanitarian crisis that a nuclear detonation would create (even if the detonation occurred in a limited, regional conflict). The initiative also attempts to cut through the clutter that surrounds nuclear disarmament—all the talk about reducing stockpiles gradually, or addressing shortcomings in existing treaties, or gaining assurances from nuclear-armed countries that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. The humanitarian initiative generates well-founded hope that a treaty will be established that bans nuclear weapons outright.

The initiative incorporates actors, approaches, and ideas from earlier, and largely successful, efforts to eliminate antipersonnel land mines and cluster munitions—two classes of weapons that unnecessarily take lives and cost people their livelihoods. The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions may not have achieved universal membership yet—the United States, Russia, and China, among other countries, remain outside these instruments—but antipersonnel landmines have been stigmatized and the same is increasingly true of cluster munitions. International trade for these weapons has virtually collapsed, and a virtual prohibition on their use is in place. These arms eradication efforts built on earlier work in nuclear arms control, which curbed proliferation, banned nuclear weapons from several regions, and stopped nuclear tests almost entirely. Now, however, the mainstream nuclear disarmament movement has lost momentum, so the humanitarian initiative is attempting to reinvigorate the process—taking as immediate precedents the Ottawa and Oslo processes regarding antipersonnel land mines and cluster munitions. In terms of foreign policy principles, practice, and accumulated experience, the various disarmament processes are closely intertwined.

Many states have thrown their support behind the humanitarian initiative, as have numerous intergovernmental agencies and civil society organizations. But will the initiative actually lead to a formal diplomatic process? Will it culminate in a treaty that stretches disarmament past its current limits—a treaty perhaps that bans nuclear weapons outright? These are tricky questions.

Nations’ positions on banning nuclear weapons will not be unrelated to their wider foreign policy principles and priorities. Hence, not all states seeking a legally binding instrument banning nuclear weapons will have the same margin for maneuver. Honduras, for example, is part of the nuclear-weapon-free zone for Latin America and the Caribbean. It subscribes to the declaration on disarmament issued in 2013 by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. It is participating in the humanitarian initiative. But it is also a country that the UN Development Programme ranks 120th out of 186 countries in its human development index. Honduras’s largest trading partner, meanwhile, is the United States, a nation that holds "an estimated 4,650 nuclear warheads available for delivery by more than 800 ballistic missiles and aircraft." How will Honduras’s economic reliance on the United States influence its behavior in a diplomatic process to ban nuclear weapons?

The humanitarian initiative will succeed only if the countries that support it present a united front. This means that nations in the initiative’s vanguard should establish themselves as a core group of "champions," as it were. The group should include representatives from a variety of regions, but at the same time the group must remain compact enough to allow for like-mindedness in strategy formulation. Such a group would allow the establishment of regional positions on a ban treaty—with the idea that, as one region after another threw its support behind prohibition, pressure would mount on nuclear-armed nations to participate in a treaty process. (The Non-Aligned Movement, which contains a majority of the member states of the United Nations, could play a key role in this.)

The process will not be isolated from other activities in disarmament and international security, or from foreign policy in general, so progress will not be simple or linear. This means that patience and a historical perspective will be indispensable. But when the moment is ripe, the humanitarian initiative can evolve into a major debate within established political forums—hopefully leading to a formal diplomatic process toward establishing a ban treaty.

In any event, before such a process is even begun, enforcement mechanisms must be analyzed and debated. Mechanisms must include common, measurable standards regarding what prohibition and disarmament entail; structures for international cooperation and assistance; a timetable and a budget; and a supervisory body endowed with appropriate powers. A strong institutional foundation is required if banned weapons are to be eliminated—and prevented from reemerging in decades to come.

If such mechanisms are not properly addressed before a diplomatic process is launched, nuclear-armed nations might "capture" any treaty that results. If nations come to the negotiating table bearing only generalities and promises, some states will inevitably block progress toward a strong, meaningful, and long-lasting international treaty, or water down any instrument that emerges. An amorphous debate will only favor the guardians of the status quo. It will only produce a token treaty.

From East and South Asia to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, existing geopolitical tensions could escalate at any time into large-scale armed conflict involving nuclear-armed nations. Under such circumstances, can human beings afford not to establish a solid, enforceable treaty that bans nuclear weapons outright?

Round 2

Escaping the fishbowl

In their 2010 book The Grand Design, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow discussed a decision by the city council in Monza, Italy, to ban the use of curved fishbowls. It was cruel, the council believed, to force fish to see reality in a distorted manner. But how, Hawking and Mlodinow argued, can anyone be sure that his or her own view of reality isn’t distorted? Reality, the authors argued, is a permanent distortion. How it looks depends on how you view it.

The authors in this roundtable—including Bharat Karnad, who believes that chances for achieving disarmament through a treaty banning nuclear weapons are very, very poor—seem to agree that "nuclear zero" is a worthwhile objective. But what is the correct perspective from which to observe the reality of disarmament efforts?

Héctor Guerra has focused mainly on the humanitarian initiative—an effort led by non-nuclear weapon states that he believes "generates well-founded hope that a treaty will be established that bans nuclear weapons outright." Karnad argues that disarmament’s groundwork will be laid only when the United States and Russia "cull nuclear weapons from their inventories at a much faster rate"—but that, in the meantime, establishing a convention to ban the first use of nuclear weapons would "inch [the world] closer to the starting line of disarmament." Both Guerra and Karnad, then, see politics as the central variable in disarmament—but Guerra thinks about politics mainly in terms of "foreign policy principles, practice, and … experience" while Karnad thinks mostly in terms of "power politics." That is, Guerra sees disarmament as a process originating from below while Karnad understands it as something dictated from above.

My own view is that non-nuclear nations will not prevail on nuclear weapon states to disarm until they are capable of exerting much greater political power. Likewise, as long as nuclear weapon states retain the political power they now enjoy, achieving "zero" will remain highly improbable. This would seem to align me more with Karnad than with Guerra. But in truth I differ from both my colleagues in that I tend to view nuclear issues both from above and below. I don’t believe that disarmament will be achieved any time soon—but in response to this unfortunate reality, I would emphasize that nuclear and non-nuclear nations can take concrete steps to minimize nuclear threats.

Non-nuclear weapon states, for example, can push more vigorously to achieve universality for existing disarmament and nonproliferation instruments such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states can both implement a set of steps endorsed by the Nuclear Security Governance Expert Group ahead of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit—steps including the universalization of the nuclear security regime and the establishment of a nuclear security framework convention. And additional countries, whether nuclear-armed or not, could join the roughly three dozen states that, by signing on to the "Trilateral Initiative" at the 2014 Summit, have obligated themselves to taking concrete steps toward meeting high standards in nuclear security.

Would such actions eliminate nuclear weapons? No. But they would reduce the chances of catastrophe while nuclear weapons remain on Earth. And, along with existing disarmament structures and pressure from civil society, they might one day make "zero" an achievable goal.

Diagnosis: Tlatelolco-itis

The Round One essays by my colleagues Héctor Guerra and Rodrigo Álvarez Valdés indicate that they suffer from a malady identifiable as Tlatelolco-itis—a tendency to overlook those features of the Tlatelolco Treaty that indicate it is not a practical basis for universal disarmament. And both men seem to use the treaty as the cornerstone for their thinking about a world sans nuclear weapons. (Guerra, admittedly, never mentions the treaty, but his overall outlook on disarmament seems consistent with Tlatelolco-itis.)

The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, otherwise known as the Tlatelolco Treaty, has freed Latin American peoples from the existential dangers involved in nuclear competition, but the treaty and its regime are fortunate to have survived the nuclear frictions that once characterized relations between Brazil and Argentina. Beyond this, the treaty’s establishment was prompted (in the main) by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—but was politically possible due only to an overarching security architecture maintained by the United States throughout the Western Hemisphere. That is, US security commitments in the region assuaged the fears, harbored by many signatory states, that communism would spread through Latin America (partly from its Soviet outpost in Cuba). Whether they like it or not, members of the Tlatelolco Treaty still fall today within the protective ambit of the United States. Thus their status relative to nuclear weapons remains, in effect, no different from that of non-nuclear weapon states within NATO. Any claim that Latin America has no truck with nuclear weapons is therefore disingenuous.

Neither Guerra nor Álvarez acknowledges any of this. Indeed, Álvarez argues that nuclear-weapon-free zones, banded together, might provide a basis for global disarmament. He concedes that such an approach is unlikely to succeed—but doesn’t acknowledge that even the original nuclear-weapon-free zone (Tlatelolco) is organized around an implicit nuclear security guarantee. Neither Guerra nor Álvarez makes any suggestion that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France (the three extraterritorial nuclear weapon states that possess territory in Latin America) dispose of their nuclear weapons unconditionally—that the three states disarm before other nuclear-armed nations do so. But how, otherwise, can the region truly be considered free of nuclear weapons?

Guerra, moreover, admits that established mechanisms to advance disarmament, such as the UN Conference on Disarmament, have "suffered some failures" and that nuclear weapons technology has spread. He nonetheless regards the "ban the bomb" initiative as a means of sensitizing the world to the perils of these weapons—though the danger is already recognized all too well. Meanwhile, Guerra sees the humanitarian initiative as something to "cut through the clutter that surrounds nuclear disarmament," by which he means the incremental, stepwise approach of the Conference on Disarmament. Problematically, though, he believes that the treaties established to prohibit antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions can show the way toward nuclear disarmament. But the Ottawa and Oslo processes toward eliminating those two classes of weapons were not nearly as fraught as are negotiations over nuclear weapons. And in any case, antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions are akin to poison gas—peripheral to the security of states and therefore amenable to a ban.

Finally, Guerra argues that “foreign policy principles, practice, and accumulated experience” are “closely intertwined” with “disarmament processes.” But foreign policy principles, practice, and experience are also a function of disputed borders, long-running conflicts, and nations’ need to deter wars—and, if compelled to do so, fight them—through both conventional and nuclear military means. To build a case for disarmament on any other premise, as Guerra does, is to seek simplistic solutions to an infernally complex problem.

No sentimental undertaking

Nuclear weapons are a genie that can’t be returned to the bottle—this is a familiar sentiment, repeated for decades. But the humanitarian initiative toward disarmament is another genie that is out of its bottle. My roundtable colleague Bharat Karnad referred in Round One to a treaty banning nuclear weapons, such as might result from the humanitarian initiative, as "a hollow exercise performed by lesser states" and "a prick to the conscience—little more." From this one might get the impression that the humanitarian initiative is just a sentimental undertaking, a hopeless appeal by the meek to the czars of the nuclear weapons establishment. But in fact the humanitarian initiative is a highly realistic construction.

To begin with, it is a broad-based movement built on the accumulated experience of many: diplomats young and old, scientists and academics, activists and practitioners from civil society and nongovernmental organizations, survivors of armed violence, environmentalists, parliamentarians and jurists, artists, and others. These individuals come from countries with nuclear weapons on their territory; from nations that do not have nuclear weapons, but rely on other governments’ weapons of mass destruction for their "security"; and from regions of the world where nations make do without nuclear weapons entirely.

More than this, the humanitarian initiative is based on a mature understanding of disarmament history. It is not some whim—blind to the measures taken since 1946 both to prevent proliferation and to promote disarmament. It is not blind to earlier debates about the legality of using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, and whether their use would constitute a war crime. Indeed, the initiative is founded on a keen awareness that, because the world still faces the threat of nuclear weapons after nearly 70 years of disarmament efforts, additional measures are needed.

New strategies. Karnad writes that the international system is "based on power politics" and that, within it, "economic heft and military might indeed make right." He notes that six nuclear-armed nations account for about 45 percent of global economic activity. But the "realism" that Karnad espouses accepts too easily the risks that accompany power politics—war, injustices including human rights violations, and crimes against humanity. "Realism" accepts too readily today’s concentration of economic power, whereby 1 percent of the world’s population holds almost half of global wealth.

But more importantly, power doesn’t depend only on military and economic might. Over time, human beings have demonstrated the capacity to develop new strategies for collective survival—strategies encompassing cooperation, self-restraint, empathy, compassion, and solidarity. At the global level, these strategies have taken the form of international norms, institutions, and legal structures that, most of the time, allow peaceful relations among nations and enable human beings to resolve their differences without resorting to war. This is the breeding ground of the humanitarian initiative. This is what gives the initiative a real chance of success. This is the counterargument to a deterministic worldview that doesn’t extend beyond the tip of a missile.

A few individuals within a nuclear establishment can determine the fate of a country’s entire populace. A few states can set the conditions of life or death for billions. What does this mean for the development of democracy around the world? What does this say about human civilization’s prospects? Fortunately, it’s possible to escape the bounds of the weapons-based "realist" determinism that seeks to constrain people’s minds. The humanitarian initiative is one means of constructing a different reality.

Round 3

A cure, not a disease

In Round Two, my colleague Bharat Karnad diagnosed Héctor Guerra and me as suffering from something called Tlatelolco-itis—"a tendency to overlook those features of the Tlatelolco Treaty that indicate it is not a practical basis for universal disarmament." He argued that only an overarching US security architecture had made the treaty's establishment possible, and observed that Latin American nations "still fall … within the protective ambit of the United States." This, he wrote, makes their status relative to nuclear weapons "in effect, no different from that of non-nuclear weapon states within NATO."

Karnad's argument has some validity, as far as it goes. But he fails to acknowledge a key fact: that the entire planet, due to the range and mobility of nuclear missile systems, falls within the "ambit" of nuclear weapon states. Sometimes this "ambit" takes the form of a nuclear umbrella and sometimes it simply takes the form of a threat. So Karnad's argument—though it does contain a narrow insight—cannot minimize the contributions that the Tlatelolco Treaty has made to nonproliferation and disarmament.

Karnad makes a further error when he fails to consider the political will that underlies the treaty. If the status of Latin American countries regarding nuclear weapons is no different from that of non-nuclear NATO states, why has Latin America been organized into a nuclear-weapon-free zone since 1969 whereas no zone has been established in Europe—even though the Cold War ended in 1989? Non-nuclear European nations could certainly have organized a zone by now if they had wanted to. After all, they fall within "an overarching security architecture maintained by the United States." That they have not done so indicates that they lack the political will. Likewise, lack of political will is the central factor behind the failure so far to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Where the political will to establish a zone does exist, nuclear weapons are banned. The proof is the treaties not only of Tlatelolco but also of Rarotonga, Bangkok, Pelindaba, and Semipalatinsk. Karnad examines the Tlatelolco Treaty and diagnoses a disease—Tlatelolco-itis. I examine the treaty and recognize a cure—global Tlatelolco-ism.

Cutting both ways. In my own Round Two essay, I wrote that Guerra sees disarmament as a process originating from below whereas "I tend to view nuclear issues both from above and below." On reflection, however, it seems to me that the humanitarian initiative toward nuclear disarmament, which Guerra has discussed at length, may offer the best available option for approaching disarmament from both directions simultaneously. By this I mean that the initiative, if it expanded into a movement seeking to declare nuclear weapons unconstitutional on a nation-by-nation basis, could leverage the power of countries' most powerful political tools—their constitutions—and do so in a way that involved both downward forces by political actors and upward forces by civil society. Indeed, the notion of transforming nuclear detonations and their humanitarian implications into a constitutional issue worldwide could well be worth discussion in Vienna this December, at the initiative's next scheduled conference.

Riding the moral hobbyhorse

My roundtable colleagues Rodrigo Álvarez Valdés and Héctor Guerra both acknowledge that ridding the world of nuclear weapons is a laudable but difficult-to-reach objective. Certainly, disarmament will be hard to achieve through the improvements in nuclear security governance that Álvarez discusses or through Guerra’s unrealistic "humanitarian initiative" (a ban-the-bomb effort in a different guise).

Guerra, nonetheless, continues to hope that the humanitarian initiative—due to the involvement of civil society grandees, nongovernmental organizations, disillusioned scientists, and highly motivated academics and activists the world over—will accomplish what hard diplomatic give-and-take at the Conference on Disarmament has failed to accomplish over decades. Guerra’s optimism willfully confuses good intentions with achievable goals.

Guerra accused me in Round Two of "too easily" accepting global economic disparities and the risks inherent in power politics. My reply is that I see the world as it is—and unfortunately, the world is run by powerful countries that strive to preserve and further their national interests. They usually define their interests narrowly. They don’t think much about the long term or show much concern for the larger good. This is not to condone policies and state behavior that hinder disarmament efforts. But again, one must not mistake what ought to be for what is.

Guerra also wrote that "the [humanitarian] initiative is founded on a keen awareness that, because the world still faces the threat of nuclear weapons after nearly 70 years of disarmament efforts, additional measures are needed." But there has never been any dearth of awareness about nuclear weapons’ dangers—and in any case, advances in disarmament come through deliberate, stepwise diplomatic processes that cannot be sped up by heightened awareness. Disarmament will simply take time. Its deliberate pace will test the patience of well-meaning souls such as Guerra and Álvarez. But it is precisely the thoroughness and purposefulness of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament that one day will make irreversible today’s admittedly slow progress toward nuclear zero.

Can’t make them drink. Álvarez wrote in Round Two that "non-nuclear nations will not prevail on nuclear weapon states to disarm until they are capable of exerting much greater political power." To exert greater power, they must first develop greater military and economic heft—but Álvarez doesn’t say if he wants them to do that. Álvarez does advise non-nuclear nations to "push more vigorously to achieve universality" for existing diplomatic instruments such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). But what would universality achieve? The nuclear weapon states mainly use these instruments to consolidate the advantageous positions they already enjoy. Meanwhile, these nations advance the disarmament cause only glacially, if at all.

What has surprised me about this roundtable is the extent to which anti-bomb initiatives can seem like moral hobbyhorses, with legalistic arguments papering over the initiatives’ impracticality. While it is true that, starting early in the Cold War, deliberations in the First Committee of the United Nations cloaked disarmament in legitimacy under international law, today the prime instruments of disarmament, such as the NPT and CTBT, have long since lost credibility. They have little bearing on the behavior of nuclear weapon states. Nuclear-armed nations perhaps can be cajoled to approach the disarmament well, but they cannot be compelled to drink from it. Advocates for disarmament become too optimistic and high-minded for their own good when they portray disarmament as something within grasp—held out of reach only by the shenanigans of a few states, with their shortsighted considerations of military power and realpolitik. It’s fine to conjure up shortcuts to disarmament such as the effort to establish a treaty banning nuclear weapons. But such attempts can hope, at best, to produce a trompe-l’oeil political effect.

Out of the inferno

For decades, human beings have been stuck in the depths of a nuclear weapons hell. But they need not accept this as their abode forever. Just as the poet Dante traversed the inferno on his journey toward heaven, human beings must transit to a new stage in their history—leaving behind weapons of mass destruction that violate the fundamental principles of the UN Charter and international humanitarian law.

In Round Two, Bharat Karnad wrote that "to build a case for disarmament" without considering, among other things, "nations' need to deter wars" through "nuclear military means" is "to seek simplistic solutions to an infernally complex problem." This invites the observation that mankind's dependence on nuclear weapons is morbid. Risky conformism, such as Karnad expresses, exposes human beings to the ever-present possibility of obliteration. Work toward general disarmament represents a struggle against such determinism. Again, Dante traversed the inferno. He did not remain there.

Same end, new means. The disarmament movement has not yet accomplished its ultimate goal. But it is important to bear in mind what has already been achieved in curbing the expansion of nuclear arsenals and promoting their eradication. Nuclear testing has all but ended; proliferation has been seriously curtailed; nuclear-weapon-free zones cover vast expanses of the world. Still, though these are successes, they are not an end in themselves. They are the means to an end—returning the world to the nuclear-free condition that it enjoyed for all of history until the last seven decades.

To promote disarmament as the 21st century unfolds, new means are needed. The international system has changed since 1945, when the first nuclear test was conducted; since 1970, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force; and since 1991, when the Cold War ended. New challenges exist today—and new possibilities too. The humanitarian initiative toward nuclear disarmament is one such possibility.

The initiative is no dogmatic construct that its adherents can seek to impose on others. Rather, it is a collective process that draws on a wide range of voices from government, multilateral organizations, civil society, academia, and elsewhere. It is maturing apace but remains very much under construction. Participants in the initiative agree on certain issues and debate others intensely, but this spirit of free exchange is one of the initiative's strengths and ought to be retained. For if the initiative is to bear fruit, the movement must reach out not only to like-minded individuals but also to skeptics and to those currently uninterested in disarmament.

The work that lies ahead, though it will be intensive, is promising. Human beings are a flawed species but remain full of potential, including the potential to promote human development and true security through the elimination of apocalyptic weapons. Then again, even disarmament is a means, not an end. The ultimate goals, as expressed in the UN Charter, include saving future generations from the scourge of war and reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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