Can a treaty banning nuclear weapons speed their abolition?

Over the objections of most nuclear-armed nations, a UN committee on disarmament and security resoundingly approved a resolution in October that would mandate negotiations toward a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. Outright prohibition of nuclear weapons would contrast starkly with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows five countries to retain nuclear weapons for an unspecified time—as they "pursue negotiations in good faith… on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." The UN General Assembly is expected to approve the resolution this month, triggering conferences in 2017 to negotiate a ban treaty. Assuming the conferences are in fact conducted, what should a resulting treaty entail—and would it succeed in speeding the disarmament process?

Round 1

To abolish nuclear weapons, strip away their handsome mask

The golden age of deterrence has reached its end. Nuclear weapons, once a star player on the international stage, no longer enjoy a place in the limelight.

To be sure, some policy makers still ascribe to nuclear weapons the same prestige that, during the Cold War, they gained because of their unmatched destructive power and the leverage they provided nuclear weapon states in the international arena. But the Cold War environment, in which nuclear weapons in the hands of two superpowers played a vital role in maintaining strategic stability, doesn’t exist anymore. Nor is it likely to be replicated in the future—despite certain parallels between US-Soviet relations during the Cold War and present-day US-Russia relations. Meanwhile, it is painfully obvious that nuclear deterrence is useless against apocalyptic terrorist organizations motivated by religious extremism. If such a group acquired and used a nuclear weapon, there would be no “return address” toward which retaliation could be directed. And apocalyptic terrorists probably don’t fear destruction in the first place.

Now that the golden age of deterrence has reached its end, banning nuclear weapons has become achievable—as long as the values that policy makers ascribe to them can be undermined. Now is the time to strip away the handsome mask that hid nuclear weapons’ ugly face throughout the Cold War. It’s time for the world to treat nuclear weapons just like chemical and biological weapons—those other weapons of mass destruction—as mere slaughtering weapons, undeserving of prestige. It is time to ban nuclear weapons—just as biological and chemical weapons were banned through the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Why now. Throughout history, weapons have been invented for various reasons, but mainly to kill the enemy. If a weapon exists, sooner or later it will be used—especially if factors that might diminish the probability of its use, such as peace treaties, stable political environments, rational leadership, and deterrence capabilities—have weakened or disappeared.

In today’s world and in the foreseeable future, can we count on rational political leadership to maintain a stable international environment in which nuclear weapons will not be used? It is difficult to answer “yes.” The only reliable way to prevent nuclear catastrophe is to ban production of these weapons and eliminate them for good. Indeed, given the increasing ability of many states and non-state actors to master the scientific knowledge and technological skills necessary to build nuclear explosive devices, whether crude or sophisticated, the world will become dramatically less safe if nuclear weapons aren’t eliminated soon. The existing disarmament and nonproliferation structure hasn’t achieved disarmament yet and seems unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Thus the ban treaty.

What to include. The question then becomes what a ban treaty should entail. First and foremost, it should ensure that states adhering to it enjoy the same rights to peaceful uses of nuclear energy as are currently enjoyed by non-nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That is, the basic bargain that attracted many states to the NPT—foregoing the option to build nuclear weapons in exchange for assistance in the peaceful applications of nuclear energy—should be enshrined in the new treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should continue its responsibility for assisting states in their nuclear power undertakings.

Second, the ban treaty should establish an effective verification mechanism—but probably not the IAEA as currently constituted. Given that the nuclear weapon states will one day have to join the ban treaty if it’s to be successful, the treaty’s verification mechanisms can’t be dominated by nuclear weapon states, as the agency is dominated today. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) might represent a more useful template. The OPCW has thus far carried out its work toward eliminating chemical weapons in a fair, timely, and effective way.

Third, a ban treaty will transform the entire world into a nuclear-weapon-free zone once it becomes universal. Existing zones’ provisions should therefore be a source of inspiration to the treaty’s drafters, especially in terms of rights and responsibilities.

Reasons for optimism. A ban treaty’s chances of achieving disarmament would be no worse than the NPT’s chances—maybe better. One factor in the ban treaty’s favor is that no country can perceive a legitimate threat from it. The non-nuclear weapon states today don’t perceive any threat from the NPT—and if the ban treaty is ever universalized, every state will be a non-nuclear weapon state. No nation will be capable of bullying its neighbors with threats of using nuclear weapons.

Another helpful factor is that the ban treaty movement can build on the existing disarmament regime, in which all but four countries—Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—already participate. Of those four, India and Pakistan abstained in the October voting on the ban treaty. Their abstentions must be considered positive signs for a ban treaty’s prospects for achieving total disarmament. China, meanwhile, abstained as well. This can be read as a statement that Beijing is unafraid of a world without nuclear weapons even though it has the privilege of official nuclear weapon status.

Another interesting abstention is that of the Netherlands, a member of NATO—every other member of which voted against the resolution. The Netherlands is also one of five European countries that, as part of NATO’s nuclear burden-sharing agreement, host tactical nuclear weapons belonging to the United States. Perhaps the Netherlands’ abstention represents a chink in the armor that the United States and several other nuclear-armed countries have established to protect their nuclear weapons from the ban treaty initiative.

Would a ban treaty be sufficient to eliminate nuclear weapons? Well, given that the treaty initiative is not embraced by the nations that possess most of the global nuclear inventory, one could argue that it will prove to be an unsuccessful endeavor. But this would be a shortsighted take. The ban may not end the reign of nuclear weapons on its own, nor do so in the foreseeable future, but it can be expected to create a universal stigma around nuclear weapons—signifying the beginning of the end. It would not be a surprise if, decades from now, the ban treaty is regarded as the foundation of a world free of nuclear weapons.


Assessing the ban treaty from Ukraine

When the UN First Committee voted in October to initiate conferences at which a treaty banning nuclear weapons would be negotiated, a country such as Ukraine might have been expected to vote in favor. At the end of the Cold War, after all, Ukraine had inherited the world’s third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union—but Kiev gave them up. Ukraine also joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state, and it remains a treaty member in good standing. Moreover, Ukraine is threatened to its east by one of the world’s two largest nuclear powers—and does not benefit from the nuclear deterrence capacity of the other. So Ukraine voted in favor of banning the Bomb—right?

Wrong. Well over 100 nations voted in favor of a ban treaty. Thirty-eight voted against—mainly nuclear weapon states, plus EU and NATO nations allied with the United States. Sixteen abstained. Ukraine, meanwhile, did not cast a vote—which can be considered a softer form of abstention.

Has Ukraine given up on disarmament? Does Kiev harbor plans to acquire its own nuclear deterrent? Has Ukraine lost faith in international agreements?

In 1994, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, Russia, the United States, and other powers signed the Budapest memorandum, an agreement that was supposed to protect Ukraine from nuclear attack (a point often emphasized by Russia) and also safeguard its territorial integrity (a point not emphasized by Russia). Since the events of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine began, the Budapest memorandum has turned out to be of little value. These events have marked a watershed in Ukrainian attitudes toward the power of international agreements.

Until 2014, Ukraine believed that the Budapest memorandum constituted a strong security asset. Ukraine’s 2012 Military Doctrine (link in Ukrainian) asserted that deterrence was a matter for “the UN Security Council and… states guarantors of Ukraine’s security according to the Budapest memorandum.” But in 2015, the Ukrainian president’s address to parliament (link in Ukrainian) sounded completely different—the speech mentioned that Ukraine’s experience “made it evident that giving up nuclear status in an international agreement… in reality gives no actual security guarantees.” Indeed, the country that attacked Ukraine in 2014 was among Kiev’s security guarantors under the Budapest memorandum; not only that, Russia issued nuclear threats to prevent other nations from offering Ukraine military support.

So has Ukraine lost faith in the non-nuclear option and replaced it with faith in nuclear deterrence? Some evidence points in that direction. In 2014, a bill to withdraw from the NPT was introduced in the Ukrainian parliament; another bill would have led Ukraine to develop nuclear weapons. Also in 2014, a public opinion poll showed that 49 percent of respondents believed that Ukraine should restore its status as a nuclear weapon state (link in Russian).

Still, there is no serious concern among Ukrainian experts that the nation will go nuclear. Partly this is because, even among members of the general public who think Kiev should develop nuclear weapons, only a small percentage believe it will actually do so (link in Ukrainian). Nonetheless, a certain skepticism about disarmament can be seen in Ukraine today, for instance in a strengthening of NATO aspirations—the percentage of Ukrainians favoring NATO membership increased to 78 percent in 2016 from 15 percent three years earlier (link in Ukrainian). Ukrainians tend to view NATO’s extended deterrence capacity as quite credible. Ukraine is not a NATO member, of course, and can’t take advantage of the organization’s Article V provisions for collective defense (though the government has officially proclaimed NATO membership as a political intention).

Kiev’s abstention on the nuclear weapon ban treaty can be characterized as an expression of solidarity with the US nuclear umbrella, a solidarity that most NATO members demonstrated as well. For Ukraine, US extended deterrence presents an illusion that hasn’t been broken yet, unlike the Budapest memorandum. By abstaining, Ukraine might also have meant to remind the world that extended deterrence functions as a nonproliferation incentive. To be sure, this sort of thinking proceeds from a sort of neo-realist paradigm, which is perhaps regrettable, but the events of 2014 prove that it’s quite difficult to avoid such a worldview when your neighbor actively practices it.

Ukraine may have abstained on the ban treaty, but among its political aims is drafting a global treaty providing guarantees that states with nuclear weapons won’t use them against states without them. Such guarantees should be provided within the framework of the NPT—a mechanism that has proved itself relatively effective since 1968. The treaty doesn’t work perfectly, but it generally upholds the values and interests of member states regarding nuclear energy, global security, and extended deterrence. Can it be improved? Yes, but perhaps this is precisely why Ukraine wishes to draft a treaty regarding security guarantees within the NPT structure.

A ban treaty, on the other hand, is likely to exist outside the NPT structure. With 38 nations voting against the proposed treaty, it seems clear that the world is still not ready for a complete ban on nuclear weapons. Even though all nations may support the idea of avoiding destructive global wars, two separate camps see the struggle for global peace from two different angles.

The NPT, no matter its faults, takes into account both points of view; the proposed treaty would fail to do that. Some states would outlaw nuclear weapons, others would not. The treaty might come to resemble the Kellogg-Briand Pact—a 1928 agreement to outlaw war—to which everyone agreed but which no one took seriously. Then again, the new treaty might turn out to have real power, and strip the credentials from the NPT. But if the new treaty turns out to be more moral and less unequal than the NPT, will the latter treaty stand up to this challenge or will it gradually erode? If it erodes, what will be the response of nations that consider nuclear weapons a matter of national pride, greatness, and sovereignty? How will nations afraid of attack by powerful neighbors respond? Mightn’t the new treaty create a truly Hobbesian nightmare in which everyone fights everyone, using all possible weapons? What happens when the old rules are abandoned but the new ones aren’t accepted by several dozen states?

If the new treaty fails to abolish nuclear weapons and weakens the NPT without effectively replacing it, the dangers for the global nuclear order could be grave.


The ban treaty: An interim step, but politically profound

It is time for the next big building block in the process toward universal denuclearization—a treaty that outlaws nuclear weapons.

The first major building block in the effort to establish and maintain a world without nuclear weapons was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970. A third building block would be a nuclear weapons convention outlining the timelines, technicalities, and verification mechanisms involved in eliminating nuclear weapons.

This gives an idea what the ban treaty—the second of three major building blocks—would contain, and why it is necessary. But why is now the time?

One answer is that many non-nuclear weapon states have grown impatient with disarmament’s slow pace. But the current nationalist turn in global politics—as reflected in the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as US president—has provided fresh urgency to the ban treaty initiative. Today, the nuclear taboo that has developed since atom bombs were used against Japan in 1945 seems under threat.

The nuclear taboo prevents nuclear weapons from being used; non-use in turn reinforces the taboo. Indeed, a norm such as the taboo evolves over time as some action, informed by ideas of what is appropriate, right, moral, and sensible, is or is not performed. Each time nuclear weapons could conceivably be used in conflict but, because using them is deemed an inappropriate response to a situation and contradictory to the values of a society (whether domestic or international), the taboo strengthens. In today’s nationalist environment, careless statements could reignite in imaginations the notion that nuclear weapons are usable.

The ban treaty should elevate the nuclear taboo to the level of an absolute—using a nuclear weapon must become unthinkable. The ban must close the loophole left by the International Court of Justice in 1996 when it ruled on the legality of using nuclear weapons. The Court determined that it could not “conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake.” The ban must make it clear that there can be no situation conceivable that justifies use of nuclear weapons or even the threat of their use. As such, the ban is an instrument to reach an endgame in which non-use of nuclear weapons becomes what in law is termed jus cogens—a peremptory norm or compelling law that is simply assumed, and that cannot be derogated from—by anyone, ever.

But considering specific cases of human conduct (such as nuclear weapon use) through the lens of jus cogens requires political work. The nuclear taboo, to be peremptory, must be accepted and recognized as peremptory by the international community at large. The ban treaty, then, is an instrument to disrupt the comfort of those who still believe that deterrence logic (or mutual assured destruction) provides a security rationale for nuclear weapons. In place of deterrence logic, the ban establishes the notion that security is found in the logic of mutual assured abstinence from the nuclear option.

Odious creatures. A conference to negotiate a ban treaty is imminent because of the combined political work that states and non-state actors have already performed; this political work is known as the humanitarian initiative. The humanitarian initiative has shifted the focus of nuclear prohibition from actors to technology. The NPT, despite its tremendous success in containing nuclear weapons, focuses on actors—those with and those without nuclear weapons. Under the treaty, all states are obliged to negotiate general and complete disarmament in good faith, but no deadline for such negotiations is stipulated. This legal gap has been disingenuously used as a means for allowing nuclear weapons to stay in the “right” hands and for keeping them out of the “wrong” hands. A ban treaty, on the other hand, would deem all nuclear weapons inhumane. Even in perceived “good” hands, they would still be illegitimate.

A ban treaty can function at a normative level to stigmatize nuclear weapons for everyone and therefore stigmatize nations that retain these weapons—even if they haven’t signed on to the ban treaty. In the public eye, states that possess nuclear weapons must come to be seen (and their defenders must come to feel) like Gollum, the odious creature in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Lord of the Rings, who says: “We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.” The ban will be an important legal instrument to be sure, but more than that, it will be a political instrument around which activists—whether states, individuals, or civil society—can do further political work to create the common sense that possessing nuclear weapons is immoral and irrational.

Creating reality. So what should a ban treaty actually include? One clue comes from the experience of my own nation of South Africa, which once had nuclear weapons but gave them up. South Africa took the moral high ground when it denuclearized in 1990, and any other nuclear-armed state that became nuclear-free would do the same. Giving up nuclear weapons is an achievement to be celebrated by the international community, and a ban treaty should include positive language to entice denuclearization.

In addition, the ban treaty might declare in its preamble that member states are “eager to see possessor states lead in the effort to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons by initiating negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention.” A further declaration might recognize “a special role for the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the organization primarily responsible for international peace and security, in leading denuclearization by example.”

The treaty should not be crowded with too much detail. Nor should new institutions be created at this point—that would be the prerogative of a convention. Much of the verification work associated with the ban can be subsumed under existing structures such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As an interim measure toward a nuclear weapons convention, the ban itself should be an easy but big step. It can speed up disarmament. But it is not a direct instrument to force nuclear-armed nations to disarm. Rather, it is an element of a long-term project to construct a reality in which nuclear weapons have no place and nuclear-armed nations themselves come to see reality in that light.


Round 2

Reality: Humanity can’t indefinitely avoid using nuclear weapons

A Bulletin reader named Ryan Alt argues in the comments to this roundtable that “it is very difficult to imagine [a nuclear weapon] ban [treaty] as anything more than wishful thinking.” Another reader, Keith B. Rosenberg, writes that one should “[n]ever make a treaty that will not be adhered to”—essentially, that the ban treaty is too idealistic to be feasible.

I’ll argue the opposite—that realistically appraising nuclear weapons and their dangers demands the negotiation of a ban treaty. What is overly idealistic is to believe that humanity, if it possesses nuclear weapons indefinitely, will indefinitely manage to avoid nuclear war.

This brings me around to the concept of deterrence, which my roundtable colleagues Joelien Pretorius and Polina Sinovets have debated. My own view is that the Cold War may have represented a golden age for deterrence—and that age is now over. The Cold War world was organized around two superpowers that each possessed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, ready for use at any time. The weapons could be delivered using air-based, land-based, and sea-based platforms. Both sides were confident in the other’s ability to launch a second strike; this confidence deterred a first strike.

But the world has grown more complicated. It isn’t organized anymore into stable blocs around two superpowers—rather, power has become more diffuse and nuclear weapons have spread. In nuclear South Asia, relations between India and Pakistan are worryingly unstable. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un himself may be worryingly unstable.

Today’s leadership profiles in the United States and Russia are arguably no better. Donald Trump’s control of the US nuclear arsenal has rattled expert observers ever since he emerged as a serious contender for the presidency. Vladimir Putin behaves with increasing aggression, virtually daring the West to put its foot down.

Realist thinkers have traditionally portrayed individuals in charge of nuclear weapons as rational actors, capable of performing accurate cost-benefit analyses and responding sensibly to the reality that potential adversaries possess nuclear weapons too. Some realist scholars have argued that the world would achieve greater strategic stability if more states possessed nuclear weapons. But even realists ought to realize that most leaders controlling nuclear weapons today can’t necessarily be trusted to behave rationally.

A characteristic of nuclear weapons that distinguishes them from all other weapons is that the destruction they cause is irreversible. After nuclear war, no program of reconstruction could ameliorate nuclear winter. No human effort could remove enormous amounts of poisonous radiation from the environment. Is it unrealistic, then, to be alarmed about the current leadership in the major nuclear weapon states? Even realists ought to admit that it is not.

So is it realistic to wait passively for disarmament while the power to launch nuclear-tipped missiles rests with leaders whose rationality is in question? Or is it realistic to work toward disarmament, including through a ban treaty, so that no irrational leader can ever initiate a nuclear war?

Oh, don’t forget—once your leader presses the button, it will be too late to say “Oops.”


Arms control is realistic; general disarmament probably isn’t

Dr. Pangloss, the famous Voltaire character, went through life believing that “In this best of all possible worlds, everything is for the best.” In a claim made by my roundtable colleague Joelien Pretorius—that the disarmament language of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is unambiguous—I hear a bit of Pangloss.

The treaty’s disarmament language is anything but unambiguous. It requires signatories to pursue disarmament negotiations “in good faith”—but if good faith is absent, what does the language mean? Indeed, if all parties to the treaty had displayed good faith over the years, there would be no need today to pursue a nuclear weapon ban treaty. General nuclear disarmament would already have been negotiated.

Pretorius’s South Africa is to be admired for having eliminated its nuclear weapons. But some other nations, to borrow the language of Russian political scientist Sergey Karaganov, believe that nuclear weapons were “sent by God to save humankind.” The Russian Orthodox Church has bestowed blessings on the nation’s nuclear weapons. As far as the Russian state is concerned, calls for general nuclear disarmament are mere hypocrisy. General disarmament would only advantage nations whose conventional forces are superior.

Pretorius claims that nuclear deterrence doesn’t work—but it works from Russia’s point of view. If it doesn’t, why has NATO responded so cautiously to Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship over the last couple of years? For that matter, why does Moscow continue to carefully avoid crossing NATO’s red lines? To be sure, one might argue that a balance in conventional arms provides deterrence between the two sides. But history shows that the reliability of conventional deterrence is dubious—while no direct evidence indicates that nuclear deterrence doesn’t work.

Nuclear weapons have a fearful reputation—but conventional weaponry has caused the greatest casualties in the history of warfare. Soon after human beings created nuclear weapons, they came to understand that they stood at the brink of self-destruction, and since then they have managed to avoid using these weapons. One can even argue that nuclear weapons aren’t weapons of war at all, but rather weapons of dialogue. In fact, that may be why Russia imbues them with so much meaning.

I say all this only to point out that progress toward nuclear disarmament is possible only when the various parties acknowledge other parties’ thought processes and points of view. South Africa deserves praise for disarming, but other nations live under different conditions and espouse different worldviews. Certainly, Russia can be encouraged to disarm—but from Russia’s perspective, seeking a complete ban on nuclear weapons is a dishonest game aimed at undermining Russian sovereignty. A more realistic goal is to involve Russia in further nuclear reductions and arms control.

If a concept has proven useful in the past—as nuclear deterrence has done—one must proceed very carefully before discarding it. And arguing that deterrence is ineffective may, instead of disqualifying deterrence, disqualify one’s own arguments.


Succeed or fail, the ban treaty won’t erode the NPT

Despite what my roundtable colleague Polina Sinovets has suggested, a treaty to ban nuclear weapons will not erode the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). To the contrary, over the short term a ban treaty would help the NPT survive. Over the long term, it would help the NPT fulfill its promise of nuclear disarmament. A ban treaty, far from undermining the NPT, would build on the earlier treaty. The NPT itself is unambiguous about the necessity of general nuclear disarmament—and unambiguous that a new treaty to accomplish that aim must be negotiated.

To be sure, the ratifiers of the NPT anticipated that nuclear weapons would be retained for some unstipulated duration. But almost 50 years on, it is past time for the disarmament commitments spelled out in the treaty’s Article VI to be honored. In 1995, when the NPT was extended indefinitely, the obligation of all treaty members to negotiate a new treaty on general and complete disarmament was reconfirmed. Certainly my own country, South Africa, would not have lobbied for the extension if the nuclear weapon states had not provided an assurance that they would negotiate “with determination” toward global denuclearization. Something similar could likely be said of all the 122 states that, along with South Africa, voted at the United Nations in October in favor of negotiating a ban treaty.

If the NPT hadn’t been extended in 1995, negotiations probably would have begun on an alternative treaty that provided a date for the implementation of general and complete disarmament. To borrow the words of Sinovets, this would have been necessary to avoid a “truly Hobbesian nightmare in which everyone fights everyone.” The years since 1995 have thus been a grace period for nuclear weapon states—and for those who think that extended deterrence works. I don’t think it works. It merely delays the resolution of conflicts. Plus, what happens if the nation under whose nuclear umbrella you seek protection suddenly becomes best friends with your enemy? For Sinovets’s Ukraine, where NATO aspirations are strengthening, that seems a pertinent question.

The real threat to the NPT is not the proposed ban treaty. It is that nuclear-armed nations, and nations with which they are entwined through collective security arrangements, will fail to pursue disarmament in good faith. Over time, this could cause states to withdraw from the treaty. During these uncertain times in world politics, such erosion may well accelerate—unless all parties can move forward to implement the NPT’s disarmament provisions.

One way forward is to pursue a ban treaty. Although the ban treaty will likely be negotiated outside the NPT’s review conferences, the negotiators can—and, I suspect, will—explicitly refer to the NPT in the text of the ban treaty. This will ensure a strong legal link between the two treaties, accompanying the normative link that already exists. Any concern that the NPT’s rules will no longer apply if the ban treaty succeeds are therefore unwarranted.

And if the ban treaty fails? Well, first it’s necessary to define failure. As I wrote in my first-round essay, I see the ban treaty as an interim piece of political work that will help achieve a world without nuclear weapons in the long run. In that context, if the broad coalition of states and civil society organizations that support the ban treaty were to walk away from the process, the treaty would have failed. But that is unlikely to happen. Even if it does—and if states decide to leave the NPT in the aftermath of the ban treaty’s failure—they will do so because nuclear weapon states still refuse to disarm. So the ban treaty, whether it succeeds or fails, won’t erode the NPT. The nuclear weapon states are doing an excellent job of eroding it on their own.


Round 3

Disarmament while the chance remains

Here’s the question I can’t help but ask as I read through this roundtable, including some readers’ responses to it: What’s so wrong with discussing a nuclear weapon ban treaty?

This seemingly simple question can be understood in at least two ways. First, it’s a reaction to certain critics of the ban treaty initiative who believe that the initiative has little chance of forcing disarmament and therefore is a futile waste of time.

Well, when you get right down to it, does anyone use his or her time in the most effective way possible, at all times, throughout life? Probably not! So how come engaging in intellectual discussion about a nuclear weapon ban treaty is an especially egregious waste of time?

Imagine for a second, even if you find it difficult, a world from which nuclear weapons have vanished. Imagine a world in which no country can bully its neighbors with nuclear threats; no nation can act with impunity simply because it possesses a nuclear arsenal; and no terrorist organization can acquire sophisticated nuclear weapons or the material necessary to build a crude nuclear device. Would such a world be a better place to live? Probably so!

So what’s wrong with dreaming of a world without nuclear weapons and their associated dangers? Nothing is wrong with it! It doesn’t cost anyone anything.

Even if others characterize it as a waste of precious time, I’m willing to invest some of my own time in this “futile” exercise of pursuing disarmament. Throughout history, many “futile” exercises have ultimately achieved their objectives. My roundtable colleague Joelien Pretorius has provided the excellent example of the 19th-century campaign to abolish slavery. In those days, ending human bondage seemed no less hopeless a cause than nuclear disarmament seems in the 21st century!

Now for the second reason that I ask what’s so wrong with discussing a nuclear weapon ban treaty—it’s a way of pointing out that critiques of the ban treaty initiative often encompass issues bearing little relation to the treaty itself. One such critique involves the ban treaty’s purported negative implications for existing arms control and disarmament arrangements.

When the UN First Committee voted in October to convene negotiations this year on a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination,” it interfered in no way with the implementation of existing arms control and disarmament structures. If a ban treaty is indeed negotiated and approved, it will mean only that the time for negotiating a ban treaty was ripe—not that the treaty would be imposed on parties to existing treaties by aliens from outer space! Criticizing the ban treaty over the harm it would allegedly cause to existing arms control and disarmament structures only demonstrates how hard it is to find convincing arguments against the treaty initiative.

Even worse weapons? In her third essay, my colleague Polina Sinovets argued that “If humanity gets rid of the Bomb, it … may not be a good thing.” She believes that “The world could return … to the old, familiar search for an ‘ultimate weapon.'” According to Sinovets, because nuclear disarmament could lead to the emergence of even worse weapons, it’s better to be satisfied with the weapons we already have.

I disagree. A graph showing advancements in military technology through human history might show a slowly ascending curve—until the advent of nuclear weapons, at which time the curve would begin to exhibit a steep slope. Therefore one should expect worse weapons to come—unless a ban treaty can halt the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons, and unless the global community demonstrates the resolve to stop the rapid development of military technologies.

Now is the time to show that resolve. The nuclear taboo has held since 1945, but if it’s ever transgressed, humanity’s ability to even contemplate issues such as disarmament will be very deeply compromised.


Better to bear the ills we have

Up to a certain point, nuclear arms control and disarmament walk hand in hand. But when they encounter the issue of deterrence and its utility, they quickly part ways. This is the central point that my roundtable colleague Joelien Pretorius made in her third essay, and I concur with it. But why exactly do arms control and disarmament part ways? I believe it’s because these two approaches to nuclear weapons depend on fundamentally different worldviews.

Nuclear disarmament seeks to destroy the most inhumane tools of war and thereby save humanity from annihilation. Once disarmament is accomplished, human beings will perceive it as a benefit—and carefully maintain world peace.

Arms control starts from the idea that human beings are bellicose by nature. Peace will not result from eliminating tools of global destruction. To the contrary—nuclear disarmament might lead straight into World War III. Humanity could face the risk of terrible devastation without nuclear weapons.

Pretorius’s prescription for achieving disarmament depends heavily on stigmatizing nuclear weapons. But even if stigmatization leads to elimination, the knowledge that underlies the production of nuclear weapons cannot be forgotten. Moreover, there always will be somebody who is less concerned with the ethics of warfare than with acquiring power—which could lay the groundwork for one or a few states that don’t care if nuclear weapons are inhumane to establish a nuclear dictatorship. One needn’t search far for leaders who could be capable of exerting nuclear blackmail—or even of using nuclear weapons, never mind the stigma. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against both Iran and his own people and long sought to develop biological weapons—though both activities carried the stigma of inhumanity. More recently, Syria is widely believed to have used chemical weapons against its own people.

Here’s another danger: Disarmament could shunt nonproliferation to the periphery of politics. Today the international community exerts close control over nuclear weapons. If it reduced the attention it pays and the control it exerts, rogue states and terrorists with little concern for ethics or morality might find it easier to gain access to nuclear technology.

Even if most people prefer to resolve their disputes through peaceful dialogue, the course of history is often determined by the few individuals who would gladly gain influence through aggression. It’s naïve to suggest that stigmatizing nuclear weapons will eliminate the lust for power. Indeed, nuclear weapons can easily be considered a barrier to aggressive behavior. Where preventing violence is concerned, fear may be more effective than common sense.

If humanity gets rid of the Bomb, it may free itself from the fear that war can lead to global extinction. This may not be a good thing. The world could return to a time when warfare was a routine and even acceptable way of conducting politics. It could return to the old, familiar search for an “ultimate weapon”—that’s how gunpowder and air power and eventually nuclear weapons came to exist. After nuclear disarmament, what kind of weapon would be next? Would it possess the same deterrent force that nuclear weapons possess today?

Perhaps it is better after all, as William Shakespeare had Hamlet say, to “bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”


How I learned to hate the Bomb

The proposed nuclear weapon ban treaty might seem to have a lot in common with nuclear arms control. Both approaches, after all, acknowledge that nuclear weapons are dangerous. Both seek to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. But the truth is that arms control and the ban treaty imbue nuclear weapons with very different meanings. The result is that only one approach—the ban treaty—has any hope of leading to general nuclear disarmament.

As I wrote earlier in this roundtable, I don’t see a ban treaty as a tool that can force nuclear-armed states to give up their nuclear weapons. Rather, it’s a tool that can stigmatize nuclear weapons and more deeply entrench the taboo against their use—creating the conditions for disarmament.

“To stigmatize” means to brand something (or someone) disgraceful, odious, and worthy of disapproval. Why is it so important to stigmatize nuclear weapons?

To state the obvious, nuclear weapons are massively destructive. The atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, which were small in comparison to the devices developed and stockpiled since, caused unspeakable human suffering. Today, a nuclear exchange could cause environmental devastation on a scale that would risk human extinction. The effects of nuclear detonations wouldn’t be contained in space and time—they would cross borders and generations. By any reasonable standard, nuclear weapons contravene international humanitarian law, which governs how wars are fought.

For these reasons, states without nuclear weapons cannot be expected to behave as if nuclear weapons were simply within the sovereign rights of nuclear-armed states. Rather, nuclear detonations and their consequences are among the pressing concerns of all humanity—of states, civil society, and individuals. This is the attitude that underlies the humanitarian initiative, a political process that has now led to the imminent negotiation of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Arms control, meanwhile, takes a very different approach. Useful and important though arms control may be, it underemphasizes the urgency of nuclear disarmament. Arms control recognizes in nuclear weapons the same dangers that the ban treaty recognizes, but supposes that the dangers can be brought to an acceptable level—if arsenals are shrunk, alert levels are reduced, hotlines are installed, and so forth.

Arms control depends on the actors in charge of nuclear weapons to avoid catastrophe by behaving rationally. It assumes an orderly environment and an adherence to rules. But here is the problem: Arms control does not renounce the idea that nuclear weapons—by deterring war, especially nuclear war—benefit humankind. This acceptance of nuclear deterrence is arms control’s downfall. Arms control demands that nuclear weapons not be controlled too much—otherwise, actors may come to perceive nuclear-armed enemies as unwilling to use their nuclear weapons. The result could be deterrence failure.

Arms control suffers from a dilemma. It attempts to tame nuclear weapons—but at the same time it keeps up the pretense that nuclear weapons may be used. This invites bizarre strategies such as Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” which involves projecting an image of psychological instability to convince one’s enemies that you might use nuclear weapons. Such an approach inverts the stability and rationality that arms control usually ascribes to nuclear deterrence. Today, the madman theory is sometimes invoked to explain President Trump’s erratic views on nuclear weapons.

Even at its best, arms control takes a contradictory approach to nuclear weapons. These weapons are bad; but if we limit them, they’re good; as long as we don’t limit them too much. At its worst, arms control urges humanity—to borrow from the title of Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove—to “stop worrying and learn to love the Bomb.”

I don’t argue that arms control is useless. But arms control is not enough. It will not eliminate nuclear weapons from the world—and eliminating these weapons is the only way truly to safeguard humanity against their use.

The nuclear weapon ban treaty announces that humanity should worry—and should learn to hate the Bomb. Stigmatizing nuclear weapons in this way is political work. Eliminating the weapons themselves is technical work. Neither process will be easy or quick. But as with the 19th-century campaign to end slavery, the endeavor is not impossible.


Topics: Nuclear Energy


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