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.