Riding the moral hobbyhorse

By Bharat Karnad, August 15, 2014

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.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons