The Long Road to Nuclear Disarmament
With Donald Trump in favor of abandoning the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the world has been reminded once again how fragile the nuclear non-proliferation regime is. For this reason, it is more important than ever that the international community upholds existing treaty obligations, starting with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
CANBERRA – This is crunch time for the global nuclear order. By May 12, US President Donald Trump must decide whether to recertify the Iran nuclear deal or reimpose sanctions. Only a few weeks later, he is expected to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a summit that will have implications for that country’s nuclear program.
With Trump surrounded by hawkish advisers – like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton – the odds are good that efforts to denuclearize will suffer setbacks before the month is out. For this reason, it is more important than ever that the international community upholds existing treaty obligations, starting with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But to do that, tough conversations must be had.
Multilateral agreements are always prone to gaps in application; the international non-proliferation regime is no different. For example, while neither Israel nor India have signed the NPT, both states are considered responsible members of the nuclear-weapons club. Israel has never been sanctioned for its bomb, and India has a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as well as several civil nuclear agreements with the United States, Australia, Canada, and Japan.
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are tolerated but not accepted; North Korea’s de facto nuclearization is considered intolerable; and Iran’s nuclear program was curbed before a weapon could be developed.
Amid this imperfect framework, many countries have become frustrated by the refusal of NPT signatories to discuss their own disarmament. Article VI of the NPT obliges parties to pursue “in good faith” negotiations to disarm, but the nuclear-weapons states that have ratified the treaty do not interpret this as a prohibition on their possessing a nuclear arsenal. Rather, buoyed by the doctrine of deterrence, they argue that reductions would weaken global security.
Perhaps not surprisingly, non-nuclear-weapon states see things differently. And, last year, they committed their views to a supplementary treaty at the United Nations. Today, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has been signed by 58 countries and ratified by eight, and if it ever comes into force will ban the use, threat of use, or possession of nuclear arms.
Better known as the “ban treaty,” the TPNW is an important step toward the establishment of a new international norm. It is also a logical consequence of the NPT’s failings. But, because the ban treaty goes beyond the NPT in two key respects, it has also drawn heavy opposition. The ban treaty would prohibit so-called nuclear sharing arrangements, whereby allies of nuclear weapon states could store weapons on these states’ territory. Moreover, it undermines the logic of deterrence by making the “threat of use” illegal.
If the global non-proliferation regime is to remain viable, the competing visions reflected in the NPT and the ban treaty must be reconciled. For that to happen, the international community needs to agree on a strategy to achieve an international order in which the reduction of nuclear stockpiles reinforces, rather than jeopardizes, regional and global security.
No doubt these will be difficult discussions, but the alternative is far worse than a few bruised egos. Some experts have suggested that hardline opposition to the ban treaty could prompt a backlash from countries that have grown disillusioned with the NPT, leading to widespread withdrawal from the 1968 treaty. Needless to say, this would be hugely counter-productive. Not only would it destabilize the existing nuclear order and heighten many countries’ sense of insecurity; it would also deepen armed states’ attachment to the bombs they already have.
Its flaws notwithstanding, the NPT has brought years of nuclear stability. Even countries that have refused to sign the treaty have a stake in its survival, with or without the ban treaty, given the serious global security implications of its unraveling. Therefore, all sides must urgently rediscover their common interest in practical and effective disarmament.
The two treaties can converge in a framework that minimizes nuclear threats in the near term; reduces the number of nuclear weapons in the medium term; and aspires to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons in the long term. This approach was outlined in 2009 by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; a version of it must be resurrected today.
By the end of this week, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal will be clear; Trump’s refusal to recertify it would very likely signal its demise. But, regardless of what becomes of Iran’s nuclear program, or of North Korea’s for that matter, a weakening of the NPT – the bedrock of the global nuclear order for a half-century – represents the biggest threat of all.
Denuclearization Means the US, Too
The US demands that North Korea adhere to the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and on that basis has encouraged the UN Security Council to impose sanctions in pursuit of denuclearization. Yet the brazenness with which the US demands not true denuclearization, but rather its own nuclear dominance, is stunning.
NEW YORK – There are two types of foreign policy: one based on the principle “might makes right,” and one based on the international rule of law. The United States wants to have it both ways: to hold other countries accountable to international law while exempting itself. And nowhere is this truer than on the matter of nuclear weapons.
America’s approach is doomed to fail. As Jesus declared, “all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Rather than perishing, it’s time to hold all countries, including the US and other nuclear powers, accountable to the international rules of non-proliferation.
The US demands that North Korea adhere to the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and on that basis has encouraged the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea in pursuit of denuclearization. Similarly, Israel calls for sanctions or even war against Iran to stop the country from developing a nuclear weapon in violation of the NPT. Yet the US brazenly violates the NPT, and Israel does worse: it has refused to sign the treaty and has claimed the right to a massive nuclear arsenal, acquired through subterfuge, that it refuses to acknowledge to this day.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, with signatories agreeing to three key principles. First, nuclear-weapon states pledge not to transfer nuclear weapons or to assist non-nuclear states’ manufacture or acquisition of them, and non-nuclear states pledged not to receive or develop nuclear weapons. Second, all countries have the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Third, and crucially, all parties to the treaty, including the nuclear powers, agree to negotiate nuclear – and indeed general – disarmament. As the NPT’s Article VI puts it:
“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
The core purpose of the NPT is to reverse the nuclear arms race, not to perpetuate the nuclear monopoly of a few countries. Still less is it to perpetuate the regional nuclear monopoly of countries that have failed to sign the treaty, such as Israel, which now seems to believe that it can evade negotiations with the Palestinians because of its overwhelming military power. Such is the self-destructive hubris conjured by nuclear weapons.
Most of the international community – with the conspicuous exception of the existing nuclear powers and their military allies – reiterated the call for nuclear disarmament by adopting in 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty calls on every nuclear-armed state to cooperate “for the purpose of verifying the irreversible elimination of its nuclear-weapon program.” Whereas 122 countries voted for it, one voted against, one abstained, and 69, including the nuclear powers and NATO members, did not vote. As of last week, 58 countries had signed the treaty and eight had ratified it.
The US demands that North Korea live up to its NPT obligations and denuclearize, and the Security Council agrees. Yet the brazenness with which the US demands not true denuclearization, but rather its own nuclear dominance, is stunning. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, published in February, calls for a massive modernization of the US nuclear arsenal while paying no more than lip service to its NPT treaty obligations:
“Our commitment to the goals of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) remains strong. Yet we must recognize that the current environment makes further progress toward nuclear arms reductions in the near term extremely challenging.…This review rests on a bedrock truth: nuclear weapons have and will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack and in preventing large-scale conventional warfare between nuclear-armed states for the foreseeable future.”
In short, the US demands that only other countries denuclearize. Denuclearizing itself would be “challenging” and would violate the “bedrock truth” that nuclear weapons serve US military needs.
Aside from America’s failure to abide by its NPT obligations, another huge problem is that US military needs are not really about deterrence. The US is the major war-making entity in the world by far, fighting wars of choice in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Its military has repeatedly engaged in regime-change efforts during the past half-century, wholly in violation of international law and the UN Charter, including two recent operations to overthrow leaders (Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi) who had acceded to US demands to end their nuclear programs.
We can put it this way: power corrupts, and nuclear power creates the illusion of omnipotence. Nuclear powers bluster and boss rather than negotiate. Some overthrow other countries’ governments at their whim, or at least aim to do so. The US and it nuclear allies have repeatedly arrogated to themselves the right to ignore the UN Security Council and the international rule of law, such as the illegal NATO attacks against Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and the illegal military incursions by the US, Israel, the United Kingdom, and France in Syria in the effort to weaken or overthrow Bashar al-Assad.
By all means, let us urge a rapid and successful denuclearization of North Korea; but let us also, with equal urgency, address the nuclear arsenal of the US and others. The world is not living under a Pax Americana. It is living in dread, with millions pushed into the vortex of war by an unrestrained and unhinged US military machine, and with billions living in the shadow of nuclear annihilation.
How Iran Will Respond to New Sanctions
Even before US President Donald Trump began threatening to re-impose sanctions on Iran, foreign investors looking to do business there were wary. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani failed to get his pro-market agenda off the ground, and now international political developments are playing into Iranian hardliners' hands.
PRINCETON – Since December 2017, Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost one-third of its value. And on April 10, the exchange rate’s rapid depreciation prompted the government to halt domestic foreign-exchange transactions and outlaw foreign-currency holdings of more than €10,000 ($12,000).
This government’s move represents a radical change of course, following three decades of relatively liberal economic policymaking, during which the authorities have permitted private-sector foreign-exchange transactions and even capital flight. Iran is not just anxious about the reinstatement of US sanctions after May 12, when US President Donald Trump is expected to make good on his campaign promise to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Rather, the country is already adapting to a new world in which the prospect of rapprochement with the West is fading.
With the threat of renewed US sanctions having already created a rial crisis, the Trump administration is using the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to try to force Iran to accept more restrictions on its nuclear program, as well as on its ballistic missile program. Given that Iran came to the table to negotiate the JCPOA less than a year after an earlier exchange-rate collapse – by 200% as of October 2012 – it is not entirely unreasonable to believe that the government will bow to Trump’s demands.
But 2018 is not 2012. Iranians today are far less optimistic about repairing relations with the West, and particularly with the US. So, if the US does renege on its commitments under the JCPOA, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Iran’s leaders to justify further concessions.
Iranians are also less optimistic about President Hassan Rouhani’s ability to deliver greater prosperity, as large protests in December and January showed. With Rouhani’s hopes for market reforms and closer integration with the West dashed, he may be forced to change course, by adopting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “preference for the East over the West.”
That would certainly suit Iran’s hardliners, who have long railed against Rouhani’s pro-market, pro-globalization reforms. Their preferred strategy, which is now gaining traction, is to move toward a “resistance economy.” First proposed by Khamenei in 2012, this approach relies on import substitution and favors domestic over foreign investment, in an effort to reduce Iran’s reliance on Western economies and strengthen its resilience against international sanctions.
The need for a resistance economy had seemed to disappear with the JCPOA. After two years of negative growth, the Iranian economy rebounded strongly in 2016, as international sanctions were lifted. Owing largely to a doubling of oil exports, the economy grew at a rate of 12.5%. But the recovery has since slowed considerably. In 2017, the growth rate returned to about 4%, and is expected to remain low for the next several years.
Likewise, while the Iranian economy has created 600,000 new jobs each year since the JCPOA took effect, this has not been enough to absorb Iran’s massive youth bulge. In fact, unemployment is now at an all-time high, especially for young, college-educated Iranians. According to the 2016 census, among college-educated 20-29-year-olds, 36% of men and 50% of women are unemployed.
One reason for the inadequate supply of jobs is that Iran’s leaders have failed to improve the country’s environment for private investment. In 2018, Iran ranked 124th in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings, which was unchanged from the year before. With powerful entrenched interests standing in the way of liberalizing reforms, Iran’s economy remains as anti-competitive as ever.
Still, much of the blame for Iran’s lackluster performance belongs to Rouhani’s economic team, which has proved no match for the economy’s mounting problems. If Rouhani ever held the key to the door of prosperity, as he was fond of saying in his 2013 presidential campaign, he failed to locate the keyhole in time.
Nearly five years after Rouhani’s election, Iran’s banking system is still insolvent. Burdened by non-performing loans accumulated during the 2000s real-estate boom, Iranian banks have been unable to lend for investment since 2012, owing to sanctions. To attract deposits, banks have been offering interest rates of ten percentage points or more above of the inflation rate, while using new deposits to pay previous depositors. The government has identified and closed a few of these Ponzi schemes. But for the rest of the country’s insolvent banks, the only option has been to wait for another real-estate boom.
Making matters worse, persistently high interest rates have pushed fixed investment down to around 20% of GDP, which is at least ten percentage points lower than what is required to bring down unemployment. Meanwhile, public investment, at less than 3% of GDP, is hardly enough to pay to maintain and repair existing infrastructure. And with prospects for substantial inflows of foreign capital dimming, there is little likelihood of an investment rebound.
Even before Trump’s election, foreign investors approached Iran cautiously, signing projects but holding back on actually committing funds. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2016, $12 billion in foreign funding had been promised for various projects, but only $2.1 billion had been invested. And now that the government has imposed new restrictions on capital flows, the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors will fall further.
Capital controls are of course in keeping with the “resistance economy” favored by conservatives, one of whom recently stoked fears of capital flight by declaring that $30 billion had left the country in only a few months. In fact, a more likely figure is $10 billion.
In any case, depending on whether and how fast the JCPOA falls apart in the coming months, capital controls will be just the start of a great reversal. As economic decision-making shifts from markets to the government, Rouhani’s attempt to create a competitive, globalized Iranian economy will come to a grinding halt.
The Wrong Way to Prevent Nuclear War
A vast majority of countries want to eliminate the existential threat of nuclear catastrophe by ushering in a world free of nuclear weapons altogether. But as the current effort to push through a flawed nuclear-ban treaty shows, some solutions to the problem of nuclear weapons could do more harm than good.
STOCKHOLM – A vast majority of countries want to eliminate the existential threat of nuclear catastrophe, and rightly so. But achieving a world free of nuclear weapons is easier said than done, and there is a risk that some attempts to do so could prove self-defeating.
Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear stockpiles around the world have been significantly reduced. Russia and the United States have each shrunk their nuclear arsenals by 80%, and during Barack Obama’s presidency, the US urged Russia to pursue further reductions. In Western Europe, the United Kingdom and France have both made their already small arsenals even smaller.
These countries had various reasons for reducing their stockpiles. But, as signatories to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – the foundation of global efforts to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons – they also had an obligation to do so.
In recent years, progress toward nuclear disarmament has stalled. Russia is currently modernizing its strategic nuclear forces, and has started to mention its nuclear capacity more often in public statements. That explains why efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals in Western Europe have come to a halt. The US, for its part, is also reviewing its options for modernizing its nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has continued to produce the fissile materials used in nuclear weapons. Efforts to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone have gone nowhere, largely because of Israel. The international community could not agree on a way forward at NPT review conferences in 2005 and 2015. And, of course, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have created another nuclear crisis in East Asia.
Against this backdrop, a large bloc of countries has proposed a far-reaching Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a draft of which was endorsed by 122 United Nations member states in early July. Unfortunately, what started as a worthwhile humanitarian effort has culminated in a severely flawed proposal.
Three issues stand out. First, since no nuclear states support a nuclear-ban treaty, the current proposal, by itself, would not rid the world of a single nuclear warhead. Worse, the new treaty could undermine the NPT, which, despite its own flaws, has far wider backing, including that of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US). Finally, by treating the concept of extended nuclear deterrence as illegal, or at least immoral, the draft treaty could actually threaten security in Europe and East Asia.
The initial draft treaty, when it was unveiled earlier this year, did not include language explicitly banning the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. But the version that countries voted on in July did. This is a critical change. The threat of a nuclear counterstrike is what keeps countries from using nuclear weapons in the first place. And so-called extended deterrence through alliances is what protects non-nuclear states from being blackmailed by nuclear states. Without extended deterrence, non-nuclear countries could see fit to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.
It is for this reason that the Netherlands, the only NATO country to participate in developing the nuclear-ban treaty, ultimately voted against it. Japan, the only country that has ever been attacked with nuclear weapons, has also withheld support for the treaty, because it relies on extended nuclear deterrence from the US.
Without such protection, Japan would be completely vulnerable to Chinese nuclear blackmail and North Korean missile attacks. Indeed, since diplomacy and deep sanctions have not put an end to North Korea’s nuclear program, nuclear deterrence stands as the only practical way to protect East Asian countries from nuclear blackmail or attack. Likewise, the vast majority of European countries – from Finland to Portugal – have no wish to reside in the shadow of Russian nuclear warheads with nothing to protect them.
By effectively banning deterrence, the draft treaty could make the world even less safe than it already is. Of course, proponents of the treaty argue that it would build up public support for a nuclear-weapons ban over time, eventually forcing the governments of nuclear states to give up their arsenals.
But this is pure naiveté. No one with any connection to reality could seriously believe that the governments of China, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia will simply abandon their nuclear weapons because public opinion has turned against them.
Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are broadly popular in these countries, because they are seen as a security guarantor and a realization of national ambitions on the world stage. Those of us who want a nuclear-free world do not have to agree with this outlook; but we had better not ignore it.
A more realistic approach would be to pursue further nuclear-weapons reductions in both the US and Russia, where serious risks still need to be addressed. To that end, it is vital that neither country modernizes its nuclear arsenal in a way that is seen as expanding its nuclear capabilities. Instead, they must pave the way for further reductions.
In the Middle East, ending current conflicts and developing conflict-resolution mechanisms could help drive progress toward nuclear-free status over time. In this regard, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) is an important first step.
As for South Asia, one hopes that a détente between India and Pakistan will facilitate better nuclear-arms control, even if the shadow of China – which sees its bomb as part of its place in the world – will still hang over India.
In the end, full-scale nuclear disarmament probably cannot be achieved with a single Big Bang. The world would be better served by an incremental approach based on the NPT, strategic arms reductions by the major powers, and conflict resolution in key regions.
In the best-case scenario, the proposed nuclear-ban treaty will be just a sideshow. But there is reason to fear that it will complicate ongoing efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals further, deepen the divide between nuclear- and non-nuclear states, and, in the worst-case scenario, even increase the risk of a nuclear conflict in key regions.
The Coming Ban on Nuclear Weapons
On March 27, the United Nations will start negotiations on an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapon states will finally be put to the test: Will they keep their promises to disarm and join the treaty, or will they reject international law and the will of the global community?
PRINCETON – On March 27, the United Nations will start negotiations on an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. It will be a milestone marking the beginning of the end of an age of existential peril for humanity.
This day was bound to come. From the beginning, even those who set the world on the path to nuclear weapons understood the mortal danger and moral challenge confronting humanity. In April 1945, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson explained to President Harry Truman that the atomic bomb would be “the most terrible weapon ever known in human history.” Stimson warned that “the world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would be eventually at the mercy of such a weapon. In other words, modern civilization might be completely destroyed.”
Soon afterwards, the newly created UN, established with the express purpose “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” took the threat posed by nuclear arms as its first priority. In January 1946, in its very first resolution, the UN called for a plan “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”
The Soviet Union submitted such a plan that June. Now largely forgotten, the Gromyko Plan included a “Draft International Convention to Prohibit the Production and Employment of Weapons Based on the Use of Atomic Energy for the Purpose of Mass Destruction.” At the time, only the United States had nuclear weapons, and it chose to maintain its monopoly. But it couldn’t hold onto it for long. Where it led, others soon followed, forcing humanity to endure the decades of weapons development, arms races, proliferation, and nuclear crises that followed.
Anti-nuclear movements took root, and, in a phrase made famous by the historian E.P. Thompson, began to protest to survive. They found allies in a growing number of countries. In November 1961, the UN General Assembly declared that “any state using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity, and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”
As the number and destructive power of nuclear weapons grew, and as even developing countries began to acquire them, recognition of the danger gave rise to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970. “Considering the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war,” the NPT begins, there is a “consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples.”
To this end, the treaty committed all signatories to “undertake negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The US, the Soviet Union, and Britain signed the NPT. France and China, the only other nuclear weapon states at the time, held out for more than 20 years, until 1992. Israel, India, and Pakistan have never signed, while North Korea signed and then withdrew. Although all professed support for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world, disarmament negotiations never began.
Countries without nuclear weapons – the overwhelming majority – took matter into their own hands. Through the UN General Assembly, they asked the International Court of Justice to rule on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. In July 1996, the ICJ issued an advisory opinion, with two key conclusions. First, “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” And, second, “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”
But, in the 20 years since the highest court in the international system issued its judgment, the states affected by it have still failed to launch “negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.” Instead, they have set out on long-term programs to maintain, modernize, and in some cases augment their nuclear arsenals.
Non-weapon states began to take action through a series of international conferences and UN resolutions. Finally, in October 2016, the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, which is responsible for international peace and security, voted “to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” On December 23, the General Assembly ratified the decision, with 113 countries in favor, 35 opposed, and 13 abstentions.
The new resolution’s instructions are straightforward: “States participating in the conference” should “make their best endeavors to conclude as soon as possible a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” The treaty could be ready before the end of the year.
The nine nuclear weapon states will finally be put to the test. Will they keep their promises to disarm and join the treaty, or will they choose their weapons over international law and the will of the global community? The non-weapon states that join the treaty will be tested, too. How will they organize to confront those countries in the world system that choose to be nuclear outlaws?
It’s Time to Ban the Bomb
Seventy years ago next month, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened the darkest chapter in the long history of humanity’s wartime horrors. The international agreement to curtail Iran's nuclear program, while welcome, also serves as a reminder that the chapter remains open – and that it must be closed for good.
STOCKHOLM – The nuclear agreement between Iran, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, and the EU, comes at a historically propitious moment. Seventy years ago next month, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened the darkest chapter in the long history of humanity’s wartime horrors. Fire, bullets, and bayonets were now joined by nuclear radiation – a silent, invisible killer like gas and biological agents.
After World War I, the international community adopted the so-called Gas Protocol, to prohibit the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons. Likewise, the demand to ban any use of nuclear weapons has been strong and persistent since the end of World War II.
But the states possessing nuclear weapons have always opposed such a ban, arguing that it would not be credible. Instead, they have recommended a step-by-step approach, eventually leading to a ban on the possession and production of nuclear weapons. After all, the same approach brought about today’s strict limits on biological and chemical weapons.
Yet 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the gradualist approach has clearly failed. During the Cold War, the total number of nuclear weapons worldwide climbed to more than 50,000. Many, including hydrogen bombs, had explosive yields that were orders of magnitude higher than the bombs dropped on Japan.
Some measures were agreed to reduce the nuclear danger: bilateral arms-control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, restrictions on the testing of new weapons, and – above all – the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The aim of the NPT, signed in 1968, is the universal elimination of nuclear weapons: non-nuclear-weapon states commit not to acquire them, and the five states that officially possess them (the US, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia) commit to disarmament negotiations.
But the overall threat has never diminished much. To be sure, the first part of the NPT has had some success: Since the treaty entered into force, only four states – India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan – have developed nuclear weapons. South Africa eliminated its nuclear weapons and became a party to the NPT, while Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan transferred their nuclear arsenals to Russia. Two states – Iraq and Libya – were stopped from developing nuclear weapons, and now Iran, a party to the treaty, has committed to abide by important restrictions on its nuclear program.
And yet the commitment of the five nuclear-weapon states to disarm has had very limited results. Nuclear stockpiles were reduced – mainly for economic reasons – following the Cold War, to less than 20,000 nuclear weapons worldwide (still enough to destroy humanity several times over). And the 2010 New START agreement brought welcome upper limits to the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the US and Russia. But no serious disarmament negotiations have been pursued since.
Moreover, it was once hoped that NATO’s small number of non-strategic nuclear weapons sited in Europe could be withdrawn to the US, as they were widely considered militarily useless. Doing so, it was suggested, could lead Russia to remove its own tactical nuclear weapons. Neither action has been taken.
Likewise, the hope that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), adopted in 1996, would become binding has not been realized. A moratorium on such tests exists, and an impressive monitoring machinery has been created, able to register not only weapons tests, but also earthquakes and tsunamis. Yet, because eight countries, including the US and China, have failed to ratify it, the CTBT occupies a legal netherworld: it may be said to be in operation, but not in force.
Rather than nuclear disarmament, the world is witnessing an upgrading – and, in some cases, expansion – of nuclear arsenals. There is little hope of any change for the better unless the Security Council’s permanent members conclude that their own security requires resuming détente among themselves and launching serious disarmament negotiations, as promised. They have shown their willingness to act to restrain other states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction; now it is time for them to restrain themselves.
Of course, just as some states refuse to join the conventions that ban cluster bombs and landmines, the nuclear-weapon states will not join a convention banning their arsenals. Yet the existence of such a treaty could serve as a constant reminder of what is expected of them. For that reason alone, it should become an international priority.
During the Cold War, many people feared that mankind might commit suicide abruptly, by waging a nuclear war. Today, more people may worry that humanity will suffer a more prolonged death through global warming. But the nuclear peril is still there, and groups like Global Zero deserve our support in their efforts to raise public awareness.
It has been said that Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a taboo against any further use of nuclear weapons. Let us hope so, but let us also demand that the taboo be made legally binding.