Yes, it is long past time to ban nuclear weapons. But will a treaty banning nuclear weapons be a productive step right now? It’s far from clear.
States are currently meeting in New York for the NPT Review Conference. This year’s RevCon is facing a major split between recognized nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the vast majority of non-nuclear weapon states over the pace of disarmament. The NPT does not ban nuclear weapons; it allows the recognized nuclear weapon states to have them while all states parties work “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.” Subsequent unanimous Review Conference final documents (with legal weight) have been more specific about those multilateral nuclear disarmament responsibilities independent of general and complete disarmament.
At this NPT Review Conference, many states have said that now is the time to take action to fill the legal gap in the nuclear disarmament regime and begin negotiating a ban treaty because the nuclear armed states, all engaged in modernization programs, show no signs of meeting their obligations. But the states with nuclear weapons see them as an essential core of their national security strategies and that they have no intention of disarming unless it is safe to do so, in a multilateral manner. There is no clear sign that they will achieve this, multilateral nuclear disarmament being extremely challenging.
The United States and Russia agreed to New START and it entered into force in 2011, but efforts to negotiate a further reduction beyond the New START requirements have not made any progress. Relations between the NWS are deteriorating, there is no clear method to engaging those states outside the NPT, and there remain deep suspicions over the capability of verification to properly detect cheating. The ‘P5 Process’ has worked on confidence building among the nuclear weapon states, including a common reporting framework and glossary of terms, but results have been sparse. The current glacial (or even backward) pace of disarmament clearly means that a world free of nuclear weapons remains a very distant aspiration. In the end the NWS rely upon the claim that there is no timetable for disarmament and that the nuclear arms race itself ceased some time ago.
Non-nuclear weapon states have responded by initiating the recent humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons conferences, bringing states and civil society together. Much like the International Panel on Climate Change process, they seek to bring an evidential approach to a highly political problem to force the pace of policy coordination. However, the disconnect between the nuclear and non-nuclear states is clear in this matter as well. The US and UK only attended the most recent conference in Vienna, and no other NPT NWS was involved, rejecting the whole initiative.
Advocates for a ban treaty claim that it will galvanize support from most of the international community and will shame the nuclear weapon states into engaging in more serious disarmament moves and joining the ban treaty. But this appears to engage in wishful thinking and bears no relationship to the dynamics that motivate states to keep hold of their arsenals.
Nuclear weapons are seen to provide the ultimate security against existential threats as well as power and prestige on the world stage. States without nuclear weapons clubbing together to ban nuclear weapons will not significantly alter the cost-benefit calculus for those states (who see themselves as the Great Powers within the international community), nor will it eliminate the psychological attachment to nuclear weapons. Trying to shame nuclear weapon states into compliance (presumably by appealing to civil society within those states) will not be a stronger motivation than the sense of power given by nuclear weapons.
The current state of the disarmament regime is far from ideal but there is, at least, a dialogue happening. If civil society and non-nuclear states push a ban treaty now, NWS will not react favorably. Efforts to create a treaty banning nuclear weapons without the NWS on board will only deepen divisions and polarize opinion. While some degree of polarization is unavoidable and could even be beneficial to further the agenda, too much could push the disarmament regime over the edge. Without a clearly defined strategy about how to use a ban treaty to influence nuclear weapon states to disarm, a ban treaty will likely fail and could make progress even less likely. Nuclear disarmament is already precarious, let’s beware the risks from polarizing it further.