The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, after the second atomic bomb was dropped there in 1945 ©Cultura/Rex/Shutterstock

Nuclear disarmament agreements haven't worked—is there another solution?

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Re-read Matthew Harries on banning the bomb
October 6, 2017

Barack Obama was a cautious president, given to the odd audacious speech. In 2009, he stood on a podium in Prague’s Hradcany Square and declared America’s commitment to a world free from nuclear weapons. “Human destiny will be what we make of it,” he said.

A presidency later, Russia is using its nuclear arsenal to intimidate its neighbours. China is putting nuclear submarines on patrol. India and Pakistan teeter on the brink of conflict. North Korea has just carried out its fifth and most powerful nuclear test, and it may soon have a long-range nuclear ballistic missile. Now the United States itself is getting ready to spend several hundred billion dollars on modernising its own nuclear weapons. And all this before we even consider the incoming US president Donald Trump—an impulsive man who has tweeted a promise to “greatly strengthen and expand” the US arsenal.

Seen this way Obama’s words in Prague may sound not merely lofty, but delusional, as he leaves behind a world of increasing nuclear danger. Yet our judgement should not be too harsh. Obama managed some real achievements, most notably the deal to hold back Iran’s nuclear programme. But that deal is now in peril from Donald Trump and a new administration full of its critics.

Nuclear weapons draw strong reactions: from hawks who are convinced they can be relied on to keep the peace; from world-weary realists who sigh that there is no point in pretending they can be disinvented; and from moral absolutists who say the threat of indiscriminate slaughter on which deterrence relies is unconscionable, and so demand unconditional disarmament. But there have always been, too, those who have tried to steer a middle course, grappling with the realities of power politics to try to at least restrict the spread, and on occasion actually reduce the world’s stock, of nuclear arms.

Obama may have represented the last best hope of that pragmatic tradition. But he was swimming against the tide, and since the marked worsening of US-Russian relations after the Ukraine crisis flared in 2014, the struggle has appeared increasingly hopeless. For anyone concerned about the murderous and annihilating capacity of nuclear warfare—as every civilised human being should be—the question of whether disarmament will ever be possible therefore presses with fresh intensity.

Fed up with arms-control agreements that take years to negotiate and which only reduce, rather than abolish, atomic arsenals, a group of NGOs and non-nuclear states at the United Nations—ranging from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the idiosyncratically anti-nuclear state of Austria—are proposing an answer that can be summed up in the trusty old CND slogan: Ban the Bomb. They are preparing a treaty that would simply declare nuclear weapons to be illegal.

The power of nuclear weapons is so hideous, the argument goes, as to be incompatible with all recognised humanitarian and democratic principles. Why, then, does the UN not simply outlaw them? There are obvious objections, such as who is going to enforce that law on the nuclear powers. But advocates of the ban say this is beside the point. They want to reframe the entire nuclear question so that instead of the pro-disarmament camp having to make the case for giving up the bomb, nuclear states would have to make the case for keeping it. Is there any chance that this might succeed where Obama’s pragmatism could not?

Varied attempts have been made to lift the nuclear shadow that was cast over humanity at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Since the 1960s, a patchwork of international agreements has been set in place to dampen nuclear instability. Foremost among them is the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which came into force in 1970. Brokered between the superpowers, the treaty secured a promise from non-nuclear-armed states that they would not seek to build or buy nuclear weapons. In return, they were guaranteed full access to peaceful nuclear energy, and received a vague promise from the nuclear-armed states that they would negotiate towards disarmament.

Only nine countries are nuclear-armed, four more than when the treaty was agreed. Few technologies have ever spread so slowly. That achievement is not all the NPT’s doing—coercion and bribery have played a part, as have America’s nuclear defence guarantees. Still, on the test of stopping the spread of the bomb, the NPT has been a qualified success. But when it comes to actual disarmament, things have gone a bit awry.

Signatories to the treaty have met every five years since 1975 to review progress. These meetings are bad-tempered and reach consensus only when nuclear states offer to step up disarmament. There has been progress: from a mid-1980s peak of some 70,000 weapons, global stockpiles have fallen to just over 15,000. At the end of the Cold War, amid hopes of a new global order, there seemed to be a chance that nuclear weapons could recede into the background of international politics. In 1995 the NPT, having originally been only a 25-year treaty, was made permanent.

But the later 1990s saw nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, plus the rejection of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty by the US Senate. The following decade brought two North Korean tests and a crisis over Iran’s secret enrichment programme. Whatever partial reductions they made, the big nuclear powers now seemed no more likely to abandon their arsenals than before. Before long, nuclear diplomacy was grinding to a halt. The test-ban treaty was in limbo. Efforts to negotiate a fissile-material treaty were also stuck, as Pakistan, with China’s tacit support, refused limits to its ability to compete with India. The UN forum where that treaty should have been concluded, the Conference on Disarmament, has today been unable to negotiate anything at all in 18 years.

This grim picture has slowly become entrenched over the last several years. It was back in 2010 that a group of frustrated activists and non-nuclear states, led by Norway, Mexico and Austria first began to experiment with a different tack. They discussed the “humanitarian impacts” of nuclear weapons, took testimony from the victims of fallout from nuclear testing, and studied the environmental and climatic effects of future nuclear-weapons use. This agenda was, sooner or later, bound to lead to questions about the legitimacy of anyone possessing nuclear arms.

Developments since have only encouraged abolitionists to go further down this path. The prospects for serious arms reductions are always a function of relations between two old adversaries—Russia and the US—who between them possess 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear stockpile. Obama initially attempted a “reset” with Russia, including an important arms-control agreement, but it was downhill from there. The relationship slowly sank to its lowest point since the Cold War, and the US-Russia nuclear partnership sank with it. A 2013 US offer to seek a further one-third reduction in arsenals was rebuffed. Worse, in 2014, the US alleged that Russia was violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the signal achievement of Cold War arms control. And while Obama was reducing US reliance on nuclear arms, Russia went the other way. It embarked on a programme to modernise its strategic missiles, bombers and submarines by the early 2020s. That move was partly technological, but partly doctrinal. Faced with superior Nato conventional military forces, Russia was doubling down on nuclear. As the Ukraine crisis unfolded, Russian officials indulged in loose talk about using nuclear weapons.

As Trump takes office, despite his apparent admiration for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, the risk of nuclear use in a conflict between Russia and the west may be the highest since the Cold War. And with diplomacy deadlocked, it is harder for the nuclear states to claim that the current approach is working. This has opened the door for the more radical idea of a legal prohibition: a ban treaty.

Though it now feels an age ago, Obama’s disarmament campaign began promisingly. In April 2010, the US and Russia signed the New START treaty, agreeing to cut their strategic nuclear forces by a third. This was the most significant piece of arms control in 20 years, and came with stringent verification provisions, whose worth are especially apparent today: two years into the Ukraine crisis, both sides can at least have confidence in the composition of each other’s nuclear forces. In the same month, 47 heads of government met in Washington to discuss the threat of nuclear terrorism. The hardest part of making a nuclear weapon is producing highly enriched uranium or plutonium: without that material, terrorists cannot build a nuclear device. US-led efforts over the Obama years managed to remove the equivalent of 150 nuclear weapons’ worth of material from facilities worldwide. There were other achievements. The outgoing President guaranteed that accepted non-nuclear states would not be subject to American nuclear threats, and a successful NPT review conference in May 2010 temporarily rescued the treaty from political crisis.

"The most likely road to nuclear war is through miscalculation or a conflict that gets out of control. A thin-skinned President could easily get decisions wrong"
So Obama’s disarmament turn showed promising signs, but Iran was a greater challenge. Its secret uranium enrichment programme was uncovered in 2002 and as international negotiations foundered, and Iranian centrifuges kept spinning, the world grew closer to what US proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick called the two worst-case outcomes: a bombed Iran, or an Iran with the bomb. The former would have unleashed a dangerous conflict without resolving anything permanently; the latter would have fundamentally changed the balance of power in the Middle East and very likely encouraged other nations, including Saudi Arabia, to go nuclear. Israel would have faced a nuclear-armed opponent whose leaders were hostile to its existence.

Obama and his international partners struck a deal which put roughly a decade’s worth of restraints on Iran’s nuclear programme, limiting uranium enrichment and applying verification measures. It was a gamble: if Iran is truly committed to building nuclear weapons, the world will be pitched back into crisis when the deal’s term ends. But compared to the alternatives, it was a risk worth taking. It survived a hostile open letter by Republican Senators to Iran’s Supreme Leader, and an audacious invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister to address Congress on the deal’s flaws. The question now is whether it can survive Donald Trump.

The new President knows little restraint. In business, he has no colleagues, only subordinates. In the last two years he has broken basic norms and paid no price. The US nuclear arsenal will be inherited by a man who feels vindicated in his contempt for normal politics, and his unconventional attitudes extend to nuclear arms. Trump could begin by adding to America’s nuclear capacity, and will be under Republican pressure to push ahead on missile defences. If he listens to hardliners, he might develop new types of nuclear weapons or even resume nuclear testing.

Trump claims that the “last person to press that button would be me,” as he told Fox News. At the first presidential debate, he said that he “would certainly not do first strike.” Yet the most likely road to nuclear war is through miscalculation or a conflict that gets out of control. In a crisis, Trump must choose between a variety of risky options. An inexperienced and thin-skinned president could easily get those decisions wrong.

He also seems unfazed by the idea of proliferation. His reluctance to defend Japan and South Korea if they don’t pay their way could encourage them to seek their own nuclear weapons—a type of proliferation which Trump has suggested could make sense. He even hinted that a Saudi bomb might be fine with him, before he started rowing back on outright advocation of proliferation. The US hand is so important in regional crises—such as one over North Korea, or those that regularly flare up between nuclear India and Pakistan—that Trump’s heavy-handed diplomacy could do great harm.

Most directly, the Trump presidency threatens that Iran agreement, which Trump himself has called, “the stupidest deal of all time.” Characteristically, he has lurched between promises to scrap it, amend it and live with it. He could have the support of Republicans in Congress for imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran, even if the other international parties to the agreement resist. Iranian hardliners are already complaining that the economic relief President Hassan Rouhani promised is slow in arriving. Whether by design or malign neglect, the keystone of Obama’s nuclear legacy could fall, unleashing dreadful risks.

The traditional approach to nuclear arms control recognises that, unlike chemical or biological weapons which have been outlawed, nuclear weapons have to be reckoned with as important instruments of state power. Unilateral disarmament would leave a country vulnerable to a nuclear-armed opponent, so disarmament (apart from small adjustments) has to be done by international agreement. The job of nuclear diplomacy is to manage this complicated process.

But there is another view: that nuclear weapons are so destructive as to be useless, and indeed at odds with the moral values advanced by democratic countries. The only way to deal with them is thus an outright ban. And in October, the UN General Assembly voted 128–38 in favour of an Austrian resolution on a ban treaty. Negotiations begin in March—with or without the nuclear-armed states and their allies.

The nuclear-weapons states will not accede to a ban, and nor can their allies endorse a treaty that prohibits weapons they rely on. As French diplomats point out, a majority of the world’s population lives in countries either with nuclear weapons or under their protection. The non-nuclear allies of the US are in a tight spot. Their foreign ministries must sound positive about disarmament, without endorsing a proposal that the US will reject outright. When the UN voted on the ban, it was thus not just the US but all bar one of its allies (the Netherlands) who voted no. Russia did likewise, while China, India and Pakistan abstained. Even though in bizarre fashion, nuclear-armed North Korea voted in favour, there is no disguising the reality that if the ban comes into effect it will do so in the teeth of opposition from the nuclear powers.

So what would actually happen, in practice, if nuclear weapons were made “illegal”? Well, putting it gently, political leaders in Washington and Moscow are unlikely to start fearing jail. There is obviously no military means to enforce a ban imposed by the non-nuclear majority of countries on the mighty nuclear states. The logic of a ban treaty is instead to delegitimise nuclear weapons, and place legal obstacles in the way of states that rely on them. If a US ally were to sign the ban—which seems unlikely—that could begin to chip away at the mechanisms of deterrence. A leaked US memo to Nato allies warned that signing a ban treaty would make it impossible for countries to participate in joint nuclear planning, or to accept promises of American nuclear protection. A high-profile ban treaty could also complicate political debates in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands on whether to replace aircraft designed to carry US nuclear weapons.
"When dealing with such dangerous weapons, sometimes the best that can be hoped for is to avoid disaster"
But while tactical nuclear weapons in Europe may be of limited military use, withdrawing them in the face of Russian revanchism would send a peculiar message just now. And, like it or not, a ban treaty which relies on popular pressure is much less of a problem for autocratic Russia and China, than it is for the nuclear-armed democracies. More fundamentally, with several major countries objecting, it will not be possible to claim that the ban’s provisions have become customary international law. The ban simply will not apply to any state that does not already reject nuclear weapons. In other words, states signing a ban treaty can say all they want about the illegality of the bomb, but there will not be any binding effect.

A ban is a deliberate alternative to the traditional emphasis on how exactly reductions are arranged, sequenced and then verified, and thus does not prescribe such details. The upshot is that even if nuclear-armed states did join the treaty, they could have no confidence that their rivals weren’t violating it. As for enforcement, if the legal difficulties ever got resolved to the point where that became a real issue, the usual method of punishing treaty violators wouldn’t make sense: the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, which would have to agree on sanctions (or in extremis, military action), are all nuclear-armed. The pressure would be mostly moral until all five were won over.

Campaigners would respond that this is a wilful misunderstanding of what the ban is about—changing the nuclearconversation. If enough states outlaw the weapons, they will shift “from a badge of honour to being a clear badge of shame,” as one NGO puts it. This will make it harder for governments to justify keeping their arsenals, and discourage financial institutions from investing in the developers and manufacturers. In theory this logic, if it worked, would apply most strongly to the one democratic country with a small nuclear arsenal and a tradition of disarmament protest: namely the UK. Perhaps no surprise, then, that Jeremy Corbyn has said he will send someone to the negotiations.

The ban treaty is certainly clever politics. The weak spot of nuclear deterrence is that it relies on a fundamentally monstrous threat. A ban skips the tedious intricacies of how exactly disarmament would happen, and focuses on that weak spot. In tactical terms, it just could be a way to hold the nuclear states’ feet to the fire. But history shows that states can either cheat on such prohibitions, as the Soviet Union did on a massive scale with the biological weapons convention, or not join them. Syria did not accede to the chemical weapons convention after it was signed, and kept a stockpile which it eventually used against its own people. Given the unique scope for coercion that possession of nuclear weapons affords, many states will in practice never accept the same risk of cheating in the nuclear context. If nuclear weapons are to be abolished, they must thus be abolished entirely—without exceptions.

In current gloomy global circumstances, the whole debate feels somewhat disconnected from reality. Instead of stemming the nuclear tide, a ban could actually undermine the credibility of multilateral diplomacy. And if Trump, as his tweets suggest, is going to campaign against the UN as a loony talking shop, perhaps it is unwise to risk proving him right.

But even if the ban idea looks—at best—ineffective, Obama’s audacious goal of a world without nuclear weapons is worth hanging on to. It was not an aberration, but a return to the American mainstream which George W Bush had deviated from by flirting with developing new nuclear weapons, and scoffing at multilateralism. The traditional ambition was, as expressed in Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural address, as “the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.” Without that guiding vision, the last eight years could have been much worse, and it might not have been possible to pull off the Iran deal. Obama’s struggles do not prove his ambition was mistaken, but merely illustrate the current limit of US influence over other nuclear powers. Had relations, with Russia in particular, been more clement he might have been able to tackle the deeply embedded place of nuclear arms in the way international security works.

He conceded in Prague that a nuclear-free world “will not be reached quickly,” and “perhaps not in my lifetime.” In an era of political extremes, there is often virtue in moderation. It is only with Trump’s election that this story of frustration becomes a generational missed opportunity. The ban treaty is an attempt to claw back that opportunity. Yet when dealing with such dangerous weapons, sometimes the best that can be hoped for is to avoid disaster—and the risk now is that, caught between Trump’s wild abandon and the ban’s moral certainty, the centre will not hold.

The Prague speech was given by a president at the height of his political powers, who has since had to confront a world sliding, day by day, into ever deeper crisis. The sorry tale brings to mind a remark by Senator William Fulbright in 1969, when the non-proliferation treaty was being considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The trouble is not the treaty,” said Fulbright. “It is the orneriness of human beings, isn’t it?”