On 7 July 2017 122 countries at the UN voted to approve the text of a proposed international treaty entitled ‘Draft Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.’ This article assesses the significance of broad international support for the draft treaty, the opposition to it on the part of all nine nuclear powers, and its possible contribution to nuclear disarmament.
In an important sense, it is incredible that it took 72 years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to reach the point of setting forth this unconditional prohibition of any use or threat of nuclear weapons. [Article 1(e) within the framework of a multilateral treaty negotiated under UN auspices.] The core obligation of states that choose to become parties to the treaty is very sweeping. It prohibits any connection whatsoever with the weaponry by way of possession, deployment, testing, transfer, storage, and production [Article 1(a)].
The NATO triangle of France, United Kingdom, and the United States, three of the five veto powers in the Security Council, angered by its inability to prevent the whole NBT venture, went to the extreme of issuing a Joint Statement of denunciation, the tone of which was disclosed by a defiant assertion removing any doubt as to the abiding commitment to a nuclearized world order: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons.”
Such a conclusion suggests that even if we were to accept the claim on behalf on nuclear weapons as deserving of credit for avoiding a major war, specifically a nuclear World War III, that ‘achievement’ was accomplished at the cost of millions, probably tens of millions, of civilian lives in non-Western societies. Beyond this, the achievement, such as it was, involved a colossally irresponsible gamble with the human future, and succeeded as much due to good luck as to the hyper-rationality attributed to deterrence theory and practice.
This reliance on the NPT to justify opposition to the NBT is at the root of these diametrically opposed views of collective security. The joint statement strongly asserts that the NPT/deterrence approach to collective security is the only way to end the impasse blocking moves toward nuclear disarmament, but extensive international experience suggests just the opposite conclusion. Namely, that NPT/deterrence is a management approach developed by the leading nuclear weapons states, and especially by the three governments issuing the joint statement. For these governments it is a greatly preferred alternative to the disarmament approach that motivates the NBT supporters. This comparison of approaches discloses a fundamental intellectual and political distinction that should be clearly articulated and understood.
One contribution of the NBT is to convey to the world the crucial awareness of these 122 countries as reinforced by global public opinion that the deterrence/NPT approach to global peace and security is neither prudent nor legitimate nor a credible pathway leading over time to the end of nuclearism.
In its place, the NBT offers its own two-step approach—first, an unconditional stigmatizing of the use or threat of nuclear weapons to be followed by a negotiated process seeking nuclear disarmament. Although the NBT is silent about demilitarizing geopolitics and conventional disarmament, it is widely assumed that later stages of denuclearization would never be implemented unless they included these broader assaults on the war system. The NBT is also silent about the relevance of nuclear power capabilities, which inevitably entail a weapons option given widely available current technological knowhow. The relevance of nuclear energy technology would also have to be addressed at some stage of nuclear disarmament to address concerns about possible diversion to military uses.
Having suggested these major shortcomings of treaty coverage and orientation, can we, should we, cast aside these limitations, and join in the celebrations and renewed hopes of civil society activists to rid the world of nuclear weapons? I think, with a realistic sense of what has been achieved and what remains to be done, that the NBT should be treated as a historic step forward. It gives authoritative legal backing to the profound populist stigmatization of nuclear weapons, and as such provides anti-nuclear civil society forces with a powerful instrument to alter the climate of opinion in the nuclear weapons states. The Joint Statement is helpful, as well, in a perverse sort of way, undermining the tendency for activists to relax after achieving a provisional goal, in this case the NBT.[…]