Between June 15 and July 7, negotiators at the United Nations in New York are examining the draft Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a treaty designed to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons globally. While the new convention’s cause may be noble, its methodology is questionable. It also begs the question: is a world without nuclear weapons possible?
The “ban treaty” overtly challenges the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): one of the most important global treaties and the foundation of our current international nuclear order. Signed in 1968 and boasting 190 members, the NPT has three main pillars: to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, non-proliferation efforts and disarmament. The five nuclear states—Russia, China, the U.S., the U.K. and France (the P5)—will work towards nuclear disarmament. In return, the non-nuclear states will not pursue nuclear weapons. Both sides will support non-proliferation and as well as the other two NPT pillars.
But non-nuclear states have become frustrated with the slow and inadequate pace of disarmament by the P5 states, the requirement detailed in Article VI of the treaty. Moreover, with the world’s largest nuclear arsenals in the hands of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (U.S. and Russian stockpiles make up 96% of the world’s nuclear weapons), the international community may have cause for concern.
Boasting a long history, the ban treaty is the product of a humanitarian movement led in particular by nongovernmental organisations and states such as Austria, Mexico and Norway. It reorients the discussion away from nuclear security towards humanitarian (and environmental) concerns about nuclear weapons use. The movement shows that even a “limited exchange” of nuclear weapons could alter climatic conditions and produce a global famine that would affect more than 1 billion people. Pundits have argued that if the moral weight of having nuclear weapons shifts—that is, if it becomes less and less acceptable to be a nuclear state—democratic states like the U.S. and the U.K. would be forced to disarm through domestic pressure.
But this view is somewhat naïve, as it doesn’t take into account the importance the P5 states place on possessing nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, the P5 have come out against the ban treaty, reiterating the importance of the NPT as the universal benchmark for disarmament. For Russia, its nuclear arsenal is seen as the only thing stopping the U.S. from destroying Russia in the post-Soviet era. It’s not the lack of democracy that stops the Kremlin from disarming. In fact, the Russian population sees possessing nuclear weapons as a key characteristic of a superpower. For China, nuclear weapons are a symbol of domestic strength, sovereignty and growth. Even France refuses to discuss complete disarmament. Given Trump’s my-nukes-are-bigger-than-yours posturing, the U.S. doesn’t come across as the leading player here, either.
The debate highlights many difficult questions. Yes, nuclear weapons are “bad,” but conventional weapons can be excessively damaging and lethal, too. If the ban comes into effect, how would we ever implement it? And how will the global community deal with North Korea, which will almost certainly refuse to disarm?
Perhaps most importantly, the nuclear ban debate draws into stark relief our failure to develop a culture of global security that isn’t based on the threat of imminent and widespread death. Currently, nuclear weapons security is a perverse cooperative détente between great powers, in which we are left to wonder who will strike first. From a game theory perspective, this may work. So far, it has. But with the likes of Donald Trump in power, can we trust the nuclear order?
If it succeeds in nothing else, the ban treaty has at least drawn attention to a fundamental question in global human security: what makes us feel “safe?”