In 1984, U.S. President Ronald Reagan noted the nuclear emperor had no clothes: “The only value in our two nations [United States and Soviet Union] possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely”? Indeed it would. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons tries to do so through a new normative settling point on the ethics, legality and legitimacy of the bomb.
As of Sept. 6, 70 states had signed and 26 had ratified the treaty, which will enter into force with 50 ratifications. On Sept. 26, a mini-burst of signatures is expected at the United Nations. Japan is unlikely to sign. It should.
The nine countries with nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.) reject the treaty. Yet since its adoption in 2017, they have done their best to validate the concerns behind it. This poses a particular problem for several U.S. allies — Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, etc. — that had previously positioned themselves as ardent advocates of nuclear disarmament.
The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump has embarked on an aggressive nuclear modernization program to enlarge its nuclear arsenal, develop new types of “usable” low-yield bombs and lower the threshold for their use. It scuttled the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that was working well and caused a resulting rise in tensions in the Persian Gulf.
It beggars belief that no one in Washington would grasp the impact of this on trying to denuclearize North Korea through negotiations. Why would China, Russia and North Korea hold discussions with an unreliable, perfidious negotiating partner?
In February, Trump suspended U.S. participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that contributed to the end of the Cold War and underpinned European strategic stability for three decades. It lapsed on Aug. 2. Thus far he has also rebuffed Russian overtures to discuss a five-year extension of New START beyond 2021. The second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February collapsed ignominiously and denuclearization talks are going nowhere fast.
Russia has reacted tit-for-tat to U.S. decisions. Last year, President Vladimir Putin boasted of a new array of invincible nuclear weapons. This February, he matched U.S. suspension of the INF and issued a warning that Russia could place hypersonic nuclear weapons on submarines deployed near U.S. waters and is developing the ability to trigger a radioactive tsunami in densely populated coastal areas by a new nuclear-powered underwater drone called the Poseidon.
China rejected Germany’s request to save the INF by joining it. Its military has called for strengthening China’s nuclear deterrence and counterstrike capabilities to match developing U.S. and Russian nuclear strategies.
The INF was the first disarmament agreement of the nuclear age. In an unwelcome symmetry, on Feb. 26, we witnessed the first airstrikes by one nuclear-armed state against another, with the air forces of India and Pakistan engaging in a deadly dogfight the next day. Recent developments in Kashmir have provoked a flurry of nuclear cataclysmic warnings by Pakistan. Another India-Pakistan war is a question of when, not if.
All this increases global concerns that the nuclear powers continue to ignore their treaty and moral obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons, and fear of a catastrophic nuclear war if they’re not eliminated.
The U.S., described by former Canadian disarmament ambassador Paul Meyer as “the high priest of nuclear orthodoxy,” has left its allies looking rather foolish. Washington had led them in dismissing the nuclear weapons ban treaty as impractical virtue-signaling, instead extolling the decades-long efforts at step-by-step measures that had seen global stockpiles plummet by over two-thirds from their Cold War peak, as the only credible and practical pathway to nuclear disarmament.
When unkind critics noted that the only steps presently visible were going backward, Washington launched a new initiative in March 2018 on “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament.” However, a year later Washington suddenly embraced the more nebulous and inherently subjective language of “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.”
Both statements were delivered by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford. The absence of the word “disarmament” in his title is noteworthy. The umbrella states have dutifully abandoned their previous insistence on incremental steps as the only credible pathway and embraced the changing U.S. language of conditions followed by environment.
All NATO allies shelter under the nuclear umbrella and nuclear weapons are integrated in NATO defense postures, doctrine and deployment. Three NATO countries possess the bomb: France, the U.K. and the U.S. Five allies are NPT non-nuclear weapon states that nevertheless accept the stationing of around 150 U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory: Belgium (10 to 20), Germany (20), Italy (70 to 90), Netherlands (10 to 20) and Turkey (50 to 90). The compatibility of this nuclear sharing practice with the NPT prohibitions was a unilateral NATO interpretation.
In addition, Canada is integrated into U.S. military structures and doctrines through the bilateral North American Aerospace Defense Command. When it was created in 1958, the two countries agreed that its primary function would be early warning and defense for the U.S. Strategic Air Command’s retaliatory forces.
In the Pacific, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons used to be stationed in South Korea but were withdrawn as part of the denuclearization of the peninsula in 1991-1992. Such stationing is prohibited in Japan and Australia under national and regional nuclear-weapon-free zone laws respectively. But all three subscribe to extended nuclear deterrence whereby they depend on U.S. nuclear weapons for their national security. However, while they lay claims to be defended by U.S. nuclear forces, Washington has been reticent about making explicit its understandings of its defense obligations and commitments.
Article 1 of the nuclear weapons ban treaty prohibits states parties from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any prohibited activity; to seek or receive any assistance from anyone to engage in a prohibited activity; or to allow any stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear weapons on its territory.
For Australia, the text of the ANZUS Treaty (anti-Japan in origins) is not in itself incompatible with the obligations of the nuclear weapons ban treaty. But current practices, like naval and intelligence facilities on Australian territory in North West Cape and Pine Gap, and possibly some joint military exercises at sea, would need to be terminated.
For Japan, as far as is publicly known, no treaty or existing arrangements constitute insurmountable obstacles to signing the nuclear weapons ban treaty. Doing so would send a powerful message of the priority Tokyo gives to nuclear disarmament.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.