It is time for the so-called realists to get real about the existential dangers of a world brimming with nuclear weapons.
We may be at an inflection point in global affairs with the world in disarray with a volatile, erratic and unpredictable administration in Washington, imminent British and possibly French exits from the European Union, presidential instability in South Korea and the like. One of the strong political headwinds creating international turbulence is intensifying nuclear threats.
On 27 March, 115 countries gathered at a United Nations conference in New York to negotiate a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Arguing that “it would be difficult for Japan to participate … in a constructive manner and in good faith,” Japan, having delivered its opening statement sharply critical of the conference, walked out. The hibakusha – survivors of the 1945 US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – saw the first-ever UN talks on a ban treaty as a practical and important step toward pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons and expressed criticism and disappointment at Tokyo’s decision.
The nine countries with nuclear weapons – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK and USA – refused to attend at all. In an unusual move, to say the least, Washington’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was joined by delegates from about 20 countries in an anti-treaty protest rally outside the General Assembly hall.
In an unclassified NATO document on 17 October, Washington had urged its allies to vote against a call to hold the negotiations and secondly, not to take part in any negotiations that were convened. Describing NATO as “a nuclear alliance,” it argued that “efforts to negotiate an immediate ban on nuclear weapons or to delegitimize nuclear deterrence are fundamentally at odds with NATO’s basic policies on deterrence and our shared security interests.”
India explained its abstention from the talks by saying that the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) was the only “right place for pursuing nuclear disarmament” because it alone has “the mandate, the membership and the rules for embarking on the path to nuclear disarmament.” Yet the CD has been deadlocked for many years, unable to agree even on a program of work let alone discuss such concrete issues as a fissile material cutoff treaty and the prevention of an arms race in outer space.
Australia too is among the recalcitrants as a nuclear umbrella state along with most NATO countries, Japan and South Korea. In 2015, using the Freedom of Information law, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) obtained a tranche of confidential cables between Canberra and various Australian diplomatic missions around the world, regarding the gathering nuclear weapons’ humanitarian consequences movement. To their credit but not to my surprise, the internal arguments confirmed the publicly stated Australian arguments against the move to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
The cables showed Australia is a responsible state actor that takes international commitments seriously. It is not prepared to go along with a trending popular movement simply for the sake of getting along with the world’s ‘moral majority’. It takes its signature to international documents as a commitment that must be honoured. Accordingly, if the obligations conflict with existing commitments and policies, Australia will withhold its signature, even at the cost of unpopularity with sections of the domestic audience and the international community. Canberra concluded and has held fast to the position that a nuclear weapons ban treaty would be inconsistent with Australia’s security alliance with the US and its stated dependence on the US nuclear umbrella.
Because Australia relies on the threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike by the US to deter a nuclear attack on Australia, our diplomats are absent from the UN talks. Unfortunately, romancing nuclear weapons ignores the complete lack of evidence to suggest that any nuclear-armed country had planned to attack another but was deterred from doing so because the target country had its own, or was defended by a protector’s, nuclear weapons. Nor is there a single example of a nuclear-armed country successfully threatening their use in order to change another’s behaviour. It does not make sense to continue to accept growing nuclear dangers based on such dubious premises of nuclear protection.
Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in Tokyo that the UN negotiations “could further deepen the rift between nuclear and nonnuclear-weapon states and cause an adverse effect.” This is disingenuous and self-serving. The deep division in the international community exists between the 110-130 countries pursuing ban negotiations in good faith and the 40-odd group of nuclear armed states and allies who have been resisting and obstructing their efforts.
There are two routes to reconciling the two groups. One is for the nonnuclear states to embrace nuclear weapons and join the possessor countries with their own bombs. The alternative is for the nuclear powers and the umbrella states to engage with the international community in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.
The latter goal has five components. Three of these can be pursued only by those who possess the bomb: cap, reduce, and eliminate.
The Asian nuclear powers – China, India, Pakistan, North Korea – are expanding their weapons stockpiles and diversifying their land, air and sea-based delivery platforms. All nuclear powers are modernizing and upgrading their arsenals. Pyongyang is the only one still testing nuclear devices. Such developments could be frozen.
Russia and the U.S., with over 90% of nuclear stockpiles, could negotiate substantial cutbacks to reduce warhead numbers to a few hundred instead of several thousand each. They could also reduce reliance on high-risk doctrines, postures, and deployment practices like launch-on-warning and first use of nuclear weapons.
Finally, following an eventual universal nuclear weapons convention, they could proceed to verifiable and enforceable elimination spread over more than a decade to ensure decommissioning, dismantlement, and destruction of weapons and weapons-producing materials and infrastructure are carried out safely and securely.
The remaining two items on the agenda – stigmatization and prohibition – can be pursued by the nonnuclear weapon states and this is the primary purpose of the U.N. conference. A treaty coming from the conference will not reduce a single warhead from the global nuclear stockpiles. But it will harden the normative boundaries between conventional and nuclear, regional and global, and tactical and strategic weapons that are being blurred by technological developments. There has also been a growing convergence between cyber, space and nuclear domains, further multiplying nuclear risks and dangers.
Over 2,000 scientists, recalling President Ronald Reagan’s belief that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, have signed an open letter supporting the U.N. talks. Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross which functions as the de facto custodian of international humanitarian law, believes that a ban treaty “will reinforce the stigma against their use, support commitments to nuclear risk reduction and be a disincentive for proliferation.”
Even the 2016 NATO document conceded that “The effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging.” Several of these were spelt out in the document. In other words, U.S. opposition is built fundamentally not on the lack of practical effects of a ban treaty, but on the opposite: its very considerable impact in the real world. Indeed the strength of their opposition is difficult to fathom but for this recognition of the practical import of a ban treaty.
Advocates of the ban negotiations believe that the world needs to be made safe from nuclear weapons through their stigmatization, reduction, prohibition, and verified elimination. Opponents of the negotiations insist that instead the world should first be made safe for nuclear disarmament to happen. In effect they seem to believe that negotiations on banning nuclear weapons should begin only after nuclear weapons no longer exist. It is time for the so-called realists to get real about the existential dangers of a world brimming with nuclear weapons and the urgent need to stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate them.
Professor Ramesh Thakur of The Australian National University is Co-Convenor of the Asia–Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.