The Nuclear Ban Isn't the End, but It's a Good Beginning
This week, over 115 states gather in New York to negotiate a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. If they succeed in the coming months, a prominent gap in international law will be filled: nuclear weapons, like other indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction, will finally be prohibited by a majority of the international community.
Non-nuclear weapons states have taken up this mantle. The communities negotiating the ban did not consent to live forever under the shadow of nuclear terror, but nevertheless they do. For many, the moral urgency of the ban is not just compelled by abstract visions of doomsday but by the experience of lives already disrupted and lost. The early days of negotiations have featured statements from Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and countries like Algeria and the Marshall Islands, which still struggle with the colonial legacy of nuclear testing.
The ban negotiations rest on a fundamental principle: the voices of the states that possess nuclear weapons are not more authoritative than the voices of the states that have rejected them. Nuclear disarmament has long been mired in a sterile security framework. Dominated by the interests of a handful of governments, progress has ground to a halt. But the humanitarian risks of nuclear weapons use must be addressed without delay -- especially now, as global tensions rise and exacerbate those risks.
States and skeptics alike have expressed concerns that the nuclear ban could detract from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It is true that the foundations of the NPT have been shaken, but the nuclear ban is a symptom of that weakness, not a cause.
This week, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley led a walkout to protest the nuclear ban, urging adherence to the NPT. But her boss Donald Trump shows no interest in fulfilling U.S. obligations under the treaty. Reversing decades of steady but slow progress to reduce nuclear stockpiles, Trump called for the United States to “strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” and proposed gutting the IAEA, the enforcement agency critical to the success of the NPT. Chris Ford, a member of Trump’s national security council, recently disclosed that even the objective of a world without nuclear weapons, the guiding principle of the NPT and a central American foreign policy aim for decades, is “under review.”
The broken promises of nuclear weapons states have eroded faith in the NPT process; if they were truly concerned about the health of the nonproliferation regime, they should take steps to fulfill their obligations to disarm. There are many such options on the table: ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, de-alerting to prevent unintended or ill-informed launch, bilateral arms reductions, an end to expensive and destabilizing modernization programs. Expressions of fear for the future of the NPT that aren’t accompanied by these fundamental steps to protect it ring hollow.
The optimism that came with the end of the Cold War has slowly faded to bitter mistrust. The international community is tired of the crocodile tears of the nuclear powers, impatient with the excuse that the time isn’t right for disarmament and keenly aware that the risks mean we can’t wait indefinitely.
Banning nuclear weapons will not eliminate them, but it is a step towards a better future. The movement for a ban has shined a light on the unacceptable humanitarian costs of nuclear weapons, in itself a worthwhile aim. At Global Zero, we applaud the work of the nuclear ban negotiators, we root for their success, and we share their vision.
Much work remains before that vision comes to pass. Any measurable progress toward disarmament requires nuclear powers to be at the table -- and they may have to be dragged there. Internal pressure is the essential ingredient for global zero. For those of us in nuclear weapons states, our role is clear. While our countries possess nuclear weapons, we are complicit, however unwilling, in the tyranny of absolute destruction. We must work within our communities to denounce nuclear weapons and advocate for solutions that will reduce the immediate risks of use, while relentlessly pursuing their total elimination.
The nuclear ban opens up an old conversation, but it starts -- for perhaps the first time -- on the right foot.