This week, the states who are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, will gather at the United Nations for their five-year review conference to assess whether the treaty is meeting its goals.
The U.S. has long viewed this treaty as a key bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. Since it was adopted 45 years ago, 3 nations which never signed the Treaty have developed nuclear weapons and one country that did sign has withdrawn and built a small nuclear arsenal, but we have not seen the wholesale spread of nuclear weapons that many feared when the NPT was negotiated in the late 1960’s.
Now the U.S. government is worried that the NPT regime could fall apart. While the NPT sought to keep states that did not have nuclear weapons from acquiring them, it also required, under Article VI of the Treaty, that the states which did have nuclear weapons conduct good faith negotiations to eliminate them. There is a growing consensus around the world that the nuclear weapons states have not met their obligations under Article VI and do not have any plans to do so.
Indeed, all of the nuclear weapons states have ambitious plans to upgrade and modernize their nuclear forces. Here in the US, the administration has put forth a modernization plan that will cost over $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
The message to the rest of the world is clear: The US intends to retain its nuclear arsenal indefinitely. If the US, which has the strongest conventional military in the world, wants nuclear weapons, shouldn’t everyone want them?
Fortunately the rest of the world has shown remarkable restraint. Over the last 2 years non nuclear weapons states have gathered at three international conferences to discuss what will actually happen to the world if nuclear weapons are used and to discuss how to get the states that do have nuclear weapons to take their obligations under the NPT seriously. The most recent, in Vienna last December, attracted representatives of 158 countries.
They heard reports from scientists and medical doctors detailing the existential threat to human survival posed by the 15,600 nuclear weapons in the world today. They heard new data showing that even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan would cause global climate disruption, cut food production worldwide and put 2 billion people at risk of starvation. They heard the Red Cross assessment that there would be very little that anyone could do if there were even a single nuclear explosion in a populated area, and no effective response at all to a nuclear war.
The Vienna meeting ended with a pledge by the Austrian government to fill the gap in international law which has banned land mines and cluster bombs, chemical and biological weapons, but not nuclear weapons, the most dangerous of all.
This “Austrian Pledge”, as it has come to be known, offers a way out of the dangerous impasse over nuclear weapons.
Faced with the failure of the nuclear weapons states to meet their obligations under the NPT, the rest of the world can abandon the Treaty and begin to develop nuclear weapons. Or, they can join in a new effort to enforce the NPT. They can begin the good faith negotiations to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons that the Treaty demands.
The US should embrace this effort. Instead it is working actively to undermine these negotiations before they even start. Reports in the Japanese and Norwegian press have clearly documented the efforts of the State Department to keep other countries from joining this movement.
The US needs to change course.
It should recognize that the world will not indefinitely tolerate a system of nuclear apartheid where some countries get to have nuclear weapons and others don’t. Possessing nuclear weapons may make us feel secure in the short run, but it fundamentally undermines our security and will lead to a world with many nuclear powers. The data on limited nuclear war show that even the “successful” use of our own nuclear weapons against an adversary abroad will cause catastrophic climate disruption that will devastate our own country. We need to understand that these weapons are suicide bombs and we who possess them have become a nation of suicide bombers.
Rather than spending a trillion dollars on modernizing these weapons, we urgently need to join the growing global effort to eliminate them throughout the world.
Helfand, an urgent care physician, is past-president and currently on the Board of Directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.