Time to change US approach on the nuclear weapons ban treaty

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In case you haven’t yet heard, nuclear weapons will soon be banned by international law. Over 120 countries negotiated a Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty at the United Nations on 7 July. While the negotiators were fervently clapping their hands over what they see as the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons, the response from the nuclear-armed states was deafening silence.

Prior to the negotiations, the United States made little secret of its disdain for the treaty and also pressured allies to oppose it. As that battle is now lost, it would be wise to adjust the strategy based on the old adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.

{mosads}Both the Obama and the Trump administrations have opposed the Prohibition Treaty. A senior official for President Obama characterized the treaty process as “polarizing” and detached from the reality that several countries “count on nuclear weapons as a deterrent.” The current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, dismissed the ban as unrealistic, referring to the need to protect “those of us that are good” against bad actors, such as North Korea.


Opposition to the treaty has also united the United States and Russia, which have both portrayed the Prohibition Treaty as a threat to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime.

But since the start of the nuclear era, the elimination of nuclear weapons has been a universally shared objective. It has also enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States. Obama’s commitment to the long-term vision of a nuclear-free world is well known, but few recall that President Ronald Reagan went even further by pursuing talks with the Soviet Union on the abolition of all of their nuclear arsenals.

Disarmament was also an integral part of the NPT bargain: while the non-nuclear states agreed to remain as such, the nuclear-armed states would pursue “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to… nuclear disarmament” — and, eventually, also “on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” 

The Prohibition Treaty is thus perfectly in line with the NPT. The same cannot be said of the current policies of the two biggest nuclear-armed states, neither of which is showing serious commitment to nuclear disarmament. The Trump administration seems reluctant to accept a nuclear-free world even as an aspirational goal: it is currently reviewing “whether traditional U.S. fidelity to that visionary end-state of abolition… is still a viable strategy.”

Instead of being the cause of the current polarization, the Prohibition Treaty is a symptom of a long-held frustration by the non-nuclear states over the lopsided implementation of what were meant to be reciprocal NPT commitments. At the same time, it is their attempt to rectify what is seen as the increasingly tyrannical and dysfunctional nuclear oligarchy upheld by the nuclear-armed states.

The nuclear-armed states’ policy of disregarding the treaty, alongside their disarmament commitments, is therefore bound to create more resistance. Such a policy is symptomatic of a failure to see that the special “great power” status of the five nuclear-armed states has always depended, not only on retaining the monopoly of indiscriminate violence, but also on being regarded as responsible guardians of the global nuclear order. 

At present, a logical gesture of accommodation by the United States and other nuclear-armed states would be to welcome the Prohibition Treaty. This should be based on the acknowledgement that the treaty strengthens the non-proliferation norm, which is clearly in U.S. interests: in addition to reaffirming and strengthening their existing commitments not to ever acquire nuclear weapons, the negotiators also took great care to address U.S. concerns about contradictions with the NPT in the treaty text. Although no treaty is perfect, the negotiators deserve credit for having chosen the moral high ground to express their discontent with the existing order.

No one expects the nuclear-armed states to join the treaty in the immediate future. However, they could win the hearts of the ban supporters by simply signaling their intent to do so — or to negotiate an even better agreement based on more stringent verification mechanism — when circumstances allow it in the future.

Of course, this would require the United States to reaffirm that it still subscribes to the shared vision of a nuclear-free world. Regardless of its eventual position on the Prohibition Treaty, this is the minimum that the United States should do for the sake of credibility with its NPT commitments.

Second, the United States should demonstrate political will and creativity to engage in nuclear arms control efforts with Russia. While such cooperation seems difficult in the current situation, progress in nuclear arms control — or even in preserving existing agreements, notably the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and New START — could redeem the bilateral relationship. In the meanwhile, the United States should cooperate with other countries in developing methods for nuclear disarmament verification.

Like it or not, the Prohibition Treaty is set to become international law, and hence it cannot be ignored into oblivion. The treaty enjoys broad international support, not just among the non-nuclear states but also the global civil society, which finds it increasingly difficult to believe that nuclear disarmament is impossible just because of a few “bad actors.” Instead of swimming against the tide of history and global public opinion, the U.S. might find that its own interest in reducing nuclear threats would also be better served by going with the flow.

Tytti Erästö, Ph.D., is the Roger L. Hale fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Defense Donald Trump International nuclear Nuclear weapons Tytti Erästö
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