Great powers sweating bullets as nuclear ban treaty turns two
Two years ago, the first-ever nuclear weapons ban treaty entered into force. Despite fervent opposition from the world’s most powerful states, more than 50 countries had made the very possession of the ultimate weapon illegal.
Supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) celebrated in small events across the world — an unfortunate necessity during the peak of the Covid pandemic. Some protested at nuclear bases and government offices, while others took part in educational events. In a brief video, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres praised the moment as “a major step toward a world free of nuclear weapons.”
The occasion was a remarkable victory for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a small umbrella group that has led the movement to ban nuclear weapons since 2007. ICAN, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, had helped unite an army of activists and sympathetic diplomats in their fight against the bomb.
“There was a strong sense of injustice at the way that the nuclear-armed states had treated non nuclear-armed states,” recalled Tim Wright, ICAN’s treaty coordinator. “By failing to pursue disarmament[…], they were undermining the security of all countries.”
In a rare moment of unity, the UN Security Council’s five permanent members — the only states allowed to possess nuclear weapons under international law — attacked the ban treaty as a dangerous distraction. The United States even sent a letter to the nearly 50 countries that had ratified the TPNW, requesting that they reverse their decision and insisting that the pact “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament.”
The disarmament debate has become more urgent in the years since 2017, when 122 of the UN’s 193 states first voted in favor of the treaty. Tensions have grown dramatically between the U.S., China, and Russia, sparking fears of a new Cold War in the offing. All three have plowed billions of dollars into efforts to modernize their nuclear programs, and Beijing appears poised to expand its arsenal by as much as 300 percent over the next decade.
Meanwhile, many agreements that regulate nukes and help prevent accidents have been torn up or weakened. Former President Donald Trump pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a 1997 pact with Russia under which both sides agreed to forswear all mid-range nuclear missiles. And the New START Treaty — the only active agreement that limits the size of Washington and Moscow’s arsenals — risks falling apart well before its 2026 expiration date.
Even the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has fallen on tough times. Nearly every country is a party to the 1968 pact, which bans all but the five permanent UN Security Council states from having nuclear weapons. This wide uptake has led to the “universalization” of the agreement, meaning that its provisions are considered binding on all countries.
Yet last week, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol told reporters that, if the nuclear threat from North Korea continues to grow, Seoul would consider pursuing its own atomic arsenal. “We can have our own nuclear weapons pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities,” Yoon said.
These trends highlight the uphill battle that ICAN faces in its quest to end the nuclear era. Though the long-term goal is universalization, the TPNW’s supporters argue that it has already changed the global conversation about nukes, shifting the focus away from whack-a-mole non-proliferation and toward full disarmament.
The TPNW has helped persuade at least 58 financial institutions to fully divest from the nuclear weapons industry. (For reasons of ethics or risk-aversion, many investors opt against putting money in “controversial weapons,” especially those banned by a large treaty.) And it’s set to reach another milestone soon: By the end of the year, Wright expects that a majority of UN states will have signed or ratified the treaty.
Nuclear powers like France and the United States continue to put pressure on their partners abroad to not sign or ratify the deal. ICAN is emboldened by this opposition. For Wright, it shows that the treaty is “something meaningful.”
“If it were merely a piece of paper that had no real-world impacts, then I think that the nuclear-armed states would simply have ignored it,” he told RS.
There are two broad stories that one can tell about the nuclear era. For skeptics, the atomic age is best understood as a long series of brushes with Armageddon.
Wright emphasized the countless close calls from the Cold War that could have led to full-scale nuclear war. These include high-profile cases like the Cuban Missile Crisis and lesser known incidents like the 1961 Goldsboro crash, in which a B-52 broke up in midair and dropped two atomic bombs over North Carolina. (Only one failsafe mechanism stopped the bombs from exploding.)
“The fact that they haven’t been used in war for 70-something years isn’t the result of great strategy or wisdom,” Wright argued. “It’s luck.”
Skeptics also highlight that nuclear weapons come with serious tradeoffs. Take, for example, President Joe Biden’s trademark Build Back Better initiative. The plan includes $570 billion in spending to fight climate change over the next decade, making it the single largest investment of its kind in American history. Meanwhile, Washington’s nuclear arsenal is projected to cost about $634 billion in that same time period.
And the problems don’t end there. As ICAN campaigners often note, nuclear tests and use have caused permanent environmental damage and forcibly displaced indigenous people across the globe. Radiation in parts of the Marshall Islands — where the U.S. conducted a series of nuclear tests in the 1940s and 50s — remain up to 1,000 times higher than levels in Fukushima.
Prominent advocates of nuclear skepticism include the governments of South Africa and Kazakhstan, both of which willingly surrendered their nuclear weapons in the 1990s, as well as Brazil, Austria, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Vatican.
There is, of course, another view. For nuclear optimists, the ultimate weapon is a sobering, relatively cheap remedy for the pathologies that plagued world leaders in the first half of the 20th century.
“Nuclear weapons took great-power war off the agenda of international politics,” said Michael Desch, a professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame. For Desch, the logic is air-tight: Once two states have enough nukes to destroy each other’s military, nuclear deterrence kicks in, rendering direct war all but impossible and saving countless lives in the process.
And it’s hard to deny that he has a point. World War II killed no fewer than 60 million people — just under three percent of the world’s population in 1937 — and left large swathes of Europe and Asia in abject ruin. As tensions grew between the United States and the USSR, the prospect of a third world war loomed large in the minds of policymakers and civilians alike.
These concerns only grew when the Soviets got the bomb in 1949. But then something crazy happened; or, more precisely, something believed to be inevitable kept not happening. Despite decades of proxy battles, the superpowers never fought each other directly. And this is no aberration: No two nuclear-armed powers have ever gone to full-scale, direct war with each other.
And, as optimists often note, efforts to pare back the world’s nuclear arsenals have been remarkably effective over the long term — a testament to the sobering effects of the atomic bomb. In a 2018 article in Commonweal, Desch noted that the total number of nuclear warheads has dropped from 65,000 in 1985 to roughly 10,000 today. “An 85-percent reduction is certainly a big deal, even if the remaining arsenals could still wreak unimaginable damage on the earth,” Desch wrote.
A version of this view is dominant among policymakers in nuclear powers and “umbrella states” — countries that nuke-wielding governments have vowed to defend. The Pentagon’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review described nuclear weapons as “foundational to broader U.S. defense strategy,” adding that the primary responsibility of Washington and its nuclear-armed peers is to create a more peaceful global system that would “ultimately allow for” full disarmament.
“The United States does not share the underlying assumption of the TPNW that the elimination of nuclear weapons can be achieved irrespective of the prevailing international security environment,” the document concludes.
In May 2010, the parties to the NPT gathered in New York for their eighth review conference. The stage was set for a clash between the optimists and the skeptics.
Nuclear-armed states were riding high after the United States and Russia had agreed to the New START Treaty just a month before the summit. The deal capped each state’s arsenals at their lowest levels in decades, which Washington and Moscow viewed as an important victory.
Others were less enthused. Two decades after the Cold War, many in the Global South argued that nuclear-armed states had failed to hold up their end of the NPT — specifically Article VI, which stipulates all parties to the treaty will make urgent, good faith efforts to seek complete disarmament.
“I am not saying that the nuclear-weapon states have not done anything, but their progress in nuclear disarmament has been modest, to say the least,” said Maria Antonieta Jaquez, who worked on Mexico’s TPNW negotiation team and now serves as her government’s coordinator for disarmament and non-proliferation.
As Jaquez told RS, most Latin American states had long forsworn nukes, and it was time for others to catch up. If chemical weapons and cluster munitions have been banned, Jaquez wondered, then why should nukes get a pass?
Skeptics also resented what they saw as a narrow focus on non-proliferation. “We wanted to really focus on the reality of the weapons and the harm that they cause,” Wright of ICAN told RS. “I think that many countries have become complacent about the nuclear threat.”
As the conference came to a close, the skeptics managed to add a few lines into a joint document that expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.” But the more ambitious goal — a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention — would have to wait.
In the ensuing years, ICAN and its allies criss-crossed the globe building momentum for a ban treaty. The organization earned support from moral leaders like Pope Francis, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama, all while building a global network of grassroots volunteers. In 2012, ICAN campaigners from Hiroshima folded 1,000 paper cranes and sent them to the leaders of every UN member state.
“We were just random people doing some petitions, seminars, panels, emailing parliamentarians, nagging politicians, holding meetings,” Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director, told Time Magazine. “There are no TV shows about negotiators for a reason.”
ICAN quickly abandoned hopes of getting nuclear-armed states onboard, opting instead to deal with what Wright calls the “global majority” on the issue. “A few of the key negotiating states said to us that it wouldn’t have been possible in the past, but we no longer have a relationship of dependence on these powerful countries,” Wright said. The Netherlands, which falls under the United States’ nuclear umbrella, was the only nuclear state to participate in the talks.
After two rounds of negotiations in 2017, 122 states voted in favor of the final draft. The agreement included a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons in member states; a time-bound plan for disarmament for nuclear powers that may join in the future; and assistance for those affected by tests or attacks.
The Netherlands cast the lone vote against the treaty. All other nuclear states boycotted the vote, signaling that they didn’t view the TPNW as legitimate.
Nikki Haley, then Washington’s UN ambassador, questioned whether states who favored the ban understood the nature of geopolitics today.
“You have to ask yourself, are they looking out for their people?” Haley said in 2017 during a press conference staged to protest the proposed treaty.
Desch agrees with Haley’s assessment. “I think it’s a good example of good intentions leading to a dumb outcome,” he argued, adding that the TPNW amounts to little more than “virtue signaling.”
Proponents of the treaty acknowledge its limits. “It’s not a panacea,” Wright told RS. “It can’t produce miracles.” But, he contends, it is “a very important tool that we have now for advancing the cause of a nuclear-weapon-free world.”
One benefit of the TPNW has been its impact on global discourse, according to Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, who called the treaty “one of the few bright spots” in disarmament today.
At the TPNW’s first meeting of states-parties, which took place as Russian leaders suggested that they could use nukes against Ukraine, members condemned “any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” This stance, Kimball contends, “played a pivotal factor in building a stronger international consensus, including from nuclear-weapon states, against any and all nuclear threats.”
As evidence, Kimball pointed to last November’s G20 summit. The meeting’s participants declared that threats of nuclear use are “inadmissible” — an unusually stark statement from the powerful group.
Despite ICAN’s efforts, nuclear powers have shown little interest in changing their minds on the treaty. Late last year, Australia broke with its outright opposition to the treaty and abstained from a UN vote on the pact. The subtle shift drew a harsh rebuke from Washington, which warned that the TPNW “would not allow for US extended deterrence relationships.”
But, for ICAN and its allies, the road to utopia is paved with small victories. “The treaty is not going to be universal for a long time,” Jaquez told RS, quickly adding that she hopes to be proven wrong. “But that doesn’t mean that the treaty is going to disappear.”
As she pointed out, the TPNW kicked off the new year with a win as Djibouti officially signed on to the pact. “We’re very happy to have started the new year with a new signature,” Jaquez said. She noted that 92 countries have now signed on — just four short of a majority of UN states.