The Nobel Peace Prize Committee recently bestowed the 2017 prize upon the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an organization which has been working toward the global abolishment of nuclear weapons for over a decade. Their three-pronged strategy to “stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate” nuclear weapons has been lauded by figures like the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Yoko Ono. The project intends to abolish nuclear weapons through both changing the perception of nuclear weapons and well as pursuing legal means- such as the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Essentially, the organization wants the world to see nuclear weapons as immoral weaponry, much in the same way the Geneva Protocol prohibited the use of chemical weapons.
Regardless of the project’s noble aspirations, there is a glaring issue: none of the nine nations with nuclear weapons attended any of ICAN’s conferences and negotiations because it was firmly outside of their best interests. For the United States, the only nation to have ever launched a nuclear attack, nuclear capabilities are an integral part of its policy in regards to both the maintenance of foreign relations and international deterrence policies. Though the abolition of nuclear arms is necessary to prevent another humanitarian disaster such as that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is clear that the US should not sign a treaty of such until its foreign policy is disconnected from its nuclear strength.
To explain, since the Cold War, nuclear arms have been the most effective form of deterrence. Currently, the nuclear standoff with North Korea is indicative of this scenario. Though threats have been mounting on both sides of the conflict, these threats have lacked capability because of the fear of mutually assured destruction. In essence, both nations have proven effective second strike capabilities, which enable immediate retaliation before the initial strike even makes landfall.
However, keeping nuclear warheads purely for the purpose of defense against other nuclear arms is essentially an argument against itself. These arms are necessary only because others have them as well. If nations did not have this resource to begin with, the need for nuclear deterrence would be obsolete.
Going along with this line of thinking, a multilateral arms reduction would therefore ensure that all nations are as strong or as vulnerable as the others in regards to nuclear capabilities. Noam Chomsky, a lauded political activist, linguist, and philosopher among other things, has stated that nuclear war is one of the two foreseeable problems for humanity’s survival (the other being environmental catastrophe).
If defense were the only reasoning for maintaining nuclear weapons, disarmament and abolition disarmament would be one of the most logical solutions. However, complicating the issue is the fact that nuclear weaponry has also become a staple in foreign policy negotiations. While there are a litany of active treaties which agree upon disarmament in some capacity, these treaties are unenforceable, or they utilize existing nuclear arms as the basis of negotiation. Thus, these treaties serve to maintain the image of international cooperation without threatening the security and bargaining power that accompany nuclear power.
The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty in 1970 is often presented as the inception of nuclear disarmament policy and a major step toward global peace. It was a post-Cold War agreement, signed by the US, which called for a multilateral decrease of arms and eventual abolition of weapons. At this time, though the US appeared to show an interest in disarmament through its involvement in the non proliferation talks, the clauses called for the reduction of arms at the signatories’ own pace. It acts as more of a show of international cooperation than a promise of immediate abolition.
More significantly, the major binding clauses of this agreement prevented all nations without nuclear weapons from developing them. Therefore, the nations with nuclear power would remain so without any growing competition. It also required these nations to share arms with other NATO nations so that they could have the protection of nuclear missiles without needing to independently develop the technology. Ultimately, the accumulation of nuclear weapons allows the US to fulfill its obligations of international cooperation and defense without deploying troops to these areas.
This non proliferation agreement was decidedly in the US best interest because it involved disarmament for other nations which in turn fostered dependence on the US for deterrence. This dependence ensures that the United States maintains its influence in the security decision making of other states. Disarmament would threaten the security of these states, but decrease US influence abroad.
The US has not shown interest in arms reduction solely for the sake of peace because nuclear arms is not only a moral issue, but is a matter of political currency. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996 has still not entered into force because some key nations, including the United States, have not ratified it. The main point of this treaty is to ban nuclear explosions for both military and civilian reasons. Though this treaty does not require disarmament, it would render deterrence obsolete if the right to detonate is voided.
This is why bilateral treaties such as the Iran Nuclear Deal are so significant. This deal required Iran to end nuclear development in return for the US lifting sanctions against the nation. This treaty is enforceable and provides political benefits for all parties beyond a step towards peace, which itself is vague, unquantifiable, and unable to be monetized. With bilateral treaties such as these, disarmament naturally occurs. Though it is not immediate in the way a treaty, such as ICAN’s, can enter into force, it is an effective method to spur continuous consensual abolition of nuclear arms.
The same goes for the current conflict between the US and North Korea. Nuclear action is currently being threatened by both sides in reaffirmation that the ability to strike still stands. Though President Trump’s strategy toward North Korea has been unstable, currently the lack of detonation proves the present effectiveness of nuclear deterrence.
This is a standoff that will continue until the surrender of nuclear stockpiles becomes politically viable for one party or another. Whether this occurs through economic or political trade offs, the current collection of arms can serve to be a point of negotiation.
If nuclear arms were truly only a moral issue, ICAN’s constructivist policy would have more of an impact on US policy. Yet, with nuclear capabilities being so closely linked to both the defense and foreign strategy of the United States, they cannot and should not be easily forfeited. Once a form of deterrence and negotiation proves to be more effective, the US can focus on nuclear armament as a humanitarian issue instead of a political aid.