A new treaty banning nuclear weapons? Would that it were so simple

(This post was revised slightly in November 2017, after ICAN had won the Nobel Peace Prize)

A patient is told by his doctor that he is going to die if he doesn’t do three things: quit drinking, lower his blood pressure and get heart bypass surgery. He thinks for a minute and says, “OK, I’ll take the blood pressure pills.”
His doctor says, “No, that’s not enough. You’ll still die.”
The patient protests, “Come on, doc, be realistic.” The doctor gives him a doubtful look, then he adds, “Alright. I’ll get the surgery.”
The doctor, starting to get exasperated asks, “Did you hear what I said? With that choice you still die.”
The patient thinks for a minute and says,“Look. You just don’t understand the constraints upon me. Let’s be mature about this. My backers will never go for it. We have to be pragmatic. After all, we are no longer the young idealists we used to be, are we?”

This attempt at a joke is a way to point out how our political culture reacts to the existential crises we are faced with. We are negotiating and trying to be pragmatic in the face of problems that allow for no half measures. This month (June 2017), for example, there are triumphant headlines in the news about a new United Nations treaty that will make nuclear weapons illegal, except for the nations that choose not to sign the treaty, or choose to abrogate the treaty at a later date, and nations that cannot be forced to sign the treaty. In other words, the treaty is a symbolic and well-intentioned measure that may increase the chances of nuclear abolition happening someday, but it will have no effect in the near-term on reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world.
I will be criticized for betraying the anti-nuclear cause if I raise such uncomfortable issues about this push for a new treaty, but I have followed the issue for a while and found that the groups backing this treaty have taken a very narrow view of the world’s problems and history. Like the man in the joke, they are eager to do one or two things, but not everything that would be necessary to really solve this problem comprehensively. Saving the patient’s heart is pointless if his liver is going to fail shortly thereafter.
The treaty is being promoted mostly by activists in Western European and English-speaking countries (the ICAN website provides information in several European languages, but not in Russian or Chinese), and they seem disinclined to ask uncomfortable questions about the exercise of non-nuclear power by the United States, NATO and other nations allied with them. I suspect the treaty is not much of a concern among Syrians and Yemenis at this time. There is great irony in the fact that when I bring up this issue I am told, by the idealists pursuing the dream of a world without nuclear weapons, that I am the one being too idealistic. “Those are issues for another day,” I am told. “We have to stay focused, not muddy the waters. We can’t alienate our supporters [donors].” Thus the nuclear ban is in danger of becoming another brand of safe, unthreatening liberal preoccupation, a respectable endeavor that no one will disagree with in principle, as long as the focus of the movement stays narrow and unthreatening.[1]

Click on the image to see the text more clearly.
One neglected problem with this treaty is nuclear energy. All the focus is on the abolition of nuclear weapons but not on the proliferation of nuclear power plants. As long as uranium is mined and fissile materials are created in nuclear reactors, nuclear bombs will always be easy to make. Depleted uranium (is it a chemical weapon or a radiological weapon?) will always be available to add to conventional weaponry. Furthermore, every nuclear power plant has a spent fuel pool that is a radiological weapon of mass destruction made available for potential enemies to strike with conventional weapons. It is strange that so many nations have deliberately created this vulnerability, but we should note that Israel, conscious of its enemies’ intentions, is the only nation that built nuclear weapons but not nuclear power plants.
The problem posed by nuclear spent fuel pools is familiar to military strategists, and it may have been a factor in American decisions so far not to attack North Korea, which could retaliate by bombing nuclear power plants in Japan. In this sense, Japan already possesses a sort of unintended “nuclear deterrent” that may be keeping the peace in the region.
Instead of this being a major concern in nuclear disarmament talks, nuclear energy has always been a bargaining chip in disarmament and non-proliferation negotiations. If a country agrees to give up nuclear weapons, they will be given assistance in developing the “peaceful uses” of the atom. Article IV of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) gives all parties the right to develop nuclear energy. Critics of the nuclear powers pay much attention to the other articles of the treaty that oblige the nuclear powers to work toward disarmament, but the proliferation problems arising from Article IV get passed over. Again, this is an example of how activists deceive themselves into thinking compromised solutions are worth pursuing. The strategy is to get rid of the bombs first and worry about nuclear energy later. Save the heart and forget about the imminent liver failure.
A second neglected problem is that nuclear disarmament efforts ignore the broader problems posed by international disparities in military spending, and the proliferation of conventional military hardware and new forms of weaponry. The United States spends ten times as much as Russia, and outspends nine of the top ten nations in military expenditures (data available on Wikipedia).
The argument for a treaty banning nuclear weapons says that nuclear weapons should be like all other banned weapons that have been defined as “weapons intended to inflict catastrophic humanitarian harm.” The trouble with such semantics is that the non-nuclear world would still be left with a nation that can strike selected targets with the MOAB, or any city in the world with sixty Tomahawk missiles, armed with conventional explosives, in a single evening. In the latest exercise of such power, the missiles merely pounded sand in the Syrian desert in a largely symbolic display, but the consequences would be much different if the target were an urban center. How could such an attack not be classified as weapons “intended to inflict catastrophic humanitarian harm,” the sort of attack which could trigger world war and cause nations to tear up their treaty obligations?
If this recent anti-nuclear drive actually succeeded in getting the nuclear powers to ratify an international treaty declaring nuclear weapons illegal, the world would be left with the United States undeterred and in possession of a vastly predominant power in conventional weaponry. Intercontinental ballistic missiles could be refitted with precision conventional bombs capable of putting any nation on earth back in the Stone Age within a matter of weeks. This was already achieved with the attacks on Serbia (1999), Iraq (1991, 2003~) and Libya (2011). All of these were illegal under international law, which raises the question of how the international community would enforce compliance with a new international law banning nuclear weapons. In addition to the fact that international law and UN resolutions are ignored continually during so-called peacetime, Russell and Einstein pointed out in their 1955 manifesto that treaties banning nuclear weapons would be abrogated the minute world war breaks out.[2]
An American predominance in space-based weapons and anti-ballistic missiles would further add to the imbalance of power. The absence of nuclear deterrence among weaker powers could set off a new arms race based on old-fashioned dependence on tanks, heavy artillery, and so on, then there would be an increased risk of war, with a likelihood that in any conflict nuclear power plants would be struck with conventional weaponry. Even if that didn't happen, destruction of electricity grids could put nuclear power plants into meltdown scenarios. The Fukushima catastrophe should have made this clear to nuclear disarmament activists. Backup generators, needed to keep spent nuclear fuel cool, wouldn't last long, even if they were effective for a few days, and in wartime there would be a good chance that generator refueling would not happen on time. There could be multiple such disasters in a large-scale war. It would be a nuclear war using fallout contamination as a weapon, or perhaps the fallout would just be a consequence of reckless bombardment. The good intentions of nuclear disarmament could lead to such unforeseen consequences.[3]
The defeat of the Democratic Party in the United States in 2016 illustrated what happens when a regime spends decades failing to improve basic needs such as living wages and adequate health care, telling naysayers that they are immature idealists who need to grow up, compromise and be pragmatic. This approach may apply to some of life’s problems, but not to matters critical for survival. Sometimes there is only one right way to proceed and a compromise is complicity. Continually choosing the lesser evil eventually leads to a rendezvous with just plain evil.
The disarmament movement is making the same sort of mistake when it strategically decides to not talk about nuclear energy and militarism, then scoffs at nations that hesitate to embrace the instability that would follow a ban on nuclear weapons. It is easy to laugh at this fear of instability and dismiss it as an outrageous excuse of warmongers to go on endangering life on the planet, but we laugh at our own peril. It is not so easy to convince people who remember the battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, as well as the humiliation, economic devastation and NATO expansion that followed the nuclear arms reductions of the 1980s and 1990s.
The Russians and the Chinese will pay little attention to this ban on nuclear weapons as long as the US regards them as a threat to its preferred version of global order. A small nation like North Korea has no other choice besides nuclear arms for deterrence, and the historical record strongly suggests that America has been deterred by nuclear arsenals, though the existence of a state of being deterred is impossible to prove. Deterrence cannot be known to have existed until it fails.
Nations that worry about being targets of future American aggression are quick to remind the global community that it wasn’t they who set off the nuclear arms race in 1945. They expect America to lead the way not only to nuclear disarmament but also to a general demilitarization and retrenchment of its global supremacy in which it accepts a world of balanced interests. The first stop on nuclear disarmament’s “road to Damascus” (pun intended) is the Pentagon.
The American general Brent Scowcroft once pointed out, in a panel discussion after the broadcast of the film The Day After (video here, transcript here, 1983/11), the reasons for the two superpowers needing to have an overwhelming preponderance of force. He was speaking of nuclear arsenals, but it also explains the disproportionate 10:1 ratio, in America's favor, that exists still in both conventional and nuclear weapons. He spoke of a policy that laid bare the reason America is not interested in unilateral, gradual disarmament. A supreme power, like a mafia don, cannot be satisfied with having parity with potential challengers. Near parity would just make others think they have a chance to join the game. It is essential to have an arsenal so overwhelming and costly that no one else will dream of trying to match it. In 1983, the US and the Soviet Union each had about 30,000 nuclear warheads, then in the 1990s this number was reduced to about 7,000 each, which is still 93% of the world total. This begs the question of why the decrease stopped and has stayed at this excessive level since the mid-1990s. General Scowcroft revealed a grim reality of the exercise of power when he said:

In some respects, the lower the numbers, the more unstable the situation and the more the encouragement for other powers to acquire nuclear weapons… if each side of the Soviet Union and the United States has only a thousand weapons, or each only 500, that encourages other powers to become major nuclear powers in a way that they can do because the numbers are relatively small.

More is less in the doublespeak and paradoxes involved in the possession of nuclear arms, and also in the massive excesses in all forms of defense spending. At this time when the simple demand to “make nuclear weapons illegal” is headlined with so little nuanced discussion of what is at stake, it is worthwhile to keep in mind how this issue was approached in the early days of the anti-nuclear movement. In the Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955, the wording was mostly about seeking peaceful co-existence after a devastating world war. The signatories stated, “Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes.” They called for nations to work toward a “concomitant balanced reduction of all armaments,” to accept “distasteful limitations of national sovereignty,” and to “find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.”[4]
This view which was conventional wisdom sixty years ago has been forgotten in the contemporary discourse on nuclear disarmament, probably because it is an uncomfortable reminder of how much it’s been a world gone wrong ever since then. For the new treaty to become more than a token gesture, it would have to be followed up with a deeply committed non-aligned movement that would sanction, punish and ultimately break off relations with nations that:

1) continue to possess nuclear weapons,
2) overspend on all forms of military deployment and weaponry, and
3) flout the UN Charter by engaging in internal interference in foreign nations and using war to resolve disputes.

     Yet the truth is that all the nations that sign this new treaty are not committed enough to pay the steep price that nuclear abolition and peaceful co-existence would require. As a consciousness-raising effort, the treaty has some merit, but it will quickly fail if it doesn't grow into something more serious.


[1] For an example of an organizations that have been taking a comprehensive view for a long time, see https://www.veteransforpeace.org and www.space4peace.blogspot.com.

[2]Statement: The Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, July 9, 1955, accessed June 19, 2017, http://pugwash.org/1995/12/10/oslo-award-of-the-nobel-peace-prize . In spite of my use of this source in a positive light, I stress that the Pugwash organization is still stuck in a 1950s time warp, with a supportive view of the “atoms for peace” promotion of nuclear energy made by President Eisenhower. When Joseph Rotblat received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, he said nuclear energy “had great potential for the common good” but with the use of the bomb “a splendid achievement of science and technology had turned malign.” The view that the abolition of nuclear energy is a necessary step in the abolition of nuclear arms remains a fringe position that has no support in UN treaty negotiations. Thus groups that aspire to achieve their goals through the UN also ignore the issue. Completely ignored are the ecological costs of uranium mining and the unsolved questions about keeping nuclear fission byproducts out of contact with the ecosystem for a million years. Step 1: Stop making the stuff.

[4] Statement: The Russell-Einstein Manifesto op. cit.

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