US Nuclear Posture Review and A Tale of Two Votes in The UN: What Nuclear Ban Enthusiasts Must Reckon With

This essay was also published at
Contradictory Voters at the United Nations
The Marshall Islands made a rare appearance in the news headlines in December 2017 when the United Nations voted on a resolution objecting to the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. 128 countries voted in favor of the resolution. Nine countries voted against, and thirty-five abstained. The nine were the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, and Israel, in addition to five small Pacific Island nations—the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo. Most news reports mentioned these nations without comment, letting the list speak loudly for itself, perhaps staying silent out of pity for the poor countries who had been pressured to sell their votes. Independent journalist Andre Vltchek might be the only person who has written explicitly about this peculiar situation:
After all those horrific nuclear experiments committed there [Oceania], against their people, by the United States, France and the UK, could local people sincerely believe that the truth as seen from Washington is the only legitimate truth on Earth? ... After total dependency, after decades of humiliation and virtual slavery, do the inhabitants of Oceania believe that their fellow victims in Palestine do not have the right to live in their own state, without barbed wire; that they shouldn’t have their own historical capital? The answer to all these question is, actually: “No.” They do what they are doing simply and only because they have no choice.[1]
Mr. Vltchek points out in his report that that the Pacific Island nations, after being victimized by nuclear testing, are now desperately dependent on the United States and France for financial aid, and they are quite likely to need much more help when their islands are submerged because of rising sea levels. When the United States decides to apply pressure for needed support at the United Nations, they cannot refuse. In the case under discussion here, the United States was indeed very insistent on demanding support. American UN ambassador Nikki Haley felt the matter was urgent enough to threaten penalties to any nation that voted against the United States. She said on Twitter that the U.S. is continually asked at the UN to “do more and give more” for other countries. “So, when we make a decision, at the will of the American people, about where to locate OUR embassy, we don’t expect those we’ve helped to target us. On Thursday there’ll be a vote criticizing our choice. The US will be taking names.”[2]
This interesting question to ask here, one which is overlooked by anti-nuclear activists, is why the anti-nuclear advocacy of these Pacific Island nations is not met with the same threats. On September 20, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons had been signed by fifty nations, and ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on making the treaty a reality. No nation possessing nuclear weapons signed the treaty, nor did NATO nations or many other allies of the nuclear powers. This was not surprising, but what makes for a curious contrast here is the reaction of the nuclear powers. They made bland comments about the treaty not being the best way to move forward at this time, but there were no outraged statements about “taking names” and no threats of retaliation against a growing global coalition that questioned their sovereign right to have their nuclear arsenals. What’s the matter, Nikki? This benign neglect is disappointing, actually. It’s almost enough to make one think the US doesn’t see any reason to worry. The United States and other members of the nuclear club seem to be saying they can allow the children to have this harmless diversion. Let them stomp their feet for a while and have their day on the Nobel stage. This treaty changes nothing.
Of the few nations that voted with the United States and Israel against the resolution regarding the US embassy in Israel, where do they stand on Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?[3]
1.     Guatemala: Signatory
2.     Honduras: Signatory
3.     Palau: Signatory
4.     Togo: Signatory
5.     Marshall Islands: Not a signatory. It participated in negotiation of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It voted in favor of its adoption, and was a co-sponsor of the UN General Assembly resolution in 2016 that established the mandate for nations to negotiate the treaty.
6.     The Federated States of Micronesia: Not a signatory. Reason cited: its military relationship with the United States. It did not participate in the negotiation of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It voted against the UN General Assembly resolution in 2016 that established the mandate for nations to negotiate the treaty.
7.     Nauru: Not a signatory. It participated in the negotiation of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, but was absent for the vote on its adoption. It was one of the co-sponsors of the UN General Assembly resolution in 2016 that established the mandate for nations to negotiate the treaty.

Fiji, Samoa, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Vanuatu and New Zealand are the other Pacific Island signatories.
Guatemala, Honduras, Palau and Togo felt compelled to vote with the United States on the resolution about the embassy in Jerusalem, but were not too intimidated to sign the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, so this situation is quite mixed, with no clear sign that the nuclear powers have cared enough to exert pressure on small nations. Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru felt pressure in both cases to not go against the United States. Marshall Islands is the most curious case on the list because it has been called a “moral leader” in nuclear disarmament. In 2016, it challenged India’s possession of nuclear weapons at the International Court of Justice, but the case was dismissed. Along with other nations victimized by nuclear testing, the Marshall Islands had had a plan to start with India and later bring cases against all the other nuclear powers. The ICJ determined there was no provable conflict between the two nations (India and Marshall Islands), so the case could not proceed.[4] India argued at the time that it had introduced several disarmament proposals at the UN over the years, but the Marshall Islands had never supported them. The implication, of course, was that the Marshall Islands were too bound to the United States to offer support in the past—so why this change that now singled out India? The campaign faded just as ICAN was gaining support for the prohibition treaty. Marshall Islands backed it by participating in the negotiations at the UN and co-sponsoring the general assembly resolution, but then it didn’t sign!
The defeat at the ICJ is probably regarded now as a tactical blunder. A new president, Hilda Heine, took office in the Marshall Islands in 2016 and adopted a cautious approach to nuclear disarmament, as Salient Magazine in New Zealand reported:
Hilda Heine told Radio New Zealand that while the Marshall Islands do not want any nation to ever use nuclear arms, her government was “considering” whether or not to sign the treaty. “The big question is: how does the world effectively eliminate this threat? It’s actually pretty complicated. This treaty deserves due time for consideration and consultation.” Acting director of Pacific Studies at VUW, April Henderson, told Salient “... I have no doubt that the Marshall Islands support the spirit and intent of the treaty, but their close political and economic relationship with the United States—their former administrator as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and their major leaseholder and funder—could mean that it is impolitic to actually sign it.”[5]
US financial assistance to the Marshall Islands amounts to US$62.7 million annually through 2023, at which time a trust fund, made up of U.S. and RMI contributions, will begin perpetual annual payouts (data from Wikiepedia). There are also ongoing negotiations over compensation for the health and environmental impacts of nuclear testing. The United States Army also maintains the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll where Marshallese land owners receive rent for the base.
What this situation makes apparent is that nuclear disarmament cannot move forward without a radical departure from such compromising relationships. I’ve written at length on this blog before about the bigger agenda that the nuclear disarmament movement must adopt if it ever intends to achieve its goals. It needs to take on American military spending and American hegemony, and address the concerns of nations that want a nuclear arsenal for the asymmetrical deterrence it provides. It is difficult to prove a state of being deterred, but the argument that nuclear arsenals don’t deter is also hard to prove. Many have suggested that the Vietcong, for example, were not deterred by a nuclear-armed enemy, but that is quite an insult to a people who were resisting an invasion and a deeply unpopular domestic government. If Vietnam had invaded the United States, that might be proof that an aggressor was not deterred by a nuclear arsenal, but it never happened. The nuclear armed nations have never had their sovereignty or territory seriously threatened since they obtained nuclear weapons. Some of them lost colonies or client states where they were involved in conflicts. The only case that comes close is the war in Israel in 1967, but it was an undeclared nuclear power (as it still is), so it’s enemies couldn’t have known—which is a strange nuclear doctrine to follow: have a weapon of deterrence, but don’t let your potential adversaries know about it.  
Activists also need to address the proliferation of nuclear power plants because of their obvious links to weapons proliferation and their potential to become as catastrophic as nuclear weapons detonations when they are destroyed in conventional warfare. Essentially, we have to go back to the origins of the nuclear disarmament movement that came out of the Russell-Einstein manifesto in 1955. In this document, the wording was mostly about seeking peaceful co-existence after a devastating world war. The leading scientists who signed the manifesto 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.”

The approach to disarmament 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. Limitations on national sovereignty? What a quaint concept from days gone by.
If people in ICAN were more concerned about issues outside their focus, they would have noted the incongruity of the Marshall Islands’ recent vote in support of the United States. For the new treaty to become more than a symbolic gesture, the signatories would have make it a foreign policy priority, stick to their principles and withdraw all forms of support from nations that don’t support the treaty. The nuclear disarmament movement has to be followed up with a deeply committed non-aligned movement that sanctions, punishes and ultimately breaks 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 and threats of war to resolve disputes. The fifty signatories of the ban treaty would have to take the place of the United States in supporting the Marshall Islands or help it find new friends.
In the meantime, it is insulting to suggest that such vulnerable, small nations should lead with their “moral authority.” Expecting them to lead is putting the issue precisely backwards. Why should the most nuclear-victimized nation be tasked with leading the way? It’s like asking a hospitalized assault victim to solve the crime. And if you think the Marshall Islands is pathetic for its compromised dependence on the United States, recognize that it is only an extreme version of every other nation that refused to sign the prohibition treaty. Whatever excuses they give, they are implicitly saying that they don’t want to be the next target of sanctions and regime change, and that they don’t dare think about how to build the international community that will come after the American Empire fades away.
As I write this in February 2018, the United States government is giving ominous signs that it may attempt another outrage against international law, perhaps with another post-Olympics surprise, like what was orchestrated in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to provoke a response from Russia. The new “father of all bombs” non-nuclear bunker buster (GBU-57) is locked and loaded on B-2 stealth bombers in Guam, as far as one can surmise from recent deployments.[6] It is notable that at the extreme end of domestic opposition is the belief that an attack should be approved by Congress. No one in Washington talks about going to the UN Security Council or cares that it would be a gross violation of international law, even if war were declared by Congress. Nor do they recognize the existing sanctions as a war crime.
Ironically, it is the old war criminal Henry Kissinger—former US secretary of state (1973-77), Nobel Peace laureate (like ICAN) and longtime pal of Vladimir Putin [7]—who has offered some sobering advice (by present American standards) to any hawks eager for a seemingly simple military solution. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 25 that the temptation to launch a pre-emptive (not necessarily nuclear) strike on North Korea (DPRK) “is strong and the argument rational,” but his full statement implied the opposite of what some news reports said to sensationalize the comment. They added the word “nuclear” to his first strike comment, but the full quote includes no mention of nuclear weapons. One would think that by now the United States has demonstrated its ability and willingness to destroy nations with conventional weapons, but nuclear paranoia about Trump runs so high now that people hear the word “nuclear” even when it hasn’t been uttered. Trump’s “fire and fury” comment was most likely a reference to the fire and fury delivered by his predecessors in attacks on Vietnam, Cambodia, Panama, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya... Below are Kissinger’s actual words. In spite of his dubious claim that letting North Korea keep its nuclear weapons will open up the gates of hell, this comment is the best we have now. Rather than saying “all options are on the table” like everyone else in Washington, he makes the case for avoiding a military solution:
...the temptation to deal with it with a pre-emptive attack is strong, and the argument is rational, but I have seen no public statement by any leading official [indicating this will happen]. But in any event, in my own thinking, I would be very concerned by any unilateral American war at the borders of China and Russia, in which we are not supported by a significant part of the world, or at least of the Asian world.[8]
New American nuclear posture, same as the old one?
February 2, 2018—announced on Groundhog Day, perhaps because we’ve seen this story before:
The Trump administration announced a Nuclear Posture Review which shows greater willingness to use nukes first, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The new posture apparently addresses an “international security situation that is more complex and demanding than any since the end of the Cold War.”[9] There are said to be new threats such as the weaponization of space, and defensive postures (reacting to US moves), of Russia and China, which are deemed to be “aggressive.” The new posture allows for first use in certain undefined situations, and a greater mix of nuclear and conventional weapons in plans for fighting in whatever conflicts might arise.
The good question to ask is whether any of this is really new. It is worth keeping in mind that at various times leaders of many of the nuclear armed nations have stated that their arsenals are meant for use or deterrence against any mortal threat to the nation’s ability to continue as a sovereign nation. This implies first use. This posture is addressed to any enemy that might have non-nuclear means to destroy an electrical power grid, or nuclear power stations, or any vital civic or defensive infrastructure. The threat may come in a time of peace, or during a time of war when the nuclear-armed nation is on the verge of defeat. Nuclear arsenals are maintained in the belief, or false belief (whichever you prefer) that they can prevent such a scenario from arising. Every nuclear-armed nation holds this doctrine, either implicitly or explicitly. To possess nuclear weapons is to use nuclear weapons—to threaten their use or to actually use them. The Trump administration has just chosen to be explicit about this. Furthermore, even if a government declared a non-first use policy, or specified the situations in which it would or would not use a nuclear weapon—and even backed up the promise with a treaty, all such promises could be broken at any time in the future. Treaties are void once a war breaks out.
The tendency of people to view the new posture as an extreme new form of evil from President Trump is a sign of blind partisanship within the American political class and of a public that is being swept along for the ride. For the last ten years there has been deep bi-partisan support for renewing the nuclear arsenal and shredding relations with Russia. Somehow now the establishment wants us to believe that Trump simultaneously colluded with Russia and demonized it with the new nuclear posture. He, not his predecessors, has apparently destroyed hope for a detente with Russia that could reverse the dangerous “new” nuclear posture.[10] It’s about time that we recognized this is all partisan noise. The evil is in the possession and deployment of nuclear weapons, not in bickering over the nuances of a very euphemistic “nuclear posture” riddled with hypothetical musings about military strategy.
The silver lining in recent events is that now the mask is off and the public is thinking about the nuclear menace like it hasn’t since a dotard was last in the White House in the early 1980s. Trump’s crazy talk about North Korea has also led to a rapprochement between North and South Korea. With his blunt and blundering ways, speaking sometimes “truthful nonsense” like a modern-day Sancho Panza, startled to be given a governorship, Trump may be unwittingly doing a favor for the nuclear disarmament movement, which would bring him full circle to his own wishes for a nuclear-free world that he discussed in his younger days in a 1990 interview with Playboy Magazine:
I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It’s a little like sickness. People don’t believe they’re going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit. It’s like thinking the Titanic can’t sink.
Nothing I’ve written here is intended to be taken as a cynical dismissal of the nuclear ban treaty or of everyone who has worked on it. However, there are some working with ICAN, and many supportive bystanders, who may be failing to see the bigger picture. This movement will be just another noble (Nobel?) failure if it doesn’t go beyond being the sort of boutique activism that everyone politely agrees is admirable but too “magical” (the adjective for it Trump used in his state of the union address) to take seriously. I leave the last word to American ICAN member Diane Perlman who does see the need to be radical. In an interview on Redacted Tonight VIP, she expressed how urgent it is to make nuclear disarmament a much higher priority in international affairs, saying “... the nuclear ban treaty deals with just eliminating nuclear weapons. It doesn’t deal with the desire for nuclear weapons, the causes for nuclear weapons, the fear that parties have that they need a nuclear weapon to deter us... but the way to be more secure is to make your enemy more secure... our policies of deterrence are, as I say, nuclear narcissism: we can deter them, but how dare they try to deter us.”[11]

2018/06/14 UPDATE: The U.N. General Assembly condemned Israel on Wednesday for excessive use of force against Palestinian civilians and asked U.N. chief Antonio Guterres to recommend an “international protection mechanism” for occupied Palestinian territory… The General Assembly adopted a resolution with 120 votes in favor, eight against and 45 abstentions… Australia, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Solomon Islands and Togo joined Israel and the United States in voting against the resolution.


[3] Information gathered from the ICAN website.

[4] Devirupa Mitra, “World Court Rejects Marshall Islands Case on Nuclear Disarmament Against India, Pakistan, UK,” The Wire,
[10]  David E. Sanger and William E. Broad, “To Counter Russia, U.S. Signals Nuclear Arms Are Back in a Big Way,” New York Times, February 4, 2018, This article exemplifies the claim that the establishment is accusing Trump of being both too friendly and too hostile to Russia, while it downplays the role of previous administrations. In particular, the article fails to mention the Bush II administration’s abrogation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which was a key factor that created the Russian nuclear policy that the US now claims to be so threatening and destabilizing.

[11] Lee Camp (Interviewer), “Redacted Tonight VIP episode 93,” Russia Today, January 11, 2018, Longer excerpt from the interview: "What I hold all of the media responsible for missing is what Kim Jong-un said. He said he has a nuclear button on his desk, and everyone [in the media] ignored the rest of the sentence, which is that he does not intend to press it unless he’s threatened. That’s completely logical and rational, so what does Trump do? He threatens him. I expect that from Trump. I don’t expect that from the rest of us, and the fact is that people are more dangerous when they’re afraid—that’s a psychological fact, and when you humiliate people and pressure them, and back them to a corner, you make them more dangerous. So what Kim Jong-un said was completely logical and rational. It’s deep in the American psyche that we’re exceptional, and... that we have to use pressure, isolation, punishment, sanctions, and threats to get the other party to do what we want because we’re right. Actually, pressure often has the opposite effect, ... and we’re also dealing with the symptom, and even the nuclear ban treaty deals with just eliminating nuclear weapons. It doesn’t deal with the desire for nuclear weapons, the causes for nuclear weapons, the fear that parties have that they need a nuclear weapon to deter us. North Korea has a need, feels a need, to deter us from attacking them. I call it nuclear narcissism: our nukes are good; your nukes are bad. It used to be, actually, that nuclear weapons were [considered] evil and we had to eliminate them. Nuclear weapons are not evil anymore [supposedly]. The possessors are evil, so [this thinking holds] if we have them, it’s okay. If our friends and allies have them, it’s okay, ... but the way to be more secure is to make your enemy more secure... our policies of deterrence are, as I say, nuclear narcissism: we can deter them, but how dare they try to deter us."

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