Michael KreponThe Ban Movement’s Moment

Quote of the week:

“The great tragedies of history often fascinate people with approaching horror. Paralyzed, they cannot make up their minds to do anything but wait. So they wait, and one day the Gorgon devours them. But I should like to convince you that the spell can be broken, that there is an illusion of impotence, that strength of heart, intelligence, and courage are enough to stop fate and sometimes reverse it.”

–Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death

Here’s what I like about the Ban Movement and the confab that has begun at the United Nations to draft a Convention to lend impetus to nuclear abolition.

I like that the Ban Movement has become an entryway for new commitment and energy to contest the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose. I like the vibrancy of this movement, which stands in stark contrast to the defenders of nuclear orthodoxy and those of us who believe in the cause but are cautious to a fault. The Ban Movement provides needed reminders that extremely bad news could be just around the corner, and that complacency invites worst cases. I like that the Ban-ners are impatient with the slow pace of nuclear disarmament and the arguments used to justify patience. I like calling out stodgy gatherings where diplomats receive paychecks for the rote repetition of arguments that block process and progress.

There is, in sum, much to admire here. So, why has the Ban Movement encountered such resistance? Opposition from keepers of the crown jewels in nuclear-armed states is to be expected. Chris Ford, the Trump Administration’s Senior Director for nuclear policy on the NSC staff called this effort “fundamentally misguided” at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nukefest. But there are also misgivings among long-time seekers of arms control and disarmament. Their cautionary messages cannot be waved away.

Bill Perry writes, for example, in My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (2015), that he has chosen not to join forces with Global Zero because focusing on the end state can keep our collective eye off the ball on the steps needed to get there. Others, like myself, worry that focusing on the end state – especially one that has a date attached to it – is more likely to breed despondency than hope when expectations are not met. Hope, after all, sustains us as much as anxiety. If falling short leads to despondency, the Ban Movement’s energy will die; if falling short fuels anger, the Non-Proliferation Treaty could be included in the collateral damage.

Since the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995, failure to come up with consensus final texts at NPT Review Conferences has been considered something of a defeat. Far worse outcomes are possible in the future. If nuclear-armed states continued to be mired in rivalry and cannot make progress toward reducing nuclear weapons and nuclear dangers, the frustration of non-nuclear-weapon states at NPT Review Conferences could be expressed by mass walkouts, or even some withdrawals. The primary blame for hollowing out the NPT would then fall on the nuclear-armed states, but the Ban Movement could play a part in this unraveling.

Those of us who are committed for the long haul – for a step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear weapons and dangers as well as for abolition – are obliged to find ways to join forces, while respecting our differences along the way. This was one of Susan Burk’s wise suggestions during a panel discussion on the Ban Treaty held at the Nukefest.  Collaborative action will be possible if step-by-steppers do not denigrate Ban-ners, and if Ban-ners strongly support the NPT when shortfalls inevitably occur.

Bill Perry puts it this way:

“I believe we have no hope of achieving a world without nuclear weapons without taking the initial steps. But I also believe that we will not muster the will to take these difficult steps without tying them to a vision.”

The Ban Movement’s most critical decision will be whether to attach a deadline for abolition. The world is too grievously messed up to abide by deadlines to abolish the Bomb. The deadly spell that nuclear weapons cast cannot be broken by demanding a deadline divorced from geopolitical realities. Norms aren’t set by deadlines; they are established by the passage of time. By setting a deadline that cannot be met, the hoped-for norm of the Ban Movement will be weakened. Paradoxically, if the Movement’s primary objective is to reinforce the norm of abolition, then the wisest choice is to not establish a deadline that won’t be met.

Deadlines have pulling power when a goal is within reach and when outside pressure can help carry the goal across the finish line. That’s how the CTBT happened, after decades of effort. At the 1995 RevCon, when the indefinite extension of the NPT was on the line, the CTBT negotiations were within hailing distance of completion. Non-nuclear-weapon states demanded the CTBT’s completion, and they got it. The Clinton Administration did the heavy lifting over the reluctance of other nuclear-armed states, which exacted their revenge with a ridiculously onerous entry-into-force provision.

In contrast, the 1995 RevCon also called for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and nothing came of it. Twenty-plus years later, these negotiations have yet to begin. None of the five nuclear-weapon states has made the FMCT a priority. Pakistan has played the role of the spoiler, which suits India, having fallen behind Pakistan in production of new bomb-grade material. No ad hoc group of nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states has decided to proceed with negotiations outside of the shackles of the Conference on Disarmament.

No one seems to be contemplating a deadline for completing the FMCT, even though it is central to a Ban Treaty. Given existing constraints, it would be futile. And even if an FMCT could somehow be completed on a deadline, it would still be insufficient for a Ban Treaty, as existing stockpiles of bomb-making material would need to be zeroed out as well as new production. Are we are to accomplish all this by a date certain, perhaps ten, fifteen, or twenty years?

Deadlines work when they prompt hoped-for action. When deadlines fail badly, they clarify weakness. Popular movements can accomplish much – witness the absence of mushroom clouds from nuclear tests since 1980, and the absence of underground tests by major powers since 1996. These accomplishments, great as they are, did not affect geopolitical rivalries. And here’s the rub: abolishing nuclear weapons also requires abolishing serious geopolitical contention between major powers and between regional rivals. Are geopolitics amenable to deadlines?


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I disagree with your final rub: “abolishing nuclear weapons also requires abolishing serious geopolitical contention between major powers and between regional rivals.”

    That’s about like saying we can’t abolish nuclear weapons until after: We first achieve world peace, set up world government, spread democracy everywhere, end world poverty, etc. These other things might be nice to have, but they are not crucial to abolishing nuclear weapons.

    First we must end geopolitical rivalry? Might be nice to have, even useful for disarmament, but likewise not crucial to nuclear disarmament. It is only necessary that geopolitical rivalries not be channeled through the medium of nuclear weapons. This will take time, step by step process, etc., but the ultimate goal (nuclear zero or very low numbers) does not require ending all serious geopolitical rivalry.

  2. John Hallam (History)

    Absolutely agree with the above. The whole point of a nuclear ban movement is to ensure that geopolitical rivalries do NOT literally end the world. After nuke weapons disappear there will still be geopolitical rivalries. Hopefully we will deal with them a little better, but assuming we do not, complete mismanagement of them may even lead to bloody wars, but it will no longer be possible for it to end civilisation and humans as a species. And conflict cannot be kept at bay forever simply by making the stakes too high, which is what nukes do (and which is General Hytens argument). At some point someone will miscalculate during a game of nuclear ‘chicken’. If not tomorrow then next week. And then civilisation and much else will simply end.

    A non-nuclear world will not, cannot, be ‘perfect’. It just wont use the survival of civilisation and humans as a species to ‘prevent’ wars.

    The argument that nukes have in fact prevented wars is in any case highly dubious and most likely false: There have been long periods of history without (or almost without) major power conflict (ex, 1815-1914), without nuclear weapons to ‘keep the peace’, and the world as it is is hardly peaceful. Historically, I think General Hyten is wrong.

    But the bottom line is that risking civilisation and species survival (not to mention the survival of most complex land- based life forms) is not a viable medium to long term proposition. Sooner or later there will be a catastrophe.

    Nirvana can wait, but we cannot wait for it. Getting rid of nukes is precisely a survival strategy for an imperfect world.

    John Hallam

  3. Nick Ritchie (History)

    I don’t think you have quite captured the core of the ‘humanitarian initiative’ and the idea of a ban treaty here. As I see it, it is not about establishing a post-war or post-sovereign world, or about nuclear disarmament as an end state, but about radically containing the possibility of nuclear violence as an ongoing process. It is many ways an emancipatory project – emancipation from structures of nuclear violence – and in that way connects to broader global justice agendas of the global South. The ban treaty’s potential contribution is the stigmatisation of nuclear violence and, by extension, nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons. I dont think anyone is under the illusion that disarmament by dictat is a plausible strategy, and I don’t think many (if any) are entertaining the idea of a fixed disarmament schedule. The intention is to change the global social acceptability of nuclear weapons for ALL states and see what effects this roll of the normative dice might have. I’m not convinced a ban treaty will have a detrimental effect on the NPT. Don’t forget that the initiative was precipitated by real disarmament despair under the NPT after 2005, it is not a cause of that despair. Moreover, the legitimacy of the initiative and the authority of the proposed ban treaty are rooted in the NPT’s article VI. This has been made quite explicit by the initiative’s core group.

  4. Mark Gubrud (History)

    It seems a bit condescending to call the Ban an “entryway for new commitment and energy” especially when it is now an ongoing multilateral treaty negotiation. It’s no mystery why many in the nuclear priesthood (like Chris Ford) oppose the ban. I suspect that Secretary Perry’s declining to support the Ban and Global Zero may have something to do with his perceptions of their status within the US nuclear and foreign policy establishment or maybe some disagreements on technical points.

    Your delicate engineering of a balance between hope and despair, vision and pragmatism, seems less reasonable to me. Hope springs eternal no matter how many times it is dashed, but without hope and without vision there is no drive for progress. Pragmatism is also necessary, of course, but there is no contradiction between a clear vision of where you want to go and immediate practical steps toward getting there.

    But of course you are right that the Ban treaty should not set a deadline, which could turn out to be a sell-by date. Failure is not an option here.