Michael KreponThe Nuclear Ban Treaty and Our Wobbly Nuclear Order

Even after the Iran nuclear agreement, nuclear dangers are growing on four fronts – North Korea; U.S.-Russian relations; India-Pakistan, with China mixed in; and the potential for offshore frictions between the United States and China. Sure, there were more intense periods of nuclear danger during the Cold War, but only two parties were involved. Nowadays, we’re dealing with nuclear dangers along four commingled axes. Conditions are not now in place to reduce nuclear dangers on any of these fronts.

The global nuclear order is wobbly. Support structures for downsizing vertical proliferation and reinforcing nonproliferation are corroding. Imagine how much worse this situation would be if the Obama Administration had not been able to orchestrate an agreement to strictly limit Iran’s capabilities to produce and weaponize fissile material. This, too, could unravel, if diehard critics of the deal in the United States succeed in choking off financial transactions that are an integral part of the deal, or if hard cases in Iran decide they don’t like nuclear constraints.

Even if the Iranian agreement continues to be implemented properly, we’re in trouble. Areas of consensus are shrinking and divisions are widening between the United States and Russia, between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots,” and between states in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. For evidence, look no farther than the vote in the UN First Committee to begin a negotiation banning nuclear weapons. Opposition to the Nuclear Ban Treaty was a rare moment of accord between the United States and Russia, but there’s nothing new here: Washington and Moscow have a long history of colluding against force reductions dating back to the Strategic Arms Limitation and Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks.

The pursuit of a Nuclear Ban Treaty exemplifies the pull of centrifugal forces in the Arms Control Enterprise. (If the labs can call themselves the Nuclear Enterprise, we can incorporate, too.) Whenever perceived nuclear dangers grow, centrifugal forces do, as well – domestically and internationally. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty has no momentum. Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conferences are fractious. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is in limbo. The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is as moribund as the Conference on Disarmament.

So, what to do? The answer for over 120 nations is to negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons – without the participation of states possessing them. The motivation here is to create a norm that applies to non-parties – even though all of our experience to date suggests that norms gain traction in reverse proportion to outliers. A Nuclear Ban Treaty without nuclear-weapon states becomes a parallel nonproliferation treaty, whose pursuit might be useful, divisive, or both. A treaty that focuses on banning use, rather than possession, would be a wiser step, because it would have fewer outliers. But backers of a Ban Treaty have bigger ambitions.

Divisions within the United States are growing on a parallel track. As the Left calls for unilateral cuts, the adoption of a No First Use posture, the elimination of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, the Right goes after what’s left of treaty constraints and doubles down on nuclear orthodoxy in the form of a trillion-dollar recapitalization of the U.S. Triad. It will take heroic efforts to harness these conflicting impulses into successful diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers.

As for the Nuclear Ban Treaty, U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood argued,

“We must continue to support an approach to reductions which builds upon decades of pragmatic steps to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. In our view, diverting focus from this proven course in favor of a nuclear weapons ban would be both polarizing and would forsake long-standing principles of credible nuclear disarmament, such as verifiability.”

I have sympathy with this sentiment, but the Nuclear Ban Treaty is a diversion only if there is nothing else going on worthy of attention and effort – as is now the case. I expect that the new U.S. administration will try to convince Vladimir Putin to accept deeper bilateral reductions under New START, but I also expect Putin to insist on conditions that, if seriously held, would make “getting to yes” somewhere between unlikely and impossible. I also expect a new diplomatic push on North Korea, but few countries will have skin in this game. As long as Washington does not open another diplomatic front – my preference, as noted earlier, is to pursue U.S. ratification and entry into force of the CTBT – the Nuclear Ban Treaty will be the only game in town for the have-nots.

A less defensive and more enlightened posture by the United States to a Nuclear Ban Treaty would be to say, Go ahead. We understand why. We cannot join this effort or sign the treaty until our concerns over national security, the security of our allies, and verification are met. But above all, do no harm. Do not seek a Nuclear Ban Treaty while acting in ways that weaken the NPT. Norms against the possession of nuclear weapons become more remote without stronger norms against nuclear proliferation and nuclear testing. If you are serious about norm-building, walk this talk at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, and NPT Review Conferences. Pay your dues. Build your monitoring stations. Strengthen safeguards. Join Protocols. And don’t act as spoilers.


  1. Jeffrey Erwin (History)

    The nations have sunk into a pit of their own making;
    they are caught by the feet in the snare they set themselves.
    YHWH has made Himself known; has given judgment;
    He has trapped the wicked in the work of their own hands. (Psalm 9:15-16)