Michael KreponBombs, Bans, and Norms

Early drafts of the Nuclear Ban Treaty green-lighted by the UN First Committee seek to prohibit the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, threat of use and use of nuclear weapons. This would be the most ambitious treaty negotiated since the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war. The Kellogg-Briand Pact didn’t work out so well; it became a dead letter within three years, when Japan invaded Manchuria.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact failed to prevent war because rising powers were not interested in maintaining the status quo. The Nuclear Ban Treaty seeks to negate the most powerful weapons on Earth – without the approval of states bearing these arms. To avoid the fate of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Nuclear Ban Treaty requires not only worthwhile ends, but also persuasive means to bring nuclear-armed states into the fold – or at least to positively influence their behavior.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact did not check the ambitions of the heavy hitters. How, then, would a Nuclear Ban Treaty alter the behavior of nuclear-armed states? Proponents advance three main reasons for proceeding, despite the odds. First, they argue, it is not just the right thing to do, but also a moral imperative at a time when nuclear dangers are rising. Second, negotiating this treaty will pressure nuclear-armed states to do more — and more quickly – to move in the direction of disarmament. Third, the treaty will strengthen essential norms.

These arguments focus on ends, not means. What inducements and penalties would backers suggest to give this treaty traction with outliers – other than to hold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hostage? If none of the Ban Treaty’s ambitious objectives are met, then after the initial negotiating high wears off, there will be a lengthy hangover of disappointment and division, which could pit the Ban Treaty against the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to the detriment of both. Clarity of means as well as ends is needed to meet the dictum of “doing no harm.”

Moral imperatives matter greatly, but they usually take a backseat in international relations to the exercise of raw power. As for setting norms, buy-in by at least some nuclear-armed states is crucial, because the fewer the outliers, the more a norm is likely to take hold – and to be respected by outliers. If all states that possess nuclear weapons are unified in not joining a Nuclear Ban Treaty, norm-setting won’t happen.

The hard reality is that there are no shortcuts to norm-building; norms are usually strengthened in stages, not all at one go. Norms relating to the most deadly weapons take a frustratingly long time to take hold. The norm of not possessing or using chemical weapons came in two stages – with seven decades in between. It took over three decades for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to be negotiated after the Limited Test Ban Treaty – and two decades later, it still awaits entry into force.

Because the timeline of nuclear disarmament seems so distant or improbable, I understand the impulse to shoot for the Moon. But the Moon landing also required a staged approach, where crucial challenges were systematically surmounted. Shooting for the Moon is not conducive to norm-building. A well-crafted, staged approach can be conducive to norm-building – but it doesn’t necessarily make the voyage any shorter.

Let’s return to the example of banning morally repugnant, inhumane chemical weapons. The Geneva Protocol was negotiated in 1925, banning the use of chemical and “asphyxiating” weapons. A number of states that signed up to the Geneva Protocol did so conditionally, reserving the right to retaliate in kind. In effect, the first stage of this seven decades-long process constituted a conditional ban on first use. To those who argued at the time, or to those who would argue in retrospect, that a conditional ban on use was a woefully insufficient response to the mass carnage from chemical weapons’ use in World War I, there is a simple rejoinder: The Geneva Protocol’s conditional ban on use held up during World War II. Existing stockpiles and retaliatory capabilities reinforced a nascent norm against first use.

U.S. ratification of the Geneva Protocol took all of five decades. Then, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was negotiated seven long decades after the Geneva Protocol. This second stage was all-encompassing: the CWC banned the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer and use of chemical weapons. The process of banning chemical weapons took far too long, reflecting the barriers thrown up by domestic politics in the United States (the balkiness of the Senate) and the hard realities of international power politics. But persistence paid off: we are now living in a world in which the use of chemical weapons by any leader effectively makes the user a war criminal.

It’s true that the strictures of the CWC are not universally respected. A few states are presumed to possess stockpiles they have not declared and are not in the process of eliminating, as required by the CWC. One dictator in one state continues to use chemical weapons against his own population. Similarly, there is only one outlier to the norm of not testing nuclear weapons. Single outliers do not make these norms a failure; instead, they attest to how extensively they have gained ground over many decades.

My takeaway from this case study is that the keys to success – and to prevent horrific backsliding – in the Arms Control Enterprise are norms relating to battlefield use and testing. Given the size of existing nuclear stockpiles, verifiable norms governing behavior are essential. During a period of unraveling of treaty commitments, behavioral norms gain even greater importance.

The longer the period without battlefield use of nuclear weapons, the more this norm gains ground, and the harder it becomes for national leaders to authorize crossing the nuclear threshold. The absence of battlefield use for over six decades has been reinforced by the absence of nuclear testing by major and regional powers for almost two decades. Weapons that have utility are tested regularly; the absence of testing reflects diminished military utility. Granted, nuclear weapons remain immensely powerful even without testing, but the absence of testing reinforces the recognition that these weapons are a class apart: Weapons that are too powerful and pregnant with malignant meaning even to be tested are not to be used on battlefields.

It will take one or two more decades of proper adherence to the twin norms against testing and battlefield use to further isolate those who cling stubbornly to concepts of military utility. The greater the recognition that nuclear weapons have no military utility, the easier it becomes to greatly reduce force structure.

This is a long game, but we’re getting there, one day at a time. We could also fall into the abyss tomorrow, perhaps by accident, unauthorized use, or by desperate choice. Whatever the reason, the avoidance of a humanitarian disaster is riding on the norms against battlefield use and nuclear testing, not on the negotiation of an ambitious Nuclear Ban Treaty that nuclear-armed states decline to join.


  1. Marcus (History)

    The Japanese used chemical and biological weapons in China in WW2. The Germans used asphyxiation trucks and zyklon B. There was chemical warfare in WW2, on the battlefield, and in the camps.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    The Godwin’s Law of arms control states that every discussion of a new arms control proposal, particularly a weapons ban, will become increasingly heated until sooner or later someone mentions the Kellogg-Briand pact. Must that happen so quickly?

    It is clear that you do not understand the logic of the nuclear ban. It seeks to advance the goal of nuclear abolition “without the approval” of nuclear-armed states, but nobody expects abolition to be achieved other than by finally obtaining their agreement and cooperation.

    The ban is a step that the non-nuclear armed states, who are imperiled by the continuing irresponsibility of “states bearing these arms,” can take to lay a foundation for abolition – a determination that nuclear weapons are illegal. Beyond that, the law-abiding states can unite in shaming and pressing the nuclear outlaws to build on that foundation by negotiating, among themselves, how to achieve actual abolition, and once they’ve achieved it, join the global ban.

    Which supporters of the nuclear ban do you accuse of planning “to hold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hostage”? How would the ban treaty be pitted against the NPT? A “hangover of disappointment and division”? You make it sound like a family squabble the morning after some Bacchanal.

    The ban will only strengthen the commitment of the non-nuclear weapons states to remaining non-nuclear, in accord with the NPT. It does challenge the assumption that the NPT legalizes nuclear weapons possession by the P5 states. But supporters of the ban will not accept any language implying that the NPT itself is nullified or that the failure of the P5 to fulfill their commitments under the NPT would ever justify others acquiring nuclear weapons.

    As an alternative, you suggest waiting “one or two more decades” for “norms against testing and battlefield use to further isolate those who cling stubbornly to concepts of military utility.” Where is the evidence of progress on this? Do you see it in Russia, Pakistan, North Korea? Or even the United States, which seems to have once again rejected No First Use? Do you see it in the new round of nuclear modernization, do you see it in the reheating of the strategic arms race in space, hypersonic and autonomous weapons?

    I can’t agree that time is on our side. Does the absence of nuclear war strengthen a norm, or does it lead to amnesia about what must be avoided, as destabilizing technology and simmering conflict undermine stability and take us back to the brink again and again?

    The nuclear ban is clearly the most important new initiative in arms control in decades. It is not a panacea, it is not the end of the problem or the struggle. It is not magic. But it deserves your support.

  3. Wildfire_ (@Wildfire_v) (History)

    May I suggest that before engaging in an elaborate critique of some multilateral disarmament endeavor, you take the trouble to find out what it is? Your post demonstrates almost total ignorance of the aims and mechanism of the ban treaty. It is certainly possible to criticize the ban treaty and question its effectiveness as a contribution to nuclear disarmament, but to do so with any credibility you need to have some idea of what it involves. As it is, to anyone who knows anything about the ban treaty and its origins, your post comes across as an entry in the Onion’s “Ask A High-School Student Who Didn’t Do The Required Reading” series.

    Why don’t you spend some time finding out what it is that proponents of the ban treaty actually aim to achieve, and then try again? You may end up being equally critical, but at least people will be able to read it without guffawing.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      OK. I’ve read supporters and listed the three objectives/rationales they offer. What are your rationales, and what have I missed or misinterpreted?
      What have you got other than ad hominem attacks?

    • Wildfire_ (@Wildfire_v) (History)

      Thanks for replying. First, it’s not an ad hominem attack – it’s an attack against what I think is a woefully misinformed article. I’ve nothing against you, and everything else of yours I’ve read has been perfectly reasonable. Which just makes this one stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

      Mark Gubrud and Vidya Shankar Aiyar have each addressed many of the shortcomings. But I’m curious: when you say you have “read supporters”, what exactly did you read? I ask, because supporters have been at pains to point out that the ban treaty is not some magic wand, quick fix, or “shooting for the moon” (as you put it). This is the fundamental misapprehension that spoils your post. (It doesn’t help that it is also an argument disingenuously deployed by ban opponents, notably the US government.) Proponents argue that the ban is just one tool, to be applied alongside a range of others (including the usual step-by-step stuff: FMCT, CTBT EIF, de-alerting, NSAs, etc, etc), with effects to accumulate over time – maybe a very long time. You can argue about whether the ban will ultimately add anything, but it is simply wrong to characterize it as a replacement, a short-cut, or an attempt to create an instant norm.

      This unexamined (and possibly unconscious?) assumption of the ban treaty as a competing alternative to other approaches pervades your post. Look at the last few paragraphs, dealing with the norms against battlefield use and testing. There is nothing in these that are incompatible with the ban treaty. The respective norms can – and should be – pursued simultaneously. They are mutually reinforcing.

      Another big problem with your post is that you have dismissed the ban objectives as ends rather than means, without bothering to examine the mechanism by which proponents expect the ban to work (and it is already working, by the way). I could point you to various sources for this, but why not start with the US government, which in private at least has a very clear-eyed understanding of the practical effects of a ban treaty: http://www.icanw.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/NATO_OCT2016.pdf . Governments of umbrella states are equally under no illusions about the true potential of the ban, whatever pretexts they may spout in public.

      And this should really be the starting point for analysis of the ban treaty: if it won’t work, why are nuclear-armed states and their allies in such a lather about it? I doubt anyone was so troubled by the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

  4. Vidya Shankar Aiyar (History)

    Dear Michael, I hold you in high esteem. So, this is being said with a lot of respect. Your piece reveals your ignorance on the subject of L41, which is the relevant First Committee resolution you discuss. There ARE no ‘early drafts’ otherwise. Did you read it? Operative part Para 8:
    ‘Decides to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination;’

    There is no mention of ANY of the things you list st the top of your piece, either in this operative Para 8 or ANYWHERE in L41.

    Why? What is being called the ‘ban treaty’ has just one simple aim. Prohibit nuclear weapons! Meaning, declare their existence to be illegal. This will stigmatise them. This stigma is necessary to EVENTUALLY do all the things you list at the top of your piece, ‘LEADING towards their total elimination.’ (Para 8)

    Para 8 does NOT say: legally binding instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. There is a reason for that.

    As you eloquently argue on the CWC, and indeed it is true for every other ban in the world, the law comes first, the practice of various constraints n elimination come later. But the prohibition comes first! Stigmatise nuclear weapons first to enable their progressive delegitimisation n eventual verifiable elimination.

    The aim of L41 is STIGMATISE NUKES! That’s all. There are no existing laws that prohibit nuclear weapons. Even the NPT does not. This is the main reason why there is no progress on Articke VI. But I won’t go into all that here.

    I don’t know what you read, but I was the SOLE Indian representative at the historic Geneva, OEWG in May. I heard the most fantastic arguments supporting this call of L41. It is BOLD n BRILLIANT, not because it calls to prohibit nukes, but because it encapsulates a powerful idea: that Non Nuclear Weapon States can lead this ‘ban’, ie simple prohibition of nukes, EVEN without the participation of Nuclear Wwapon States at this stage, in a process that is open to all, inclusive, but blockable by none! Let this sink in.

    I too spoke strongly in favour of prohibiting nukes first at the OEWG, because it is what ENABLES all other steps (also called progressive approach, which you advocate) on nuclear disarmament, n makes them real. How can a strengthening of Articke VI be accused of destroying the NPT? The outliers are not a problem here. 2 Abstained on L41: India n Pakistan. 1 voted YES: DPRK! Iran voted YES, China Abstained. NATO Netherlands Abstained! The vision is something far better than the existing NPT. I don’t to say more on this here.

    You belong to another generation Michael. The current generation is very different. Here’s the best piece I can pick, written by one of them, for you to read. Please have the patience to read it. It’s a German perspective, but it explains very well.


    The only criticism of the ‘ban treaty’ that I can think of is that it might not go beyond a prohibition. Highly unlikely though. But then, why not try it? What’s to lose? Since everything else has failed, a prohibition alone would at least strengthen the existing norms! N NNWS States are ready to do this either with the UN or without it.

    Dr Vidya Shankar Aiyar
    New Delhi, India

  5. Rabia (History)

    Kellogg-Briand Pact did little to prevent World War II or any of the conflicts that followed. Its legacy remains as a statement of the idealism expressed by advocates for peace in the interwar period.