Michael KreponDisarmament Diplomacy and the Ban Treaty

Quote of the week:

“Our world will be a safer and healthier place when we can admit that every time we make an atomic bomb we corrupt the morals of a host of innocent neutrons below the age of consent.”
—W.H. Auden

The drafting of a Ban (or Prohibition) Treaty, which resumes in June, is the latest manifestation of a quest for complete abolition of nuclear weapons that is as old as the Bomb itself. This effort gained prominent adherents after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War who oversaw the Manhattan Project. Stimson resolved afterward that no one else should ever be in his position, contemplating which cities to be left on and taken off a targeting list for mushroom clouds.

Extraordinary talents like Robert Oppenheimer and David Lilienthal applied themselves to the task of putting the genie back in the bottle, which required international control over atomic energy in all its aspects, from soup to nuts. They discovered, as have all those who worked this problem subsequently, that disarmament efforts could not be divorced from geopolitics and the state of relations between major powers.

The higher the expectation for complete nuclear disarmament, the bigger the let down when progress comes haltingly. After his Prague speech, President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. This award was entirely premature—for expectation rather than accomplishment. His track record, when measured against his ambition, was exceedingly modest. Disarmament isn’t advanced when Vladimir Putin pushes back against the post-Cold War order, or when China reacts to the prospect of more national and theater missile defense deployments. Nor does progress toward disarmament happen without bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, which dissipated once the Cold War ended.

During the Obama administration, the Global Zero movement clarified its powerlessness by setting the date of 2030 for this desired end state – 22 years from its announcement.  The organizers of this initiative were in a bind: without a date, there would be no forcing function, as would be the case if the date were set too far off into the future. But any date near enough to have bite would immediately seem impractical. The lesson that norms aren’t strengthened when deadlines are missed or ignored seems to be taken on board by backers of the Ban Treaty—at least in its first draft.

Many who have worked tirelessly to maintain and strengthen the Nonproliferation Treaty have expressed deep reservations about a Ban Treaty. I take these reservations seriously, but believe they may be overdrawn. If the NPT becomes hollowed out, it will primarily be because strategic arms reduction remains stalled, the CTBT hasn’t entered into force, and the FMCT negotiations continue to be is stymied—not because of the Ban Treaty.

This does not absolve the Ban Treaty’s negotiators from adding to these woes by weakening the NPT by suggesting weaker standards than those currently in place in the NPT regime. Defenders of the NPT are performing a valuable service by pointing out weaknesses in the first draft of the Ban Treaty. There’s no need to play hardball, like perennial treaty opponents in the United States who habitually claim that the sky is falling.

Spoilers will continue to be active at NPT Review Conferences with or without a Ban Treaty. If drafters of the Ban Treaty truly mean what they say—that they do not intend to undermine the NPT—they will craft provisions so as not to give spoilers more ammunition. If successful, they can modestly strengthen the goal of abolition while strengthening the norm of non-proliferation.

As bystanders to this process, Trump Administration officials will lose more than they gain by bad-mouthing the Ban Movement. The more nuclear-armed states take aim against the Ban, the more blowback they invite at NPT RevCons. A far better approach, in my view, is to express understanding of the reasons behind the Ban Movement, to offer respectful concerns, to clarify the circumstances required for success, to recommit to further strategic-arms reductions, and to highlight warhead dismantlement numbers.

The push for getting to zero grows in proportion to the lack of progress by Washington and Moscow to further reduce strategic arms and the growth of arsenals elsewhere. When diplomacy is stalled, domestic and international dissension over nuclear weapons grow. Dissension will grow sharper if strategic modernization programs are accompanied by walking back the U.S. commitment to a world without nuclear weapons that dates to the Truman Administration.

Bad-mouthing the end state of abolition plus pursuing across-the-board strategic modernization programs plus stymied strategic arms reduction negotiations equals the hollowing out of the NPT—even if there are no new aspirants for the Bomb. The absence of a consensus document at RevCons can become the new normal—or the new baseline. What more can happen? Withdrawals? I don’t think so. But there is a possibility of walkouts.

If the Trump Administration wants to stir up even more of a hornet’s nest, there’s no better way than by asserting it will no longer be bound by the object and purpose of the CTBT, if it nickels and dimes funding for the CTBTO and its international monitoring system, and especially if it pursues seemingly new warhead designs.

How to proceed? In my view, the Trump Administration would be wise to reaffirm the goal of abolition, at least sotto voce, with the necessary caveats. Take up Vladimir Putin’s offer of extending New START, and reaffirm the Obama Administration’s willingness to lower New START numbers. Withhold biting critiques of the Ban Movement. Recommit to the object and purpose of the CTBT, and don’t short-change it. Steer clear of warhead designs that smack of fine-tuning nuclear war-fighting capabilities.

If the Trump Administration wants to do something historic to reduce nuclear dangers, upset apple carts and shred caricatures of a thin-skinned President with his hand on the nuclear “button,” it could “pull a Reagan”: Just as Reagan unexpectedly dismissed nuclear theology and signed the INF Treaty, Trump, too, could assert that a nuclear war must not be fought and cannot be won. And to underline his commitment, Trump could call on the Senate to provide its advice and consent to the CTBT.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “If the NPT becomes hollowed out, it will primarily be because strategic arms reduction remains stalled, the CTBT hasn’t entered into force, and the FMCT negotiations continue to be is stymied.” Currently, the NPT requires only that nations negotiate in good faith for disarmament. This is a vague requirement that imposes no particular method or means for actually reducing or eliminating nuclear and other arms.

    The draft ban treaty does not speed up this negotiation process. It simply requires all signers, if nuclear armed, to eliminate all possession of nuclear weapons within a short period of time. Nuclear armed nations can’t join this treaty unless they are prepared for unilateral nuclear disarmament right away; or in the distant future, have finally negotiated with all other nuclear armed nations the final path to global zero.

    Somewhere between these two extremes a method or means of speeding up the process of negotiations for mutual arms reductions needs to be put in place. That way, nuclear-armed nations can join the ban treaty now, subject to some arms controls now, while delaying full elimination of nuclear weapons until the future date when universal elimination of nuclear weapons has become possible.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Some more specific comments on details of the draft ban treaty. Article 4 discusses measures to verify the elimination of nuclear weapons by states that have already eliminated those weapons. Article 5 discusses “Measures for situations not covered by Article 4.” including “measures relating to nuclear disarmament.” It does not state whether a nation can join the convention, but keep its nuclear arms (or participate in a “nuclear umbrella”), until such time as there has been a negotiated treaty to achieve universal nuclear disarmament. This should be clarified (preferably with a “yes” answer, with appropriate modification to Article 17).

    Article 9 provides for meetings of States parties, but does not provide for any executive committee or supporting staff between meetings (including diplomats, physicists, etc.), who might further the disarmament objectives of Article 5 and the universality objective of Article 13.

    Article 11 has a reasonable process (2/3 vote) for proposing amendments, but an unreasonable process (unanimous consent) for ratifying amendments. Both processes should be by 2/3 vote, lest we repeat the infirmities of CTBT ratification, the non-negotiation of fissile material cut-off, or sensible amendments to the NPT.

    Article 18 allows for withdrawal after only 3 months notice. This should be lengthened to 5 or 10 years notice. Article 19 should be clarified to forbid withdrawal from the NPT, unless the member is simultaneously withdrawing from the ban treaty.

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