Michael KreponAfter the Prohibition Treaty

Quote of the week:

“Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”
—Don DeLillo, The Underworld

The negotiation by non-nuclear-weapon states of a treaty banning nuclear weapons was followed by the usual refrain, “Now comes the hard part.” Every nuclear arms treaty until this one has reflected no more than what domestic and international politics would allow. Harder problems would be tackled later. The racket you hear is these cans being kicked down the road.

The Nuclear Prohibition Treaty adds a new twist to this dynamic: It aims extraordinarily high and hands the “to do” list over to unwilling nuclear-armed states to implement, with no pretense of responsibility to help with problem-solving. Many more cans have now been kicked down the road. Strengthening measures for the Nonproliferation Treaty have fallen on the “have nots.” The Nuclear Prohibition Treaty turns these tables by detailing obligations on nuclear-armed states, filling in the blanks of the NPT’s obligation to seek general and complete disarmament with the following list of “shall nots”:

(a) Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;
(b) Transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly or indirectly;
(c) Receive the transfer of or control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices directly or indirectly;
(d) Use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;
(e) Assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;
(f) Seek or receive any assistance, in any way, from anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;
(g) Allow any stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in its territory or at any place under its jurisdiction or control.

Is it preposterous for the nuclear “have-nots” to dictate terms to nuclear-armed states? Yes. Does this treaty disregard geopolitics and the sorry state of relations between nuclear-armed states? Yes. Is it still useful? Yes. To a point. The utility of this exercise will now depend, in large measure, on the tactics that the “have-nots” subsequently pursue.

The Trump Administration will presumably take the lead in rubbishing the Prohibition Treaty, as the United States, with extended deterrence relations in Europe and the Pacific, has the most to lose if this movement gains traction. Keep an eye on The Netherlands as the canary in this coal mine.

For most of the world, the complaints of nuclear-armed states will fall on deaf ears. By signing up to the NPT, the “haves” also signed up to take earnest efforts to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons. At present, not one nuclear-armed state is doing this.

For every non-action in reducing nuclear dangers and weapons, there is a counter-reaction. The Prohibition Treaty reflects yearning on a large scale—a product of its time. Progress on U.S.-Russia strategic arms reductions is now on hold. India and Pakistan have not negotiated a nuclear risk-reduction measure for the past ten years. Beijing doesn’t deign to negotiate nuclear risk-reduction measures with India, while keeping Washington at arm’s length. China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are increasing, not decreasing, their nuclear stockpiles. We don’t know what Israel is up to. Six nuclear-armed states, including the United States, are holding up entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty have been on hold for two decades. Nuclear-armed states are spending large sums to modernize their forces. Dangerous military practices are on the rise in Eastern Europe, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the South China Sea. Who are the nuclear-armed states to claim that those negotiating the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty are acting irresponsibly?

Backers of the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty face their own challenges. Will the NPT take the brunt of their displeasure? If so, this exercise will be self-defeating. And how do the movers and shakers of the Prohibition Treaty avoid reprising the embarrassing roles of those who negotiated the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, setting high-minded principles that crashed and burned with spectacular effect?

The Kellogg-Briand Pact also reflected yearning on a grand scale. It was an otherworldly exercise by the leaders of Europe, the United States, and Japan to avoid repeating the massive carnage of World War I. Here are its two operative paragraphs:

The High Contracting Parties solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.

The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.

Geopolitics, vengeance, and voracious imperial hunger quickly made this compact moot. So, how will the champions of the Prohibition Treaty avoid becoming modern day equivalents of U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand?

The goal of nuclear abolition will only gain ground if two other norms survive through the 100th anniversary of the use of atomic weapons to end World War II. I am borrowing here from the Big Idea of Lew Dunn, my friend, colleague, and fellow seeker of refuge in the Blue Ridge. Lew’s vision is not that of nuclear abolition, but of its functional equivalent: a world in which nuclear weapons have been “eliminated strategically as means of statecraft.” Nuclear weapons can be eliminated as instruments of statecraft when they have no perceived military or political utility.

To reach this extraordinary outcome by the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many small and some large steps will be required along the way. There will be victories and setbacks, but the only disabling setbacks are the use of nuclear weapons as instruments of war and the resumption of testing nuclear devices, with the temporary exception of the world’s last Stalinist regime, North Korea. One of these norms is now seven decades old, and counting. The other is now two decades old, and counting. If those of us who are not in thrall to nuclear weapons do everything in our power to extend these norms for three more decades, we can effectively eliminate nuclear weapons as instruments of statecraft.

This is where the backers of the Prohibition Treaty can have greatest practical effect. Every day without a mushroom cloud, and every day in which nuclear-armed states do not test their weapons, is a good day. It’s one day closer to 2045. It’s one day closer to meaningful success. Weapons that aren’t used on battlefields and weapons that aren’t tested with explosive yield are not useful weapons for anything but deterrence against worst cases. More specifically, weapons that aren’t used on battlefields and weapons that aren’t tested are not useful weapons for compellence or leverage. Commensurate drawdowns of nuclear arsenals will eventually trail this recognition. Nuclear-armed states will continue spending excessive sums for presumed, but non-existing utility, until they figure out what the “have-nots” already know. As long as the norm of non-battlefield use holds, the victims of these expenditures, and the environmental degradation that accompanies them, will be possessors, not abstainers.

My gratitude goes out to the hard-working souls now engaged in the effort to turn swords into ploughshares. I am thankful to consider myself one of their number. The deck is stacked against us, but this has no bearing on our commitment. Our longing won’t quit. Defeats are temporary if we can succeed in a long game against battlefield use and nuclear testing. There are no short cuts in a long game. We won’t succeed by disregarding geopolitics and the frayed state of relations between nuclear-armed states. Even so, we can still win. Even though we are in the midst of a great unravelling of the extraordinary accomplishments of earlier generations, we can still win by protecting and extending the two norms that matter most. Reinforcing the norm of non-battlefield use points in the direction of returning as many times as necessary to the International Court of Justice. Reinforcing the norm against testing points to planning ahead for ways to shore up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    It is, of course, extremely important to avoid battlefield use of nuclear weapons and new nuclear arms races. However, 30 more years of non-use will not, by itself, settle the issue of “perceived military or political utility” of nuclear weapons. Those who support nuclear weapons generally argue that they deter major conventional war. (Now “70 years of peace!” vs. 30 years from now, “100 years of peace!”)

    A major conventional war between nuclear-armed nations is bound to happen someday, either through inadvertent escalation of minor war, or through deliberate testing of red lines. At that point, nuclear deterrence of major conventional war will have failed. Then the only question left is whether nuclear deterrence fails “safe” (no nuclear war) or fails “deadly” (nuclear war).

  2. antoniachayes (History)

    Engaging in negotiations by NWS to prohibit the unse of nuclear weapons may seem a fruitless exercise, but it is part of the undertakings of the NPT. Creatiing and cemenitng a norm of non-use is aided thereby, although the process is agonizingly slow. More important would be to finalizing and ratify a total test ban treaty, and that is where major efforts should be made. Toni Chayes