The Treaty to Prohibit and Ban Nuclear Weapons: Making the Road by Walking

During the last week of March, representatives of 130 of the world’s governments — all of them non-nuclear weapons states — gathered at the United Nations for unprecedented and successful negotiations for a nuclear weapons prohibition and ban treaty. With the nuclear powers standing out in the cold, the easy progress made by the majority of the world’s nations toward a treaty that would prohibit possession, development, testing and use of nuclear weapons was one more manifestation that the post-Cold War era is now history.

Note the symbolism. On the opening day of the negotiations, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley stood outside the General Assembly with 15 dour-faced diplomats to condemn the negotiations, while 130 went to work in the hall.

The Ban Treaty is the result of decades of peace movement advocacy and organizing and the anger of most of the world’s governments over the refusal of the nuclear weapons states to fulfill their 45-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation obligations to engage in good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals. As we look to the resumption of the negotiations in June that will conclude with the treaty early July and to how to we make the most of the openings the treaty will create, we need to bear in mind the contending international forces: those driving the 21st century nuclear arms race, and the insistent demands for a nuclear weapons-free world.

There is no denying that we face increasingly dangerous competition among the great and lesser nuclear powers, a dynamic with disturbing analogies to the years leading up to World War I. We have rising and declining powers — the so-called Thucydides Trap, arms races with new technologies, resurgent nationalism, territorial disputes, continuing resource competition, complex alliance arrangements, economic integration and competition, and wildcard actors from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un and ISIS. No one wanted war in August 1914, but miscalculations combined with forces put in place over decades led to that deadly cataclysm. Today, the Brookings Institution’s “Back from the Brink” report warns us that accidents and miscalculations growing out of provocative US, Russian, Chinese and Japanese military exercises could spark uncontrollable escalation that could climax in catastrophic nuclear war.

For those who are paying attention — as well as for those who are not — we are approaching what could become the 21st century equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis. North Korea, which already has the capacity to devastate South Korea, Japan and Guam, is developing the capacity to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. Donald Trump — who, months ago, had no idea what the nuclear triad is and who asked his briefers why we can’t use our nuclear weapons — has placed “all options are on the table” in the confrontation with Pyongyang. When a nuclear power says “all options are on the table,” that includes the possibility of a preemptive first-strike nuclear attack.

There are growing calls from powerful sectors of the South Korean and Japanese elites for their nations to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. With Britain leaving the European Union, there are calls for a “European bomb” and even a German bomb. And signals emanating from New Delhi tell us that India is considering jettisoning its no-first-use doctrine.

More hopeful are the vast majority of the world’s nations which, along with non-governmental figures, participated in the Humanitarian Consequences conferences held in Norway, Mexico and Austria, and which built on them with the UN Open-Ended Working Group, the UN General Assembly mandate to begin the unprecedented ban negotiations, and the diplomacy that certainly lead to the promulgation of the prohibition and ban treaty text in early July.

Although the analogy is inexact, the drive to overcome the nuclear powers’ refusal to fulfill their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and international humanitarian law obligations to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear arsenals can be seen as a 21st century extension of the anti-colonialism struggles of the 20th century. The non-nuclear governments, mostly from the Global South, have had enough of the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over humanity’s head, and they will no longer tolerate the unjust and potentially omnicidal hierarchy of nuclear terrorism

The promulgation of the treaty will encourage nuclear abolitionists around the world, but it will only be a new beginning, not the end of the road. There should be no expectation that once the treaty is negotiated, signed and sealed it will quickly result in the nuclear powers opting to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders and the Ukraine crisis have led the world back to an approximation of their Cold War nuclear confrontation. The “Nuclear Nine” — countries which are spending unimaginable amounts to build new generations of nuclear weapons and their delivery system for the 21st century — will tell us that treaties that they haven’t signed or ratified don’t apply to them. Powerful forces will insist that deterrence — despite its many near-failures and the existence first-strike doctrines — is the foundation of international security. And the tensions that have festered between India and Pakistan for 70 years will not soon be evaporating.

To establish a new norm and political force that can influence the nuclear powers, nearly all the 113 governments that initially voted to conduct the negotiations will need to sign and ratify the treaty. Political forces in the nuclear umbrella states will need to press their governments to opt for the Ban and Prohibition Treaty instead of continuing collaborations with those who would end all life as we know it. The Dutch and Belgian parliaments have already voted in favor of ending nuclear cooperation with the US and NATO, and with Brexit, Scotland may abandon Britain, leaving the UK without a base for its nuclear-armed Trident submarines. Should these or other NATO member states or US Asian allies desert the nuclear alliances, there will be meaningful momentum toward a nuclear weapons-free future.

Which brings us back to the nub of the question: how to get nuclear powers to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

Fifty years ago, in his remarkable “Beyond Vietnam — Breaking the Silence” speech at the Riverside Church in New York, our courageous and prophetic national hero Martin Luther King Jr., who understood the toxic brew of the “triple evils of racism, militarism and extreme materialism” pointed to the imperative of a national revolution of values. He was clear that, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action.”

Working in collaboration with our international partners — non-nuclear governments and abolitionist movements — we need to revitalize our organizing and advocacy in ways that take us beyond the single-issue movement silos which cannot compete with the world’s most advanced military-industrial-legislative complexes. Creating the revolution of values that can overcome requires making common cause with climate change and environmental movements; with peace and antiwar forces — especially those working to roll back NATO’s expansion to create the foundations for common security negotiations between the US and Russia; with movements working in solidarity with vulnerable immigrants; with young people struggling for access to higher education and who see climate change as an immediate threat to their future; and with the poor, whose lives can be lived with dignity and security if we repurposed the national treasures now being squandered on preparations for nuclear annihilation.

Is this too much to hope for? As one unsung hero of our civil rights and other struggles put it, “We make the road by walking.”