By Kjølv Egeland
“The ban treaty is thus simultaneously more radical and less dramatic than many seem to suppose. On the one hand, the ban treaty signals a revolutionary kick in the teeth to the hierarchical world order the leaders of the nuclear-armed states take for granted. The ban treaty will make it much more difficult for such leaders to claim that they have a recognised “right” to possess nuclear weapons.”
First we take Manhattan, then we take DC
The question of “what happens after the ban?” keeps popping up. Specifically, critics have alluded that those promoting the idea of banning nuclear weapons without the nuclear-armed states on board have failed to give a convincing account of how the process from prohibition to elimination might unfold. For example, one of the contributors to a recent publication by SIPRI, SOAS and Scrap remarks that “[a] ban that does not address the question ‘and what next?’ in practical and realistic terms is not credible.” In what follows I shall argue that questions like these rest on a profound misunderstanding of what a ban treaty is and what it will do. Contrary to what some of its detractors have argued, pursuing the adoption of a ban treaty is fully compatible with every other disarmament proposal currently on the agenda.
The ban treaty will codify its parties’ unequivocal rejection of nuclear violence. Many states will be both ready and eligible to sign and ratify such a treaty straight away. The nuclear-armed states, for obvious reasons, will not. They will need to make significant adjustments to their foreign policies and their military hardware before they can accede to a ban treaty. But unless the negotiators get it all wrong in New York, the ban treaty itself will not prejudge the way in which these adjustments are to be made. If the path by which the nuclear-armed states wish to make themselves eligible to accede to the ban treaty goes through the pursuit of confidence-building measures, a prohibition on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, ratification of the CTBT, writing a second glossary of nuclear terms, verifiable stockpile reductions, and – why not – a treaty on no-first-use, so be it. There is nothing stopping them from pursuing these intermediary steps along the way to ban treaty accession.
A chief purpose of the ban treaty is precisely to induce the nuclear-armed states to pursue these familiar steps – or a comprehensive convention, whatever – with greater urgency than they have so far. In contrast to the NPT – which is intentionally ambiguous when it comes to nuclear rights and obligations – the ban treaty will provide an unmistakeable goal line to which all states will be expected to hurry. The fact that some states will get there quicker than others and thereby put shame to the slugs is one of the reasons the ban treaty is a good idea. Expecting a majority of the world’s states to stand forever idly by and acquiesce the continued possession of nuclear weapons by a small group of states seems to me somewhat conceited.
The ban treaty is thus simultaneously more radical and less dramatic than many seem to suppose. On the one hand, the ban treaty signals a revolutionary kick in the teeth to the hierarchical world order the leaders of the nuclear-armed states take for granted. The ban treaty will make it much more difficult for such leaders to claim that they have a recognised “right” to possess nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the ban treaty approach is fully compatible with every other disarmament proposal currently on the table. The fact that a large group of non-nuclear-weapon states want to negotiate a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty does not mean that the nuclear-weapon states should stop pursuing “realistic” and “practical” steps towards ending their reliance on weapons of mass destruction. Why on earth would it?
I do not mean to imply that the path from prohibition to elimination will be easy. It will not. Extending the humanitarian spirit from the UN headquarters on Manhattan to government circles in Washington DC, Moscow, and other places where nuclear weapons are viewed as legitimate instruments of statecraft will be a major challenge. Negotiating the ban is the easy part.
The pursuit of the ban treaty has at any rate engendered a sense of empowerment and optimism in the disarmament community. The successful adoption of a ban will rightly be experienced as a triumph for advocates of disarmament. But a note of caution is due: this is not the first time proponents of disarmament have believed themselves to have made a major breakthrough. Two events in particular come to mind:
The first is the adoption of the final document of the First UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1978. Providing for a major restructuring of the UN “disarmament machinery” as well as a clarification of obligations and priorities in the field of disarmament, the adoption of the final document was seen as a ground-breaking victory for the disarmament crowd. The Nobel-decorated polymath Philip Noel-Baker called the document no less than “the greatest state paper of all time.” Yes, really.
The second “breakthrough” that comes to mind is the adoption of the “13 Steps” to nuclear disarmament at the NPT Review Conference in 2000, an event participants have described as “euphoric”. Committing the nuclear-weapons states “unequivocally” to the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals, the document represented the first time the NPT states parties managed to agree to a fully negotiated final document by consensus (the 1975 final document is a chair’s summary, not a negotiated agreement, and the 1985 final document explicitly notes that “certain states” (guess which!) disagreed with some of its provisions).
The 13 Steps and the final document of the Special Session both ended up as massive disappointments. Neither delivered the results advocates of disarmament had expected and hoped for. But more disturbing still was the fact that both events were followed by long periods of relative inaction by the non-nuclear-weapon states. As the champions of disarmament rested on their laurels, the 1980s and 2000s ended up as “lost decades” for multilateral nuclear disarmament.
There are at least two conclusions to draw from the let-downs of the 13 Steps and the Special Session: The first is that the ban treaty could hold false promise; it might prove less effective in inducing disarmament than some of its supporters believe. Obviously, this does not mean that it isn’t worth a shot, only that one should manage one’s expectations. The second lesson is that the disarmament community must not take its foot of the pedal after the ban treaty’s adoption. Conquering Manhattan will be easy the easy part. Conquering DC rather more difficult.
The ban treaty changes everything and nothing.
Kjølv Egeland is a doctoral candidate in international relations at the University of Oxford.