The Time Is Right to Reconsider Nuclear Weapons. Entirely.

Eric Gomez is right to call for a reconsideration of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy and foreign policy. There are a number of major shifts in international politics that raise questions about the status quo of U.S. nuclear policy. Gomez identifies three of these changes: changing U.S. threat perceptions, the erosion of traditional arms control agreements, and the rise of non-nuclear strategic technologies. But he did not mention the shift in international politics impacting U.S. nuclear policy that will be caused by the imminent entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. What is the role of nuclear weapons in a world that has banned them?

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted at the United Nations in 2017, will enter into force ninety days after the 50th country deposits its instrument of ratification, accession, acceptance or approval. As of today, 45 countries have already done so. Once the treaty enters into force, it will become legally binding for all states parties, and signatories will be obligated not to violate the treaty’s object and purpose.

The treaty’s entry into force will create new legal obligations for states parties that will have a ripple effect in the international political arena that could in turn impact non-party states.

All states parties are required under Article 5 of the treaty to enact national measures such as legislation to implement the treaty and prevent treaty violations by its people or on its territory. These measures could penalize, for example, a financial institution in a state party investing in a nuclear weapon producing company in a non-party state. States parties with individuals impacted and land contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing will provide assistance to victims and work towards the remediation of contaminated land. Other states parties in a position to do so will help, as stipulated by Articles 6 and 7. All states parties, under Article 12, will be obligated to urge non-party states to join the treaty.

States parties in military alliances with non-party states will need to ensure they are not assisting these states with any of the core Article 1 prohibited activities under the treaty: developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory.

But if past weapons prohibitions set a precedent, the impact of the entry into force of the TPNW on international politics surrounding nuclear weapons will not stop at states parties’ implementation of core prohibitions and obligations. The United States has joined neither the Cluster Munitions Convention banning cluster munitions nor the Mine Ban Treaty banning landmines but has nevertheless altered its policies and behaviors after these treaties entered into force. After the entry into force of the Cluster Munitions Convention, U.S. companies stopped producing cluster munitions, and U.S. financial institutions stopped investing in companies that continued to produce the prohibited weapon.[i] Years after the entry into force of the Mine Ban Treaty, in 2014, the United States changed its policies on landmine use. Although those policies were later changed under the Trump administration, over 100 members of Congress wrote a joint letter protesting the move to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Why would the United States change its behavior and policies on a prohibited weapon when it hadn’t joined the treaty? Academics point to the role of international prohibition treaties in advancing a norm against that weapon, one that impacts even states that reject the treaty.[ii]

This norm will advance when the treaty enters into force and officially joins the body of international law, including international humanitarian law, that governs weapons and warfare, standing alongside the two other treaties banning weapons of mass destruction: the Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention. It will continue to advance as states parties and civil society work toward universalization of the treaty.

The more than 1,000 elected representatives, including several U.S. representatives, who have pledged to work to get their government to join the treaty will open discussions within local and federal governments on the treaty’s entry into force. The treaty will be included in resolutions at the UN General Assembly and referenced within other relevant treaty meetings which non-party states, including the United States, take part.[iii] States parties to the TPNW, including allies of the United States, will be required under the treaty to urge non-party states to join.

The United States has actively opposed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons from before the start of its negotiations, just as it opposes the Mine Ban Treaty and Cluster Munitions Convention. It urged NATO allies to not support the negotiation of a nuclear prohibition treaty due in part to its potential impact on non-parties in a 2016 non-paper obtained by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

U.S. ardent opposition to the treaty shows that policymakers who support nuclear weapons understand the effect the treaty will have to diminish the role that U.S. nuclear weapons play in a world that increasingly finds them to be catastrophic and unacceptable means of warfare. It is a hard truth for those who make their living by preparing for the mass murder of civilians. But we must be realists. The United States, the eight other countries that possess nuclear weapons, and the couple dozen who include them in their security policies, cannot cling to their weapons of mass destruction forever.

The entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, both due to the implementation of legal obligations by states parties and the advancement of the norm against nuclear weapons, will impact U.S. nuclear policy in the years to come. The international community is creating a new normal for nuclear weapons—one which is supported by domestic populations even in the minority of countries that continue to rely on nuclear weapons.[iv] As the United States reconsiders its nuclear policy in the face of a shifting international political landscape, it cannot ignore the mounting pressure it will face from the international community—and its own constituents—to join the world’s majority and ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Notes


[i] Textron and Orbital ATK – two companies based in the United States stopped producing cluster munitions after the Cluster Munitions Convention entered into force. The U.S. based mutual fund Eventide Asset Management stopped investments. For details see: Worldwide Investment in Cluster Munitions, PAX, December 2018, https://www.paxforpeace.nl/publications/all-publications/worldwide-investment-in-cluster-munitions-2018.

[ii] Adam Bower, ‘Norms Without the Great Powers: International Law, Nested Social Structures, and the Ban on Antipersonnel Mines,’ International Studies Review, 17(3), September 2015, pp. 347–373.

[iii] See for example UN General Assembly resolution A/C.1/74/L.19 “Nuclear Disarmament,” available at: https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/1com/1com19/resolutions/L19.pdf and NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/CRP.4/Rev.1, the Recommendations for the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, available at: https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/prepcom19/documents/CRP4Rev1.pdf

[iv] 79% of Australians, 79% of Swedes, 78% of Norwegians, 75% of Japanese, 84% of Finns, 70% of Italians, 68% of Germans, 67% of French, 64% of Belgians and 64.7% of Americans support their governments joining the TPNW. Sources: “Polls: Public opinion in EU host states firmly opposes nuclear weapons,” ICAN, https://www.icanw.org/polls_public_opinion_in_eu_host_states_firmly_opposes_nuclear_weapons; “75 years after Hiroshima, here are 4 things to know about nuclear disarmament efforts,” August 6 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/06/75-years-after-hiroshima-bombing-here-are-4-things-know-about-nuclear-disarmament-efforts/; Ipsos Public Opinion Poll, “Support for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” 13 November 2018; Olof Palme International Center, “The Swedish people are in favor of a nuclear ban,” 12 June 2019, https://www.palmecenter.se/article/svenska-folket-ar-for-ett-karnvapenforbud/; “Survey: 8 out of 10 Labor voters support a nuclear ban,” Dagsavisen, 2 April 2019, https://www.dagsavisen.no/nyheter/innenriks/undersokelse-8-av-10-ap-velgere-stotter-atomvapenforbud-1.1459213; Rauhanlitto, “The vast majority of Finns are in favor of banning nuclear weapons,”’ 7 November 2019, https://rauhanliitto.fi/rauhanliitto/ajankohtaista/tiedotteet/laaja-enemmisto-suomalaisista-kannattaa-ydinaseiden-kieltamista; Le Mouvement de la Paix, “76% are for France’s commitment in the nuclear weapons elimination process,” 5 July 2018, https://www.mvtpaix.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/CP-05.07.2018-Sondage-TIAN_EN.pdf

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Beatrice Fihn