The Softening Rhetoric by Nuclear-Armed States and NATO Allies on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Probably the most iconic moment during the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or “nuclear ban treaty”) was the gathering of a dozen allied ambassadors standing around U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the corridors of the U.N. building in New York, protesting against the ongoing negotiations. While nuclear-armed states and NATO allies remain opposed to the treaty, the tone is softening, and at least two NATO allies are breaking the consensus.

Nuclear-armed states have been living in a bubble. For decades, they have talked intensively to each other about their nuclear arsenals and doctrines. At regular times, they succeeded in negotiating arms control treaties (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). But is it possible that they have neglected the rest of the world? At the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences (which occur every five years), the non-nuclear-weapon states — by far the largest group of states in the world — regularly complained about the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament. These complaints intensified over the last 25 years. But either the nuclear-armed states and their allies did not want to hear these frustrations — a kind of denial — or they regarded these criticisms as collateral damage of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences, or both. Furthermore, the Humanitarian Initiative, which focused on the humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons and later on would lead to the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, was ridiculed by the nuclear-armed states: A former defense official of the United Kingdom asserted in a conference (under Chatham House rules), attended by one of the authors, that the Humanitarian Initiative would not get anywhere. At another conference (also under Chatham House rules), a former U.S. official talked about the 100-plus “unimportant” non-nuclear-weapon states that were behind the Humanitarian Initiative.

When the non-nuclear-weapon states succeeded in getting their act together and found a way to negotiate a multilateral treaty without yielding a veto to the nuclear-armed states and their allies, the latter were surprised. Instead of being present at the creation of the treaty, the nuclear-armed states and their allies (except the Netherlands) boycotted these multilateral negotiations in the framework of the United Nations. This only intensified the level of frustration and related commitment of the non-nuclear-weapon states. In a relatively short time, the text of the treaty was agreed upon. On July 7, 2017, 122 non-nuclear-armed states voted yes, one abstained (Singapore), and one voted against (the Netherlands).

The treaty forbids the possession, development, testing, stockpiling, transferring, stationing, the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. It is both a prohibition and disarmament treaty. Foremost, it could be interpreted as a signal by most of the non-nuclear-weapon states of their impatience about the lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament. The nuclear-weapon states made the commitment in the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Yet, 50 years after the treaty’s entry into force, we are still far from a world free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear arms control is in deep crisis. With the ban treaty, non-nuclear-weapon states call upon the nuclear-weapon states to fulfil at last their nuclear disarmament promises. Furthermore, the new treaty is meant to increase the pressure on the nuclear-armed states and their allies by strengthening the norm against nuclear weapons and making nuclear weapons illegal for the first time. This will result in stigmatization of the nuclear-armed states and their allies by the signatories of the treaty and global and local nongovernmental organizationss, which might end up in a renewed societal and political debate within the nuclear-armed states and their allies, and a corresponding policy change with respect to nuclear disarmament. That is at least what the parties to the treaty are hoping for. This is also what happened in the 1980s: The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 under pressure of the peace movement.

What was regarded as an immense victory by most of the non-nuclear-weapon states and many civil society organizations around the world, was, however, seen with contempt by the small club of nuclear “haves.” On the surface, the nuclear-armed states and their allies (and their arms control communities) minimized the potential impact of the treaty. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France declared in a joint press statement on the day of the conclusion of the treaty that “we do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons. … A purported ban … cannot result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon.” A similar statement was agreed upon by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in October 2018. In the same month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford stated that the initiative is “obviously a misguided and counterproductive one” and “a colossal mistake.” Later, he called the treaty “emptily divisive virtue-signaling.” The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review also labelled the effort “unrealistic.”

Behind the scenes though, nuclear-armed states actually seem to care about the treaty. In an unclassified letter of the United States to its NATO allies on Oct. 17, 2016, the United States warned that “the effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide ranging.” The United States also called on all allies and partners “to vote against negotiations on a nuclear weapons treaty ban, not to merely abstain. In addition, if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them.” Once the United States started to witness a growing number of ratifications of the treaty, it sent a letter to all state parties in October this year, urging them to withdraw their ratification. This clearly indicates that the United States (and the other nuclear-armed states hiding behind the United States) are uncomfortable with the idea of the treaty entering into force. Their nervousness can be explained by the fact that the non-nuclear weapon states no longer accept the classic argument of the nuclear weapon states that they need nuclear weapons to preserve their security.

The Softening Tone of Nuclear-Armed States and NATO Allies

The polarization between the non-nuclear- and nuclear-armed states came to a peak in the period after the end of the negotiations of the treaty. Advocates of the treaty expected this polarization. One of the main goals of the treaty was to signal frustration and unhappiness to the nuclear-armed states. The objective is to make nuclear weapons illegal and to stigmatize those who keep hanging on to those weapon systems. By definition, stigmatizing is conflictual.

Many observers within the nuclear-armed states plea for an end to this polarization. In the year after the conclusion of the treaty, different initiatives were taken by the nuclear-armed states and their allies: a bridge-building project set up at King’s College London; a nuclear responsibility project by BASIC (also in the United Kingdom); and the Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament initiative by the United States. Later on, it was renamed Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament, because non-nuclear-weapon states took offense to the notion that the nuclear-weapon states’ disarmament obligation is “conditional.”

The rhetoric of nuclear-armed states and NATO allies vis-à-vis the nuclear ban treaty seems to be changing, perhaps as a result of these initiatives. They first of all acknowledge the lack of nuclear disarmament and the resulting frustration on behalf of the non-nuclear weapon states. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously called the treaty negotiations “a useless exercise,” and spokespeople for the Canadian government called the conclusion of the treaty in July 2017 “premature.” As treaty ratifications increased, Canada has not repeated these kinds of statements. The Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs even stated on Oct. 30, 2020, “We acknowledge the widespread frustration with the pace of global efforts toward nuclear disarmament, which clearly motivated the negotiations of the TPNW [Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons].” Similarly, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg agreed in a speech given on Nov. 10, 2020, that “there are legitimate concerns about nuclear weapons and their proliferation.” He continued by saying that “today, we need to pursue nuclear arms control as a matter of urgency.” Stoltenberg even said that “at first sight [the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons] seems attractive” (after which he criticized it).

Secondly, nuclear-armed states and NATO allies are starting to show respect for the case of non-nuclear-armed states and even for the treaty. In a September 2017 interview, Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov accused the call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons in this period of time of being “not something serious” and even “irresponsible.” In November 2019, Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov described the intentions of the treaty advocates as “dangerous and delusionary.” At the U.N. General Assembly First Committee in October 2020, however, Russia literally stated, “We respect the views of the supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” Also, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian used fairly harsh language in August 2017, when he depicted the treaty as “a policy of incantations” that “verges on the irresponsible.” Since then, however, such offensive words have not been used again. Similarly, Stoltenberg did not repeat in 2020 that the treaty “is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture,” in contrast to the NATO declaration of September 2017.

One reason for this shift in tone is the fact that the treaty will enter into force on Jan. 22, 2021, since the treaty reached its 50th ratification on Oct. 24, 2020. The nuclear-armed states and the NATO allies must have realized that their previous strategies — neglecting or speaking with contempt — had not worked. In addition, entry into force is supposed to lead to more stigmatization and polarization. A softening of the tone by the nuclear-armed states vis-à-vis the non-nuclear-weapon states can help to de-polarize the situation, or that is at least what the nuclear-armed states seem to hope for.

But make no mistake. Content-wise, there is not the slightest change of position on behalf of the nuclear-armed states and (most of) their allies. Despite the change of tone, they still believe that the nuclear ban treaty will not work and that there is no alternative to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, after speaking approvingly of the treaty’s attractiveness, repeated in November 2020 that nuclear weapons “continue to play a vital role in preserving peace,” that “all NATO allies benefit from the security guarantees that they provide,” and “that the nuclear deterrent is our strongest deterrent.” In short, the overall negative attitude vis-à-vis the treaty has changed to a neutral-negative tone, but the basic premises remain the same.

The First Cracks in the NATO Wall

At an institutional level, NATO may present a united front about its status as a “nuclear alliance,” but cracks are becoming visible. NATO’s nuclear weapons policy has always been controversial. The multilateral force debate in the 1950s and 1960s and the Euromissiles controversy in the 1980s are just two historical examples. Different NATO member states also have so-called “footnoted policies” regarding the stationing of nuclear weapons on their territory. Spain, Denmark, and Norway will never station nuclear weapons on their territory in times of peace. Iceland and Lithuania have declared that they will not even accept those weapons in times of war.

A November 2020 survey found that 77 percent of the Belgian population is in favor of Belgium signing the treaty. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace admits that “in several NATO states, significant numbers of citizens and civil society organizations and their political representatives strongly support the TPNW [Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons].” With respect to the Humanitarian Initiative and the nuclear ban treaty, many NATO member states find themselves in a tight spot. If the allies support the ban, they call into question NATO’s nuclear policy, from which some believe that they have greatly benefited in the past, and if they oppose it, they weaken the pressure on nuclear states to eliminate their nuclear weapons, an obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a result, many NATO member states, for instance, abstained when they voted on the Humanitarian Initiative at the United Nations between 2012 and 2015.

The first real crack in the wall with respect to the treaty was the presence of the Netherlands at the 2017 treaty negotiations in New York, after having abstained on the October 2016 U.N. General Assembly resolution. Why did the Netherlands abstain and attend the negotiations, in both cases as the only NATO member state, despite the explicit demand by the United States not to do so? The Dutch government acted on the instructions of its parliament. Under pressure of the anti-nuclear civil society (and more specifically, the 40,000 signatures gathered by peace organization Pax, that were sufficient to reach the threshold needed in the Netherlands to require a parliamentary debate), the Dutch parliament held a four-hour debate in April 2016. A parliamentary majority agreed upon a resolution requiring the government at least to be present at the negotiations. The Netherlands was the only NATO member state who participated (and in the end the only state voting against the treaty).

More substantial change is on the way. In October 2018, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford could still say that “all NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] nuclear-weapons States consistently and openly oppose the ‘Ban,’ along with their military allies around the world.” That is not the case anymore, at least as it regards the allies. The Belgian government agreement of Sept. 30, 2020, which was a compromise among four political families (split up into seven political parties due to the state structure), contains the following sentence:

Belgium will play a proactive role in the 2021 NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] Review Conference and, together with its European NATO allies, it will examine how to strengthen the multilateral non-proliferation framework and how the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons can give new impetus to multilateral nuclear disarmament [emphasis added].

The Greens and the Socialists, under pressure from civil society, succeeded in convincing the Liberals and the Dutch-speaking Christian-democrats. This does not mean that Belgium is going to sign and ratify the treaty any time soon, but it is clearly a positive reference to the treaty, thereby going further than the neutral-negative stances by the other NATO member states.

Notice that the two NATO member states causing most trouble — the Netherlands and Belgium — are host nations of U.S. atomic bombs. The longer these tactical nuclear weapons stay on their territory, the more controversy they are likely to yield, especially after the entry into force of the treaty that forbids the stationing of nuclear weapons on other states’ territory. There is, by the way, an alternative to nuclear weapons that is much more credible: conventional deterrence.

If the Belgian position is echoed by other NATO allied states like the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, and/or Portugal — which will all hold national elections in 2021 — the cracks in NATO’s nuclear wall will widen. A Harvard study shows that NATO membership and supporting the treaty are not incompatible. Last September, 56 former prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs and defense from U.S. allies even recommended signing and ratifying the treaty. Once an allied state signs the treaty, one could expect others to quickly follow suit. Only then will nuclear-armed states will feel the pressure to get rid of their illegal weapon systems, either via the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons or via a still-to-be-negotiated Nuclear Weapons Convention that includes all nine nuclear-armed states.

Tom Sauer is associate professor in international politics at the Universiteit Antwerpen (Belgium) and former Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Fellow at Harvard University. He is co-editor of Non-Nuclear Peace: Beyond the Nuclear Ban Treaty (Palgrave, 2020) and Nuclear Terrorism (Routledge, 2017). Sauer is also an active member of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and Rotary Alumni Global Service Award Winner 2019.

Claire Nardon is E.U. Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium Intern at the Research Group International Politics at the Universiteit Antwerpen (Belgium).

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article characterized projects aimed at reducing polarization among nuclear and non-nuclear states as being “aimed at lowering expectations of the non-nuclear weapons states about drastic disarmament steps in the short or medium term.” Based on objections from the leadership of one of these projects, that statement has been removed.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Keith Reed)

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Tom Sauer Claire Nardon