The dream of a world without nuclear weapons animates millions of people across the planet. Critics deride them as hopelessly naive idealists with no appreciation of the realities of power and the way the world really works. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize last week to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a victory for the dreamers, a validation of the meaning and purpose behind the pursuit of the improbable — if not the impossible: the abolition of nuclear weapons.
ICAN was formed in 2007 on the proposal by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. The group built on its success by launching grass-roots anti-nuclear movements worldwide. Today, it has 468 partner organizations in 101 countries.
Since its establishment, ICAN has made a treaty banning nuclear weapons its top priority and began to press that agenda at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. The campaign has two purposes: first, and most obviously, to create the legal basis for making the possession and use of such weapons illegal. Second, ICAN seeks to shift the nuclear debate and allow non-nuclear weapon states — the overwhelming majority of countries — to drive the discussion.
Central to ICAN’s work has been a focus on the attention on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear use. After a December 2014 conference, the Austrian government, at ICAN’s prodding, issued a “Humanitarian Pledge” to work with all stakeholders “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” In less than a year, 127 other countries signed that declaration as well.
Those governments and advocacy groups then took their campaign to the United Nations, where they pressed the case for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. They succeeded in July, when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by a vote of 122-1. The treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, transfer, use, and threatened use of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, and will enter into force once it has been ratified by 50 states.
Nuclear weapon states dismiss the project as hopelessly naive. They argue that the world is anarchic and states will do whatever they can to protect themselves. The idea that a mere treaty can actually ban weapons of such force and that can by themselves change the balance of power between countries is quaint — and dangerous.
Echoing gun rights advocates in the United States, nuclear weapon states and their allies insist that “if nuclear weapons are outlawed, only outlaws will have nuclear weapons.” In the absence of an authority to enforce judicial decisions — last summer’s Arbitral Tribunal decision on the South China Sea is proof of the “power” of such pronouncements — states will disregard any law or treaty that they deem detrimental to their national interest. If that would either ensure their security or give them an advantage over neighbors, the inclination to proliferate would be hard to resist.
In addition, the United States, with alliance networks around the world, notes — and with good reason — that its nuclear umbrella has mitigated the impulse of its allies to acquire nuclear capabilities of their own. If nuclear weapon states indicated that they would honor a ban treaty, other countries may well be tempted — or threatened — to acquire their own nuclear weapons.
There is another, more troubling, objection to the ban treaty: that support for it is actually a way of undermining the NPT. The ban treaty gets its energy and momentum from the belief that the NPT has failed in one of its most important tasks: promoting disarmament among nuclear weapon states. That is not correct: The world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has diminished significantly, although that shrinkage has slowed as tensions between the U.S. and Russia intensify. Moreover, the NPT has been successful at halting the spread of such weapons. Some critics believe that discrediting the NPT’s disarmament platform provides a fig leaf for the disregard of its nonproliferation strictures. If that is correct, then the nuclear weapon states’ cynicism about a ban treaty could be quickly confirmed. (And speaking of cynicism: efforts that nuclear weapon states muster to minimize and defeat the ban treaty belie their claim that such documents are meaningless.)
Ban advocates are correct to insist that nuclear weapons constitute a humanitarian threat, and that any such use would be catastrophic. Their insistence, however, that nuclear weapons create insecurity is not as simple. Nuclear breakout does create insecurity, both for states attempting to change the status quo and their neighbors.
Therein lies the key. Radical shifts — in any direction — in the nuclear balance of power are destabilizing. But the world must be reminded that the long-term goal — and not merely the rhetorical retreat — is disarmament. ICAN, with its new Nobel Prize, does just that. This recognition is needed as world leaders exchange taunts and threats and the risk of nuclear war is, says Berit Reiss-Andersen, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, “greater than it has been for a long time.”
Correction: This story was updated on Oct. 12, 2017 to modify the date that the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War received the Nobel Peace Prize.