CANBERRA – We begin 2018 with a surreal contest between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as to whose nuclear button is bigger. Against North Korea’s anxiety-inducing rapid nuclear advances, the biggest positive story line of 2017 was a new United Nations nuclear ban treaty adopted on July 7 and opened for signature on Sept. 20.
It strengthens the norms of nonproliferation and those against nuclear testing, reaffirms the disarmament norm, rejects the nuclear deterrence norm and articulates a new universal norm against possession. Once in force, it will become part of the legal architecture for disarmament and all countries must adjust to this new institutional reality. It will reshape how the world community thinks about and acts in relation to nuclear weapons and those who possess the bomb.
For Australia, Japan and other allies of the United States, nuclear disarmament is of lower priority than indefinitely bolstering and sustaining the legitimacy and credibility of nuclear deterrence. Their instinct is to support incremental, verifiable and enforceable agreements and commitments, but there is no detailed framework for actual elimination, verification and enforcement in the ban treaty. Consequently, they insist, the treaty will neither promote global nuclear disarmament nor strengthen national security.
It is, nonetheless, a good-faith effort by 122 countries to act on their responsibility under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to take effective measures on nuclear disarmament at an early date. To critics of nuclear deterrence, the nuclear powers are not so much possessor as possessed countries. Within the security paradigm, nuclear weapons are national assets for the possessor countries individually. In the ban treaty’s humanitarian reframing, they are a collective international hazard.
The step-by-step approach adopts a transactional strategy to move incrementally without disturbing the existing security order. The ban treaty’s transformative approach transcends the limitations imposed by national and international security arguments. The known humanitarian consequences of any future use makes the very possibility of nuclear war unacceptable. Dispossession of nuclear weapons now would remove that future possibility.
The ban treaty is a circuit breaker in the search for a dependable, rules-based security order outside the limits of what the nuclear-armed countries are prepared to accept. The nuclear powers have instrumentalized the NPT to legitimize their own indefinite possession of nuclear weapons while enforcing nonproliferation on anyone else pushing to join their exclusive club. For them, the problem is who has the bomb. But for anti-nuclear advocates, increasingly the bomb itself is the problem.
The ban treaty has created a new political reality that will require managing domestic demands and expectations, and national security calculations. As long as nuclear weapons are integral to its mission, NATO membership cannot be compatible with the core obligations of the ban treaty. Hitherto, nuclear deterrence has been privileged absolutely over calls for disarmament. But significant domestic constituencies in several alliance members will continue to demand signature of the ban treaty and the only credible route to defusing their demands will be to demonstrate continued concrete progress on nuclear disarmament.
The lead role in civil society was played by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive and hence uniquely threatening to all our security. ICAN was established in the belief that there is a compelling need to challenge and overcome the reigning complacency toward nuclear risks and dangers, to sensitize policy communities to the urgency and gravity of the nuclear threats and the availability of non-nuclear alternatives as anchors of national and international security orders.
ICAN, launched in Melbourne in April 2007, was modeled on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which had won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its lead role in mobilizing civil society and like-minded governments. The transformation of anti-nuclear movements into coalitions of change requires a similar shift from street protest to engagement with politics and policy. That is exactly what ICAN did as a global coalition of over 450 organizations in more than 100 countries. It won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its decadelong “ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition” of nuclear weapons by drawing “attention to the catastrophic consequences of any use” of these weapons.
The Nobel will help to raise the global profile of ICAN, the ban treaty and the cause of nuclear disarmament. Henceforth the ICAN-led effort is likely to focus on four immediate, medium and long-term priorities: The first is to increase the number of signatories to the full 122 states that adopted the treaty in the historic vote last July at the U.N. The second urgent goal will be to lobby at least 50 signatory states to ratify the treaty. While this will be sufficient to bring the treaty legally into force, the key psychological threshold for generating normative impact will be 100 ratifications, so that should be the third task.
A fourth priority should be to wean some of the NATO and Pacific allies from their dependence on extended nuclear deterrence into signing the ban treaty. There are three groups of states on which ICAN should concentrate its efforts. The first is the usual cohort of like-minded internationally progressive states, such as Canada and Norway, that have historically acted together on progressive causes, especially arms control. International pressure will be less efficacious than identifying and accessing points of pressure within the domestic politics of each country: mobilize the citizens, identify the political parties and candidates most receptive to the prohibition message, then support their campaigns. The next will be allies who have traditionally formed the anti-nuclear front within NATO as a nuclear alliance, for example Germany and Canada.
The third category is the singular example of Japan as the only country to have been the victim of nuclear weapons with a solid anti-nuclear public constituency as a result. The government’s policy of opposition to the ban treaty is more sharply out of alignment with public opinion in Japan than in any other country. Given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s seemingly unassailable dominance in Japan’s political landscape, this gives opposition politicians and parties one major point of differentiation with the ruling party that will be popular with the citizens.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy.