The Nuclear Ban Treaty: How Did We Get Here, What Does it Mean for the United States?

July 14, 2017

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Last week, Germany revealed that it had recently investigated whether it could legally fund the French and British nuclear weapons programs in exchange for their protection. In the United States, Gen. John E. Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, announced in June that he wants U.S. nuclear weapons modernization plans accelerated. In stark contrast, over at the United Nations, more than 120 non-nuclear weapons states spent three weeks this summer finalizing a treaty banning the possession of nuclear weapons, adopting a final text on July 7. Advocates of the treaty argue nuclear weapons are inherently immoral. The United States and many of its allies reject that argument and contend the new treaty could undermine U.S. alliance relationships and weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the cornerstone of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Based on interviews with nuclear ban campaigners and government officials, I explore how we arrived at this place of disjuncture on nuclear weapons. It is also important to assess common criticisms of the ban treaty and look ahead to the future of the disarmament movement. Three of the most commonly cited concerns are that it will damage the NPT, undermine U.S. alliance cohesion, and de-legitimize nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. While the first two critiques are often overstated, in the long term the ban treaty could help undermine public support for nuclear weapons and reliance on nuclear deterrence as a security strategy.

How Did We Get Here?

After the Cold War ended, many expected significant nuclear reductions; after all, the competition between the two superpowers was over. Both the United States and Russia were members of the NPT, which commits signatories to pursue negotiations on disarmament. And as many U.S. officials have repeatedly stated, the United States and Russia have pursued substantial reductions, having eliminated over 80 percent of their total stockpiles from Cold War highs. From the nuclear abolition movement’s perspective, however, a global stockpile of almost 15,000 nuclear weapons in 2017 remains far too large. Furthermore, ongoing nuclear modernization plans indicate that the states possessing nuclear weapons plan to do so for decades to come. Anti-nuclear advocates have continued to press for disarmament, arguing that these weapons pose a grave threat to humanity.

In 2000, NPT members agreed to a consensus document calling for “13 Practical Steps” toward nuclear disarmament. Participants considered agreement on these steps a major achievement, with “stronger language on nuclear disarmament and universal adherence than had ever been agreed to before.” George W. Bush announced in 2002 that the United States no longer supported all 13 steps. The 2005 Review Conference failed to achieve a consensus document, in part because of the Bush administration’s policy change.

The perceived failure of the conference was “a wake-up call and a turning point” for the members of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a non-governmental organization that won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. The group began to consider how to reinvigorate nuclear disarmament advocacy outside the NPT framework, and found inspiration in the success of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. That treaty entered into force in 1999 without the participation of the United States, though U.S. policy has since shown the influence of norms established by the ban.

In 2006, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an umbrella organization that would eventually bring together over 400 civil society groups with a shared vision for a world without nuclear weapons. Like the landmine campaign before it, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons would emphasize the devastating humanitarian consequences of nuclear use, rejecting the language of national security and nuclear deterrence used by states to explain their continued possession of these weapons. The goal of the campaign was to achieve a legally binding treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. It would succeed within 11 years, owing to the successful framing of the weapons as a humanitarian issue.

Beginning in 2010, the humanitarian argument began to gain steam. Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, gave a speech recounting the devastating effects of nuclear weapons and arguing that no aid organization in the world has the capacity to address such a humanitarian emergency. The campaign continued with three international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in 2013 and 2014. With momentum from the conferences, nuclear ban campaigners went to the 2015 NPT Review Conference hoping for disarmament progress.

The conference ended with parties unable to come together to approve a consensus document. Nuclear ban advocates felt that the energy for pushing disarmament forward was in their movement, not within the NPT process, while many non-nuclear weapons states continued to express frustration over the lack of progress. There appeared to be little hope that further nuclear reductions would occur in the near term between the United States and Russia, despite the apparent willingness of the Obama administration. With sentiments similar to the post-2005 Review Conference environment, disarmament advocates were skeptical of further reductions through the NPT process.

In December 2016, 113 states channeled their frustration with slow disarmament progress into a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban. The first round of negotiations on the proposed treaty occurred in March 2017 and the second concluded on July 7, with 122 states voting to adopt a nuclear prohibition treaty. The treaty will open for signature on September 20, 2017.

Will the Ban Undermine the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?

Detractors of the nuclear ban treaty argue it will undermine the NPT, the 1968 treaty at the foundation of the global nonproliferation regime. For instance, Adam Mount and Richard Nephew argue that states may engage in “forum shopping,” leaving the NPT because they are members of the nuclear ban treaty. While this exodus would be concerning, the worry is likely overstated. The 115 states within Nuclear Weapons Free Zones have not left the NPT despite overlapping commitments. Moreover, the ban treaty requires signatories to adopt the same safeguards as NPT member states, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (though the safeguards requirement could have been stronger and more consistent). Furthermore, many states are attached to NPT Article 4, which sets out the right of member states to access peaceful nuclear technology. If states left the NPT, they would jeopardize their ability to secure such technology from suppliers.

Variations of this argument include calling the ban treaty negotiations a distraction and suggesting that the vast energy that brought about the treaty could have been more usefully channeled into more pressing nonproliferation and disarmament challenges. While that may be true, this argument assumes all the treaty proponents could have been motivated to focus their energy on issues other than the ban. But frustration with a lack of disarmament progress — and deeply held beliefs about the immorality of nuclear weapons — is what brought so many organizations together in the first place.

Another NPT-related concern expressed by nuclear weapons states is that the ban treaty “may negatively affect the prospects for consensus at future NPT Review Conferences.” While there is certainly reason to worry about the prospect of reaching consensus at future conferences, this is in part because of deep-seated frustration with slow disarmament progress. The ban treaty reflects that frustration; it did not cause it. Future Review Conferences would find it difficult to reach consensus regardless of whether the ban treaty was in place.

The NPT remains the most important institution for global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Observers are right to consider how the ban treaty would affect the health of the NPT. However, most of the criticisms ring hollow. The treaty is a result of a deep schism among NPT members. If disarmament is to be achieved, it will require nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states to work in tandem. Efforts like the State Department-initiated International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification will be important steps for engaging all parties on the very real challenges of future disarmament verification.

NATO and the Ban

Critics of the new treaty tell us it will undermine the cohesion of the NATO alliance. In fall 2016, for example, the United States circulated a memo (that was subsequently leaked) explaining how the proposed ban treaty would hurt the alliance. In the near term, however, NATO is likely to withstand this challenge.

As NATO anticipated, the nuclear ban treaty includes prohibitions on many nuclear-related activities currently undertaken by the alliance. A NATO state that joined the treaty could not station U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil or be involved in the transport of weapons. It would not be able to have nuclear weapons in its ports or participate in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group.

Employing intense pressure, the United States was able to limit allies’ participation in the ban treaty negotiations. From NATO, only the Netherlands participated, as was mandated by its parliament. The Dutch were the only ones to vote against the treaty on July 7 (as opposed to abstaining), citing their NATO commitments.

In addition to the success of U.S. lobbying efforts, NATO states are unlikely to join the treaty in the near term for several other reasons. Current governments of NATO countries seem unlikely to submit to domestic pressure surrounding the bomb. This stems from the political coalitions currently holding power and the fact that, by and large, the ban is not a prominent issue among electorates. One possible exception is Norway, which holds elections in September. Oslo funded the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons for years and hosted one of the three humanitarian consequences conferences under a previous Labor coalition government; polls indicate a Labor coalition is favored to win in the fall.

Perhaps the most important reason the ban treaty will not undermine NATO is insecurity stemming from recent Russian aggression. The German government underscored this dynamic by exploring protection from British and French nuclear weapons. Russian nuclear threats, violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and rejection of the Obama administration’s offer for additional negotiations on reductions have prompted many NATO states to view the alliance’s nuclear umbrella as increasingly vital to their security.

For these reasons, it appears improbable that the ban treaty will have any effect on NATO cohesion in the short term. The ban campaign is still not widely recognized among most European populations, the governments have to be clear in their support of NATO commitments, and insecurity will likely make NATO continue to rely on nuclear weapons as part of its defense and deterrence posture.

Looking Ahead

The immediate worries about the treaty are unlikely to play out, but in the longer term, this milestone could challenge public perceptions about morality of possessing nuclear weapons.

A common criticism of the ban effort is that that the treaty will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon. In the near future, this is correct. Yet this criticism misrepresents the strategy of the nuclear ban campaigners. Advocates envision the treaty as an interim step to nuclear disarmament through its role in delegitimizing nuclear weapons and the doctrines of nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence. With the adoption of a legally binding treaty, negotiated at the United Nations, disarmament advocates will call attention to the illegitimacy of all nuclear weapons-related activities. As Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, explained in March, “We will identify what kind of behavior is now illegal, under this treaty, and start criticizing governments for doing those actions, even if they haven’t signed on to the treaty … It’s a long-term perspective. I think we will work to rally the public in countries.” Having the treaty in place provides the campaign with a tool to increase public awareness and spread its message about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The treaty allows citizens to ask their governments, “Why are we not members of this treaty?”

Because most nuclear weapons states spend little time explaining to their populations the reasons why they possess nuclear weapons, it is plausible the humanitarian frame for nuclear weapons will, in the long run, become more relevant to the public (especially in democratic states with active civil society organizations). The humanitarian frame and the treaty could gain prominence as more states sign on to the treaty and pressure others to join. If one or several states under the nuclear umbrella join the treaty due to domestic and international pressure, it could help push other reluctant states in this direction, in what scholars call a “norm cascade.”

The United States has significant influence on its alliance partners, but if the nuclear ban campaign becomes a popular movement within these countries, domestic pressure will compete with pressure from foreign governments – and the domestic constituency could win out. There is precedent for this: In the 1980s, public opinion in New Zealand favored rejecting visits from U.S. naval vessels due to concerns about nuclear propulsion and nuclear weapons. The U.S. visits became a topic in the 1984 election, and the winning Labor government subsequently prohibited U.S. naval visits.

One way the ban movement could gain salience sooner would be an event that reminds people of the horrific effects of nuclear weapons, such as an accident involving a nuclear weapon or limited use. The nuclear ban campaign is small compared to the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s, in part because there is less fear surrounding nuclear weapons. Were this to change, the campaign could become much more widespread.

The newly adopted nuclear weapons prohibition treaty is unlikely to undermine the NPT or affect NATO cohesion in the near term, but it does reflect the deep division between states that rely on nuclear weapons and those that do not. In the long term, with sufficient pressure from domestic publics and non-nuclear weapons states, the treaty has the potential to bring about a changed narrative that could ultimately undermine the legitimacy of relying on nuclear weapons for national security.


Dr. Rebecca Davis Gibbons is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where she teaches courses on international relations, international security, and nuclear proliferation. She is working on a book on American hegemony and the politics of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

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