More Than Paper: How Nuclear Ban-Treaty Advocates Can Really Advance Disarmament


A new convention that tries to ban nuclear weapons and make it illegal to possess or use them was opened for signature on Sept. 20.  But you would be forgiven if you hadn’t heard about it, since none of the countries that actually have nuclear weapons are likely to sign. Many nuclear experts are concerned about this treaty’s shortcomings, including in the area of inspections and verification, but also about the choice made by many signatories to put negotiation of the treaty above more pressing, and arguably more effective, approaches to advancing disarmament.

Indeed, all of the countries that negotiated the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapon have long been on record opposing the possession of nuclear weapons and are legally committed to not possessing these weapons themselves. So while the treaty will have no immediate impact, it is a clear expression by many countries that nuclear weapons states are not moving fast or earnestly enough to get rid of them, and that far too many are boosting their reliance on nuclear weapons.  And these countries are right. But while many of the signatories’ motives are to be respected, bringing together a group of like-minded countries to declare what they have already committed to does not materially advance the cause of disarmament. Those who negotiated the ban took on no new obligations or responsibilities for themselves in this global endeavor.

All countries should move away from a reliance on nuclear weapons and take steps to make that possible.  The United States, at least until recently, has championed that goal and put real effort, resources, and capabilities toward making nuclear weapons a smaller part of its defense plans.  Finding new ways to reaffirm that goal, the central idea behind the ban, is a step in the right direction.  Yet there is much more all states can and must do to show that they are serious about eliminating nuclear weapons.  It is easy to repeat previous commitments, but harder and less dramatic for states to take direct steps that require compromise, hard work, and financial and technical investments. States have to put money and political capital behind disarmament if we are to make needed progress in an increasingly dangerous world. Sadly, some of the ban advocates and signatories come up short.

Fortunately, there are things that can be done. If states truly want to help eliminate nuclear weapons, here are a few concrete steps they can take – steps that are more meaningful and address more urgent threats to the cause of global disarmament.

Cut off all trade and diplomatic ties with North Korea. North Korea signed the NPT and then was caught cheating. It then agreed not to have uranium enrichment, and cheated on that agreement too.  Now it is the only country to have tested nuclear weapons in the 21st century and is threatening to test a nuclear weapon over or in the Pacific Ocean.  Any state that is serious about nuclear weapons elimination should want to show North Korea that its actions are not acceptable.  Several leaders of the ban movement, including Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa, all continue to have economic and diplomatic relations with the DPRK despite its dangerous and illegal nuclear activities.  How can these countries be credible supporters of disarmament if they will not directly punish the one state developing nuclear weapons in violation of international law?

Ban financial transactions with Russian defense and presidential officials. Russia is in violation of an arms control agreement with the United States and others that prohibits either side from having ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometers. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was a cornerstone of arms control at the end of the Cold War. Its violation, combined with Russia’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, increases the risk of nuclear weapons being used in Europe.  If you believe arms control agreements are the path to disarmament, then you should find ways to make violators of these agreements pay a direct price.Some countries that the United States has asked to sanction or criticize Russia for its violations—including some of America’s closest allies in Europe —claim that since they are not party to the INF Treaty, they have no legal or political ability to take action against Russia for its actions. That falls far short, however, of the kind of political commitments needed to show that disarmament agreements must be binding and that violations have consequences. Russia in particular wants to cling to the mantle of a responsible nuclear state despite its dangerous behavior and violations of international law. Making the Russians play a political and diplomatic price is one way to deny them that status—something ban advocates should want to support.

Fund the International Atomic Energy Agency for its work in Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ended Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities and put the Iranians on a path to return to compliance with the NPT. Yet while some countries have spent many thousands of dollars to convene conferences on, and otherwise promote, the nuclear weapons ban, most of the sponsors have failed to provide the IAEA with additional money and resources to fund its critical, cutting-edge work in Iran. While some countries have donated large sums anonymously to support the IAEA’s work, others who claim to support disarmament have not donated a single euro. Austria is a prime example of a country that has given extensive support to the ban negotiations but has not provided any significant funds to cover the high costs of implementing the JCPOA.   Still others are seeking to hold the IAEA to the goal of zero budget growth at a time when the agency’s work is more vital than ever.

Put pressure on Pakistan to stop blocking the Conference on Disarmament. One of the longstanding goals of the global disarmament community is to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. One country, and one alone, has blocked the Conference on Disarmament from beginning negotiations on such a treaty: Pakistan.  Islamabad has refused to allow negotiations on such a pact to begin, insisting that it must be agreed in advance that any such treaty would cover existing stocks, not just future production.  The United States, after long holding the opposite position, offered in 2016 to launch negotiations without bias over whether existing stocks should be included, but Pakistan still blocked agreement to start negotiations. Pakistan has not felt any real pressure from other states, including from ban advocates, for rendering the Conference on Disarmament moribund. Many of these countries provide humanitarian assistance to Pakistan, and could take a stand by conditioning at least some of their assistance on Pakistan’s stance on the conference.

Sign the IAEA’s gold standard for inspections, the Additional Protocol. After Iraq was found to be pursuing nuclear weapons in 1991, the international community negotiated a new set of inspection rights for the IAEA.  This “Additional Protocol” has become the new norm for verification and 129 states have agreed to these more intrusive inspections, in order to provide the IAEA with the means to monitor peaceful nuclear activities.  However, not only does the new ban fail to require states to sign the Additional Protocol, many of the ban’s lead negotiators rejected calls by Holland, Sweden, and Switzerland to include the protocol in the treaty – with no explanation as to why.  States that have yet to adopt the Additional Protocol include some of the ban’s strongest advocates, such as Brazil and Mexico, which are widely believed to have opposed including the Additional Protocol standard in the treaty.Any country that signs the ban should voluntarily adopt the Additional Protocol if it wants to show it is serious about the kind of transparency and verification that will be needed to create a world free of nuclear weapons. The protocol provides the IAEA with the inspection rights and information needed to verify that there are no non-peaceful nuclear activities in a country —a critical standard that would have to be met for the ban to gain confidence among other countries.

None of these proposals, or the fact that states haven’t done more to implement them, are meant to denigrate what these countries have already done with regards to the ban. But anyone who has wrestled with the challenge of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation understands how hard this problem is and why new, dedicated, capable steps are needed to advance the goal of nuclear elimination.

Sadly, the ban—if it has any impact on those efforts—will fall far short of some of the other steps discussed here.  Moreover, there is a real concern that the ban treaty effort is counterproductive to the existing international regime that commits all states to general and complete disarmament. Even experts who support nuclear elimination worry that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the only disarmament commitment nuclear weapons states recognize. There is concern, in fact, that some of the ban advocates actually seek to undermine the NPT and replace it with disarmament commitments that are more explicit in terms of the commitments made by nuclear weapons states.  Will states now be forced to pick and choose between the ban and other existing legal commitments?  Are the terms of the new ban strong enough to solve the real and dizzying challenges posed by a world without nuclear weapons?

To make a strong statement in support of disarmament, ban advocates should do more than simply sign and ratify a brand-new agreement. Instead, they should apply their considerable energies and assets toward politically difficult, yet concrete steps that will change the way the world views and manages nuclear issues.


Jon Wolfsthal is a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former Special Assistant to President Obama for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

Image: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons/Flickr