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  • March 23rd, 2018

The beginning of the end of nuclear weapons?


“Future historians may record summer 2017 as the beginning of the end of the nuclear age.”

So begins a masterful article by Paul Meyer and Tom Sauer on how the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, aka the Ban Treaty, came about and its implications for bringing humanity closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

Scope and drivers of the treaty

The ban treaty will forbid the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, possession and stationing – as well as the use and threat of use – of nuclear weapons.  As Meyer and Sauer point out, this renders the decades-old doctrine of nuclear deterrence illegal for the signatory states, and in the eyes of the hundreds of millions of citizens around the world who support the treaty.

The ban treaty was negotiated without the participation of any of the nuclear-armed states. They are therefore left with two options under its terms: they can either destroy their nuclear weapons and then join the treaty, or join the treaty and at the same time make specific, time-limited plans to eliminate their nuclear weapons.  Say the authors:

“The underlying driver of the ban treaty has been the frustration among the non-nuclear states with the unfulfilled promise of the nuclear-weapons states to pursue total nuclear disarmament….For anyone who is not absolutely sure that nuclear deterrence will always work, the risks associated with these weapons are unacceptably high.”

Future of the treaty

Although the treaty’s adoption at the close of negotiations by 122 states certainly represents a major diplomatic achievement, the authors acknowledge that it is fair to ask what its impact on global nuclear affairs ultimately will be.

Advocates see a two-fold effect, with the first of these being the impact on the private sector in an age of ethical investing:

“…the treaty may encourage enhanced restraint by private sector firms (especially banks and investment funds) with respect to their exposure to the nuclear weapons industry.”

Secondly, and more fundamentally in the view of the authors, the treaty will demonstrably strengthen the global norm against nuclear weapons, thereby increasing the stigma for states that continue to possess them. This taint in turn will increase pressure on many non-nuclear NATO member states – like Canada – to sign the treaty or align their security policies with its goals.

And then there is the UK.

“In the UK, the costly renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent has already triggered social debate…. If Labour wins the next election, a variety of factors (not least cost) may result in Trident renewal being dropped, opening the way for the UK to become a state without nuclear weapons and thus the first NPT nuclear-weapon-state to fully realise its Article VI [nuclear disarmament] commitment.”

For the full article, click: The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A sign of Global Impatience – by Paul Meyer and Tom Sauer (IISS, Journal Survival, Vol.60, 2018 – Issue 2, pp. 61-72).

Graphic credit: Sarah Davies

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