ICAN and the search for the fortunate islands
10 Oct 2017|

This year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has stirred mixed reactions. The Norwegian Nobel Committee states that the organisation received the prize ‘for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons’. Some commentators have seen the award as rewarding a new, more activist, civil-society-based approach to peace, bypassing the old institutionalised, state-centred model. Others are less charitable (see here and here, for example).

Certainly the award maintains the committee’s reputation for surprising choices. Its reasoning’s arguable too. For one thing, I wouldn’t have thought the humanitarian consequences of direct use of nuclear weapons were in need of much publicity. They’ve been well known since the bombing of Hiroshima. For those of a more scientific mind, Samuel Glasstone and Philip Dolan’s 1977 text, The effects of nuclear weapons, covers the ground. And as for the nuclear ban treaty, it’s primarily a diplomatic symbol of disarmament—a norm-setter—rather than a practical instrument.

More ominously, though, the award can be seen as reinforcing the judgement that the tide’s going out on nuclear disarmament, not coming in. Several years back, one international security analyst drily observed that any year in which the international community had time to focus on the problem of small arms (like AK-47s) was actually a good year in international security. A similar observation might be made here: with all due respect to ICAN, any year in which the most notable achievement in the disarmament field is a civil society group’s advocacy of disarmament is actually an awful year for the broader objective.

Some will think those judgements too harsh, and I suppose much depends on how one sees ICAN’s signal achievement during the year—namely, its advocacy of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Fans say the treaty’s unique and special—the first time the international community has outlawed nuclear weapons. Others hold a bleaker view. I must confess my sympathies lie with that second group. The ban treaty was adopted in July at the United Nations by 122 nations that gave up exactly nothing. None of the 122 actually deploys nuclear weapons or benefits from an extended nuclear guarantee from a nuclear-weapon state. And all of them have already previously undertaken, in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not to build nuclear weapons.

Still, the treaty’s a worrying sign: as the requirements of nuclear arms control are becoming more demanding, large segments of the world appear to have been lulled into the false security of believing that the best approach to nuclear weapons is just to ban them. That’s a dopey idea. So far, it has taken the combined efforts of many players, over decades, to define a global nuclear order that—in William Walker’s words—turns on two linked systems: a managed system of deterrence and a managed system of abstinence. At a single stroke, the ban treaty delegitimises the first and defines an alternative vision of the second.

In their efforts to insist that nuclear weapons are just like long-lived anti-personnel landmines—marginal to international security—ban advocates risk pulling down the long pole in the tent of the current global order. By making the perfect the enemy of the good—after all, its signatories don’t believe any nuclear weapons are ‘good’—the ban treaty will probably make great-power nuclear arms control harder, not easier. Gradual, verifiable reductions in nuclear arsenals, which have seen US and Russian warhead numbers fall by tens of thousands and increased strategic stability between the superpowers, are, in any event, becoming more difficult to negotiate now that the ceilings are dropping to levels more commensurate with anticipated missions and relations between the great powers are souring. But having the ban enthusiasts shout unhelpfully from the sidelines that the real number should be zero warheads, not 1,550, or 1,000, or 300, is just going to make the process even more constipated.

Nuclear-weapon states that sign the ban treaty—and none look likely to do so—would (under Article 4) receive a period of grace within which to rid themselves of their satanic burdens. But no such period of grace would extend to signatories—like Australia—that currently shelter under another state’s nuclear umbrella. Under the subclauses of Article 1, they’re obliged to renounce their own nuclear umbrella and denounce the broader existence of nuclear umbrellas in the modern world.

In short, we’d confront a world of unreality if we headed down the path that the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize propose. Putting things in their proper perspective, the pursuit of nuclear disarmament is the geopolitical equivalent of poet Ernest Dowson’s search for the fortunate islands. Dowson’s hero, of course, was doomed to a protracted and potentially fruitless search ‘in the seas of no discovery’. ICAN’s approach is much more direct: it proposes finding the fortunate islands by banning the unfortunate ones.