Supplementing the nuclear ban treaty: a constructive way forward
15 Nov 2017|

Rod Lyon (‘The Nuclear ban “pledge”: how’s it tracking?’) is predictably underwhelmed by the idea of Australian parliamentarians pledging their support for the recently concluded Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (NWPT). He and I have totally contrary views on the deterrent utility of nuclear weapons, with my own long-argued view (see, for example, here) being that, in today’s world, the risks associated with anyone retaining them far outweigh any possible security reward. While I love the idea of a nuclear weapons–free world, Rod believes that there lie beasties.

That said, I think there’s a more productive course for Australian parliamentarians to follow than simply campaigning enthusiastically for the new ban treaty. The prohibitions it embodies set important normative goals, which are eminently worth supporting, but the treaty isn’t drafted in a way that will help us practically advance those goals anytime soon. What is needed now is an initiative—which I fear may be beyond any Coalition government, but hopefully will be picked up by a Labor successor—to give real practical content to the kind of step-by-step disarmament agenda to which the nuclear-armed states, and their allies and partners, always say they are committed but have done absolutely nothing so far to advance. I spelled out the limitations of the ban treaty, and what such a new initiative might involve, in the Waiheke Global Affairs lecture (full text here) delivered in New Zealand earlier this month, from which the following is an edited extract.

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There are four basic reasons why the new NWPT, as it currently stands, is not going to directly produce any practical, operational arms control results anytime soon, or maybe ever. First, its safeguards provisions: weapons states aren’t likely to be encouraged to relinquish their weapons when by doing so they will be held to a higher standard than non-weapons states (including potential proliferators like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that haven’t committed to the strongest form of safeguards, the IAEA Additional Protocol). Second, it is very light on the crucial question of verification—that’s for a competent international authority to be designated in due course by the states parties. Third, it is silent on the even more crucial question of enforcement—understandably enough, because the issue of how to respond to a rogue state breakout in a nuclear weapons–free world is one to which no one has at the moment even a conceptually credible solution. And fourth, the provision that nuclear-armed states joining the treaty must submit to a time-bound program for the complete and irreversible elimination of their stockpiles isn’t likely to be very attractive to those states that are nervous about going to zero while others still have nuclear weapons.

But none of this means that its negotiation has been a waste of time, or in any way counter-productive. The idea of the ban treaty—and the humanitarian consequences movement from which it was born—has already generated real normative momentum, and will continue to do so. Global stigmatisation, delegitimisation and the will to prohibit nuclear weapons may not be sufficient conditions for their elimination, but they are necessary conditions. And whether the nuclear-armed states like it or not—and whether Australia and others thinking themselves sheltered under their nuclear umbrella like it or not—that is the mood that’s out there in the rest of the world.

That said, I think those of us who are passionately in favour of nuclear disarmament need to do something more than just campaign passionately to raise the profile of the NWPT and to secure the maximum number of adherents to it. That approach may be working well with the Ottawa and Oslo treaties on land mines and cluster bombs, where—despite a number of significant states holding out against their abolition—the normative consensus against them continues to consolidate and grow to the extent that it’s possible to imagine achieving in the not too distant future a world in which these weapons are simply no longer used. But the stakes are much higher with nuclear weapons—given their existential destructive power, the psychological commitment to their retention by so many of the nuclear-armed states, and the fear that each of them has that even if they go collectively to zero they will be vulnerable to rogue-state breakout in the absence of effective verification and enforcement machinery. It is just not credible to think that the NWPT, by itself, can get us to where we want to go.

My own preference would have been for a treaty, or treaty-making process, that—while being as clear as this one is about the ultimate destination—acknowledges the reality that the elimination of nuclear weapons is only ever going to be achievable on a step-by-step basis, and builds into its present all-or-nothing fabric a series of way stations. The nuclear-armed states and those who travel with them are right to say that only a step-by-step approach can ever produce results. But they lose all credibility when they extol that approach, but then do absolutely nothing to indicate that they are even contemplating taking any steps at all—which is the current reality.

There is a way forward on all this, and it was mapped with some precision by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament initiated by Australia and Japan, which I co-chaired eight years ago with former foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. We argued that progress could only be made by recognising two distinct stages, first ‘minimisation’ then ‘elimination’, with some inevitable discontinuity between them, because of the reality, when it comes to moving from low numbers to zero, that there are not only psychological barriers and geopolitical barriers in the world as we can envisage it for the foreseeable future, but there are serious technical barriers of verification and enforcement as well.

So we urged that initial efforts be focused not on elimination but on what we described as the ‘minimisation’ agenda—reducing overall numbers to around 2,000 (compared with the 15,000-plus now in existence), getting universal buy-in to ‘no first use’, and giving that credibility by taking weapons off high alert and drastically reducing the number of those actively deployed. All of this, we argued, was achievable over a 15-year or so timeframe with the right political will. We did not resist the idea of commencing negotiation now on a comprehensive ‘nuclear weapons convention’ that would provide for the outright banning of all nuclear weapons. But given the great many technical, as well as political, obstacles involved in moving from low numbers to zero, we thought that it would take many years to negotiate a disarmament regime that the nuclear-armed states would buy into—and that it would be more productive, accordingly, to focus efforts on achieving the minimisation targets rather than producing the kind of ‘campaign’ treaty that the NWPT now represents.

While achievement of our minimisation objective by around 2025 seemed possible in the international environment of 2009, it unhappily looks much more elusive now. But I still believe that going back to the hard grind of step-by-step arms control negotiations, both bilateral and multilateral, is the only path to a safer and saner nuclear world. A world with very low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few of them physically deployed, with practically none of them on high-alert launch status, and with every nuclear-armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use nuclear weapons, would still be very far from being perfect, and no one should even think of settling for that as the end point. But a world that achieved those objectives would be very much safer and saner than the one we live in now.

The campaign that’s most needed now from those who want to rid the world of nuclear weapons is to get governments to commit to the minimisation agenda I’ve described and to participate seriously in negotiating a new treaty regime—sitting alongside and complementing the NWPT, or eventually replacing it—that would facilitate that minimisation process as well as enable the world ultimately to move from low numbers to zero. The time to initiate such a new treaty-making exercise would be the high-level UN conference to review progress on nuclear disarmament announced for May 2018. Of course, it would be optimal if the parties leading this new charge included not only those who have worked so hard to produce the NWPT, but at least some of the nuclear-armed states, and those sheltering under a nuclear umbrella (such as Australia and Japan), who have been missing in action so far.

A new, more complicated and more nuanced treaty—or sequenced set of treaties—might not have the visceral, emotional appeal of the simple outright bans embodied in the NWPT. But I suspect this approach might help us get rather faster to where we all need to go.