NPT News in Review, Vol. 14, No. 3

Editorial: Too legit to quit
8 May 2017

Ray Acheson

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I gotta get mine and nobody’s takin’ it away... I choose to abuse, misuse and confuse competitors who think they’re makin’ up all the rules.”

Listening to the nuclear-armed states can sometimes feel like they have drawn from the lyrics of MC Hammer’s 1991 song. From Russia arguing that “no one will dispute the obvious fact that the [nuclear arms race] has not only stopped, but also reversed”—in the midst of the largest expansion or “upgrades” of nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War—to China calling on states to “abandon the practice of double standard and refrain from calculating out of selfish geopolitical interest”—whilst the nuclear-armed seek to maintain their monopoly on massive nuclear violence—it does seem that the nuclear-armed are out to “abuse, misuse, and confuse” in order to keep the world order as they like it.

They have created a network of fallacies to support them in this endeavor. The assertion of the “legitimacy” of their possession of nuclear weapons lies at the heart of this project.

“In accordance with the NPT, the presence of nuclear arsenals in five nuclear powers is completely legitimate,” said the Russian Federation on Friday. This is the cornerstone fallacy of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—one that its nuclear-armed states parties have tried to perpetuate for nearly fifty years. It is propped up by a deeper fallacy that nuclear weapons provide security and stability.

Together, these myths have worked to foster the conditions for a handful of states to project their dominance over the rest of the world. Like all myths, however, these claims to power and stability through the right to inflict massive nuclear violence cannot be sustained forever. Their inherent contradictions and their tensions with reality will inevitably lead to their undoing.

“Nuclear weapons,” explained Ambassador Agbugba of Nigeria, “create an obscure system that characterizes a situation of fear, suspicion and mistrust, unhealthy rivalry as well as unnecessary competition amongst States.” This is true not only in relation to North Korea or Israel, or between India and Pakistan, or between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states. The NPT nuclear weapon possessors are also clearly mistrustful of each other—and the tearing of the seams of supposed “P5 unity” on display during the last review cycle is becoming increasingly visible.

During their interventions to the cluster one debate on nuclear disarmament last week, the United States criticised “two NPT nuclear weapon states” for modernising their arsenals (without mentioning that the US itself is engaged in the most expansive and expensive modernisation programme of them all); the United Kingdom expressed concern with the “disturbing increase” in Russian rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons (without mentioning UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s unapologetic remarks that she would be willing to kill millions of innocent people with nuclear weapons); Russia highlighted the challenges posed by “US nuclear partners in the NATO bloc”; France and China seemed to express frustration with the states possessing the most nuclear weapons for not making more progress with their arsenal reductions.

The complaints the nuclear-armed states made about others’ arsenals were uniformly coupled with the assertion that nuclear weapons are important—even instrumental—to their own security. So, not only did they each project concerns about each other whilst overlooking their own behaviour, but they also condemned others for wanting nuclear weapons whilst justifying their own possession and modernisation of these weapons.

“The forceful proclamation of alleged security benefits of nuclear weapons is a powerful proliferator,” warned Ambassador Kuglitsch of Austria. This is one of the contradictions of the myths of the right to possess nuclear weapons that will not just go away. This is too volatile and unjust of a situation to persist for much longer. “The way out,” said the Nigerian ambassador, “is total and complete disarmament.”

The next best step on this path is to ban nuclear weapons, which the majority of states are actively doing through the UN General Assembly. The hostility of the nuclear-armed and their nuclear-supportive allies towards the ban treaty is indicative of how effective this treaty is likely to be to breaking down the fallacies and myths they have perpetuated for the last five decades. As the Austrian ambassador noted, prohibiting nuclear weapons through an international treaty challenges the notion that nuclear weapons provide security and strengthens the legal and political norms against nuclear weapons, making possession and modernisation increasingly difficult to justify in social, political, and economic spheres.

The ban may not “eliminate a single nuclear warhead,” as the nuclear-armed and nuclear-supportive states insist ad nauseum—at least, not immediately. But the treaty’s evolution is already having an impact on nuclear weapon discourse, and its implementation will have even deeper implications for nuclear weapon policy and practices.

It is a profoundly meaningful and effective step towards nuclear disarmament, and this is the reason that the nuclear-armed do not want to take it. They are comfortable with their established pattern of engagement on nuclear disarmament: set up a plan with minimal requirements; explain why this plan is incredibly difficult to implement; fail to implement the agreed plan but do a bit of busy work (e.g. make a dictionary); threaten disaster and doom if states try to do anything to require them to comply with the agreed obligations (e.g. that it will ruin the NPT or result in nuclear war); rinse and repeat.

Indeed, if the bilateral and unilateral nuclear arsenal reductions that took place decades ago had been fulfilled in good faith, said the delegation of Brazil, “we would be moving, even incrementally, towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” Instead, the “progressive” or “building blocks” approach promoted by nuclear-armed and nuclear-supportive states has fallen into discredit—not just because of a lack of concrete action, but because the steps that are actually being taken are not those outlined in this approach but are steps in the opposite direction—i.e. a new arms race.

Such a pattern can only persist for so long before others—the majority—start moving forward on their own to see what they can do to change the parameters of this otherwise unending loop of making commitments and failing to implement them that is leading us ever close to the brink of nuclear war. Ireland has a “say something, do something” approach to nuclear disarmament, Ms. Nolan said in her cluster one remarks. Where there is such a clearly identifiable threat to the public—to the planet—everyone must do their part to prevent catastrophe.

Thus those negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons are carrying forward the legal framing for nuclear weapon free world, as Ambassador Higgie of New Zealand described. If the nuclear-armed refuse to join, so be it. There is no legitimacy to the positions or assertions of the nuclear-armed states, and they will eventually be compelled to quit.

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