Time for Europe to re-evaluate the nuclear ban treaty


Picture of Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm
Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm

EU Representative of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

In 2017, 122 nations adopted a landmark treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons under international law. They followed the initiative of EU members Austria and Ireland, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global civil society coalition which was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Other EU states voting to adopt the treaty were Sweden, Malta and Cyprus.

The Treaty undermines and delegitimises nuclear weapons and is therefore staunchly opposed by the states that either have them or are reliant on the protection of a nuclear-armed ally. This is why NATO countries opposed the treaty, and with the exception of the Netherlands, boycotted its negotiation. Based on the argument that they were not participating, nuclear-armed states and their allies claimed the treaty would be useless. At the same time, in a letter sent to all NATO members in October 2016, the United States called on its partners to oppose the treaty, putting forward the argument that banning nuclear weapons may prove effective in delegitimising nuclear deterrence.

It is understandable to oppose a Treaty that will question NATO’s current security doctrines and reliance on weapons of mass destruction. However, now that the Treaty is a fait accompli, opponents can no longer argue against its adoption, and should stop pressuring states not to ratify it. This new legal instrument is here to stay. Trash-talking it will not make it go away, but it will make it more difficult to bridge the divide at the 2020 review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

We forget that deterrence is an abstract theory, not a proven concept

It is time for both sides to engage with the counterarguments at play. Deterrence is a well-established concept: walk into any corner bar and people will attest to the instinctive wisdom of wielding a very large stick. At the same time, both the risks and the catastrophic consequences are greatly underappreciated. The “humanitarian initiative”, which by 2015 had grouped together 159 states as a prelude to the prohibition treaty, has set out a wealth of coherent, logical arguments that fundamentally challenge the validity of deterrence theory.

If the extinction of humanity is a potential consequence of nuclear deterrence failure, then even a 99% success rate is not good enough. We forget that deterrence is an abstract theory, not a proven concept. Yet the weapons are real, physical machines, optimised to indiscriminately kill a maximum number of civilians. Deterrence requires 24/7 readiness, making these aging weapons vulnerable to accidents, miscalculation, false alarms, and the inescapable escalatory dynamic of nuclear posturing. Mutually assured destruction was meant as a stop-gap measure to avert catastrophe during the Cold War – its designers never intended the concept to hold indefinitely.

From the perspective of most states, nuclear weapons have no security benefits, and only present dangers. Addressing the global consequences of their use is a responsibility of all states, and the majority have made a good faith effort towards implementing the NPT and accelerating disarmament through the adoption of the 2017 prohibition treaty. This effort deserves a more nuanced appraisal than the well-rehearsed but disingenuous claims that describe the ban on nuclear weapons as a threat to the NPT and misconstrue the verification standards therein. This sky-is-falling rhetoric is wide-spread: even the NPT, currently the universally acclaimed cornerstone of nuclear disarmament, was decried as irresponsible when initially proposed.

From the perspective of those who rely on nuclear weapons, their calculus on the utility of nuclear weapons is clearly different. The onus is on them to make the case that they need nuclear weapons (and that other states do not have the same right to nuclear deterrence). At the very least, NATO should recognise the non-proliferation value of the ban treaty.

After decades of unfulfilled promises on nuclear disarmament, it is clear that nuclear-armed states currently have no plans to disarm but are instead investing billions in the modernisation of their arsenals. If all states buy into this logic, then they will conclude that they too need weapons of mass destruction for their security, especially if they find themselves in a more volatile security environment than, say, Belgium. It should be welcomed that states have instead doubled down on declaring nuclear weapons unacceptable and emphasised their impatience for urgent progress on disarmament.

In consideration of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and with an acknowledgement of the risks involved in nuclear deterrence, some NATO states may conclude that a reliance on weapons of mass destruction is no longer appropriate. This does not have to contribute to a division in the Alliance. NATO’s founding Treaty is silent on nuclear weapons, and the frequently invoked and regularly adapted Strategic Concept – while emphasising NATO’s nature as a ‘nuclear alliance’ – commits members to “create the conditions for a nuclear weapon-free world”, thereby creating a space for their prohibition.

The unilateral and baseless US withdrawal from the Iran-Deal has exposed transatlantic rifts in nuclear policy

Precedents for a multi-speed NATO exist: some states were much faster in signing the bans on land-mines and cluster munitions. After initial opposition, NATO eventually altered its rules of engagement and accommodated the wishes of its members. The same is true for exceptions on nuclear weapons. To varying degrees, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Lithuania and Spain all restrict the transit of nuclear weapons. Negotiating opt-outs from nuclear deterrence and nuclear war-planning for individual members would not pose a challenge to NATO as a nuclear alliance but would instead allow NATO members to join the nuclear ban treaty.

NATO members often claim that nuclear sharing gives them a seat at the table. But nuclear policy is set unilaterally by the US, and to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom. The unilateral and baseless US withdrawal from the Iran-Deal has exposed transatlantic rifts in nuclear policy, as has the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a report in which the Trump administration drops disarmament pretences and pledges even more funding to the development of newer, more “usable” warheads. Not all NATO members will want to go ahead with this, or indeed with the opposition to the nuclear ban.

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is now a reality and will enter into force soon, upon its 50th ratification. Denying its contribution to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament will only deepen mistrust in the international community, and risks making nuclear weapons a divisive issue within NATO.

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