The U.N. Nuclear Ban Treaty Has No Clothes

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Wednesday, Mar 06, 2024 - 07:00 AM

Authored by Gregory F. Giles via RealClear Wire,

Fear sells—the more existential the better, as with all the loose talk about the possible use of nuclear weapons by Vladimir Putin. While nuclear dread is good for “driving clicks,” it must not blind us to reality. The U.N. nuclear ban treaty will do nothing to reduce such nuclear dangers. How could it? None of the countries possessing nuclear weapons will have anything to do with it. Not unlike “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” proponents of the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) want us to believe in its magnificence, to go along with the pretense while it is plain to see that the treaty is stripped of any credibility.

The second gathering of signatories late last year revealed a host of treaty flaws. Any hope that member states and civil society would staunchly self-police the treaty were dashed. They all turned a blind eye to the involvement of Kazakhstan, a treaty member, in the testing of a Russian ICBM—a missile whose sole purpose is to deliver nuclear weapons.

When the test occurred in April last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) trumpeted that under the TPNW, it was “illegal” for Kazakhstan “to allow its territory to be used for testing of nuclear-capable missiles.”[i] Yet, ICAN and TPNW member states, including Kazakhstan, were silent about the ICBM test—at a meeting whose purpose is to assess the implementation of the ban treaty.

Evidently, because Kazakhstan is struggling with the legacy of Soviet nuclear tests on its territory and will host next year’s treaty review, it was given a “pass.” So much for the assertions of TPNW advocates that the treaty is non-discriminatory, a contrast they like to draw with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which recognized in 1968 the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China as nuclear weapon states—and everyone else as non-nuclear weapon states.

Once again, TPNW member states failed to call out Russia by name for its irresponsible nuclear behavior, this time including de-ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and moving to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Why? Because the diplomatic corps of the non-nuclear weapon states consider it impolite to call out bad actors by name.

How can a treaty that won’t call out malign behavior of even non-member states like Russia— or hold accountable one of its actual signatories like Kazakhstan—be expected to resolve disputes in the event the major powers somehow join its ranks and warily give up their nuclear bombs. The answer is plain, it cannot, which is why those powers boycott it.

They are not alone. NATO member states and U.S. allies in Asia also refuse to join the TPNW. Others have read the writing on the wall. Finland and Sweden, which attended the first meeting of TPNW states parties as observers in 2022, balked last year, preferring to join NATO rather than place their faith in the ban treaty. Other states that observed the first gathering but punted this time include the Netherlands, Burundi, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. You wouldn’t know that, though, by reading any of the self-congratulatory statements issued after the meeting by TPNW member states and civil society.

It is a tough time for TPNW supporters. The initial euphoria of circumventing the major powers and rushing the treaty through is over. Now comes the more mundane work of implementing it, structurally weak as it is. That’s not helpful for ICAN and others who need to keep members motivated and attract donors. That’s become harder now that the MacArthur Foundation has pulled out of the nuclear disarmament field, seeing poor prospects ahead. Austria has a solution for that, however.

In a weak decision document, Austria has convinced TPNW member states that what they really need is better talking points about the so-called evils of nuclear deterrence. This is a hobby horse of a few individuals in the Austrian foreign ministry, somehow convinced that they can simply debate Western countries into surrendering their nuclear protection, even as their counterparts in the Austrian ministry of defense seek closer ties with NATO. This new initiative will fail—states under the nuclear umbrella are not under any obligation to engage in such theater.

The reality is, since the brutal 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rapid build-up of nuclear arms by such stalwarts of international law and human rights as China and North Korea, free people everywhere are rediscovering the value of nuclear deterrence over one-sided nuclear disarmament. There is a reason why ICAN has not published any polls since 2022 purporting to show vast public support for the TPNW and opposition to U.S. nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe.

Surely, the TPNW must be good for something? The ban treaty is slowly carving out an important niche in assisting victims and remediating environments impacted by nuclear weapons use or testing. It also is promoting new standards of inclusivity and gender balance. But it has been divisive, too. Its insistence on nuclear disarmament irrespective of the security environment lacks realism and only deepens the chasm between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states.

Let’s face it, progress on nuclear disarmament won’t be coming anytime soon. TPNW supporters can lament this and withhold cooperation from the nuclear weapons states, or they can apply their energy in a more promising area—non-proliferation. Surely, keeping nuclear weapons from spreading is just as important as easing the grip of those who already possess them. Making progress on the former should not be held hostage to progress on the latter—that would be a wasted opportunity indeed.

Gregory F. Giles is a Senior Director with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). For the past three decades, he has been advising U.S. government clients on issues related to deterrence and nonproliferation. Mr. Giles holds a B.A. from Dickinson College and an M.I.A. from Columbia University. His work has been published in War on the Rocks, Survival, Comparative Strategy, The Washington Quarterly, and elsewhere. The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of SAIC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.