This op-ed originally appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
On October 27, the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly voted to begin negotiations next year on a legally binding international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The historic resolution passed with the support of 123 member states, 38 opposed, and 16 abstaining—but has drawn sharp criticism from many of the world’s nuclear powers. The United States is a staunch opponent, calling the proposed resolution unrealistic and unverifiable, and reprimanding its supporters for attempting to dismantle the existing “step-by-step” process. The US Permanent Representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament stated that the United States will not participate in the 2017 negotiations.
But maybe the ban treaty isn’t so crazy. In recent years, the “step-by-step” process endorsed by the United States and other nuclear weapons states, and characterized as a series of practical measures that will ultimately lead to complete and verifiable disarmament, hasn’t been working. Progress at the UN Conference on Disarmamenthas been painstakingly slow, if not stalled completely. The most recent Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, in 2015, failed to produce a final agreement. Relations between the United States and Russia hit a new low for the post-Cold War era last month, when Russia announced its decision to withdraw from a 2000 agreement to dispose of its weapons-grade plutonium.
To a millennial such as myself, nuclear weapons are an anachronism. They divert critical funds from modern national security concerns, and by their very existence menace global safety. And yet the United States plans to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal. My generation will have to bear the burden of this cost, one of the many reasons why nuclear weapons should matter to millennials.
Despite President Barack Obama’s verbal support for a nuclear-weapons-free world, the United States has made little progress toward nuclear disarmament in recent years. It is high time that the United States begins to work more earnestly to achieve this goal. Participating in negotiations to create a legal ban on nuclear weapons, even just as an observer state, would show a serious commitment to disarmament. Given US moral and legal obligations, and the impetus a ban treaty could provide for the eventual verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons, the United States has no legitimate reason to protest the 2017 negotiations.
US moral and legal obligations. As the country with the second largest nuclear arsenal and the most powerful military in the world, the United States should be a leader in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. In Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague, he insisted that, as the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons, the United States has a “moral responsibility” to seek their elimination. The United States is also required, by Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to “pursue negotiations in good faith . . . on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Past lofty statements from Obama promoting nuclear disarmament have yet to be followed by concrete action. In Berlin in 2013, Obama declared that the United States could maintain its own security, as well as that of its allies, with a one-third reduction of the US nuclear arsenal. However, these reductions have not occurred—because of Russian unwillingness to negotiate, according to the United States. Obama also called for states to have the courage to pursue a world without nuclear weapons during his historic visit to Hiroshima in May. In order to achieve Obama’s stated goals and fulfill its legal obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the United States must look beyond roadblocks in current disarmament negotiations to creative, alternative steps forward—such as the negotiation of a nuclear ban treaty.
A different “step-by-step” process. The United States and proponents of the ban treaty agree that nuclear weapons will not be eliminated overnight. They agree that the international community must continue to take interim steps in order to achieve the ultimate goal of the complete and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. They simply disagree on which steps ought to be taken. Proponents of the ban argue that it is not a magic bullet to achieve nuclear disarmament, but could nevertheless be an important step in that direction. It could provide a foundation on which to build a verifiable treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons, including enforcement mechanisms. At the UN First Committee, supporters of the ban treaty pointed to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning biological and chemical weapons, saying that it was critical to the later development of verifiable mechanisms to prohibit these weapons in the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions.
Given the stalled negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament, rocky US-Russian relations, and little hope for US Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the near future, a weapons-ban treaty may be one of the few steps currently available. An effective “step-by-step” process ought to seek new ways to move forward when the original path is blocked. The reluctance of the United States to shift from an unsuccessful strategy is counterproductive to nuclear disarmament progress.
The decision to negotiate a nuclear weapons ban treaty is not only an innovative response but also a significant achievement given the current challenging security environment. It deserves serious consideration by the United States. The world may not be free of nuclear weapons within the next 10 years, or even the next 20, but opposing the negotiation of a ban on nuclear weapons is not an effective step toward the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world. Rather than criticizing the humanitarian initiative’s persistent efforts to encourage nuclear disarmament, the United States should be part of the historic negotiations in 2017. Rather than scorning the treaty from the sidelines, the United States should join the negotiations as an observer state or full participant, leaving no doubt about its commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.