It’s the political-will gap, stupid: Nuclear abolition is a non-priority in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, London, and Paris

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons Leave a Comment

Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 1 Spring 2016

I recently conducted a (blatantly unscientific) poll among a dozen or so colleagues. All were attending an experts’ seminar on nuclear disarmament in Ottawa—and all were at least somewhat familiar with the state of affairs of the global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime.

“Impromptu. Show of hands. Two questions. The first: Must the United States play a determined, leading role globally if nuclear abolition is ever to be a reality?”

The response was rare, unanimous consensus. “Yes” seemed so obvious that some respondents raised their hands only halfheartedly, elbows fully bent.

“The second: Who believes that nuclear abolition is among the top five priorities for U.S. presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump or Ben Carson?”

Blank stares. The mere mention of Donald Trump, prompted a couple of giggles.

“How about among the top ten priorities?” I persisted.

Crickets chirping.

“Top fifteen?” At this point I may have sounded a note of despair.

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

A non-priority
So there you have it. Exactly 0 per cent of this group of experts gathered at an Ottawa hotel anticipates a significant push toward nuclear abolition from Washington in the foreseeable future, no matter who steps into the White House. However casual the poll, its results likely do not stray much from the views of a much broader group of experts around the world—or from the official foreign policy platforms of those vying to become the next President of the United States.

The stubborn reality is that there is no sense of urgency about nuclear abolition in the American political or military spheres. With rare exceptions, the media and public opinion reflect the same level of unconcern. The voices of some committed and knowledgeable civil society organizations that are pushing steadfastly for progress on nuclear disarmament are drowned out by the tidal wave of overlapping discussions on ISIS, Obamacare, Crimea, gun control, Syrian refugees, climate change, online surveillance, and the latest antics of the Kardashians.

Quite simply, nuclear abolition—as distinct from right-sizing and reconfigurations of nuclear arsenals and, of course, nuclear modernization (Mehta 2016)—is a non-priority in Washington. The same can be said for Beijing and Moscow and London and Paris. And no one is realistically predicting that Israel or Pakistan or India or North Korea will give up their nuclear weapons soon. Even an optimist would have serious reservations on the realistic prospects for nuclear abolition. That this is so seven decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 45 years after the entry into force of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and more than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War only increases the general sense of frustration.

This is the context for the challenge that a majority of the world’s nations are issuing to nuclear-weapons states, which purport to be at the same time arbiters and direct beneficiaries of global norms on the acceptability of nuclear weapons possession. There is now a clear and widespread recognition that the discriminatory nature of the global nuclear disarmament regime—whereby nonproliferation is an obligation and disarmament a mere aspiration—is decidedly not conducive to nuclear abolition.

One gap or many?
A recent point of contention among states and civil society organizations has been whether there is in fact a legal gap in the multilateral normative framework for nuclear disarmament. Proponents of this idea are pushing hard for a treaty banning nuclear weapons, with or without the participation of nuclear-weapons states (ICAN 2016a).

They argue that, notwithstanding the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, no current instrument unequivocally prohibits every feature of nuclear weapons, including possession. They point to an anomaly in international law: while every other category of weapon of mass destruction has been expressly prohibited, the most destructive has not. They claim that a prohibition on nuclear weapons would serve to further stigmatize this already-taboo instrument of mass destruction.

On every count they are absolutely right. But one could go further. In fact, several gaps in the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime must be filled—all critical to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Filling the following two gaps, for instance, would constitute concrete steps toward abolition:

1. The dubious legality of NATO’s standing and practice as a nuclear-weapons alliance

Notably, this includes the stationing of nuclear weapons in the territories of non-nuclear-weapons states, which patently contravenes the spirit of Articles I and II of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. These articles refer, respectively, to the undertaking of nuclear-weapons states not to transfer nuclear weapons to others, and the undertaking of non-nuclear-weapons states not to receive them.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has not provided a sufficiently solid legal basis to challenge NATO’s (2015) nuclear-sharing arrangements, which members see as normal, business-as-usual practices. Don’t expect an admission from NATO of noncompliance with the NPT anytime soon.

Consider this hypothetical scenario: Russia stations nuclear weapons in Nicaragua (or Guatemala or Cuba or Venezuela—or in all of them). Would NATO agree that a ‘transfer’ has not taken place because Russia asserted that it retained control of the weapons? Or would there be another 13 Days to rival the Kennedy-Khrushchev showdown?

2. The four NPT outliers: India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel

Although the NPT is often said to be nearly universal, when only nuclear-armed states are considered, it is anything but (UNODA 2016). Of the nine countries currently in possession of nuclear arsenals, 44 per cent are outside the NPT framework. It is hard to imagine any change in this situation in the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that the international community would accept these countries as nuclear-weapons states under the NPT regime, and just as unlikely that they would agree to join the Treaty as non-nuclear-weapons states.

The nonproliferation side of the global disarmament and nonproliferation regime has historically held remarkably well. It is progress in actual disarmament (the raison d’être of the treaty and a foundational objective of the United Nations) that is desperately lacking. But it is hard to see how the NPT could be a realistic vehicle to zero nuclear weapons when almost half of the states with nuclear weapons are neither bound by its obligations nor restricted by its limitations.

Welcome efforts, but…
So, there are various legal gaps in the nuclear disarmament regime. A treaty categorically banning nuclear-weapons possession would, arguably, include both the weapons stationed in non-nuclear- weapons NATO states and those of the four states outside the NPT framework. Alternatively, efforts to fill single gaps could advance independently of one another. In all cases, the eventual impact will be to a great extent contingent upon the level of buy-in from the states that actually possess nuclear weapons.

Efforts to strengthen the normative framework (ICAN 2016b) for nuclear disarmament may further reinforce the legal foundation—and legitimacy—of demands for nuclear abolition. They already serve to draw much needed attention to the blatant disregard of nuclear-weapons states for their obligation to disarm.

But the utter absence of political will in key centres of power will continue to stall substantive progress toward nuclear abolition. As welcome and necessary as the aforementioned efforts are, greater attention must be given to concurrent initiatives, campaigns, and political processes that will encourage buy-in from nuclear-weapons states. The pursuit of a legal ban is a welcome pressure mechanism, and an eventual ban treaty (Article 36 2013) would constitute a concrete measure of progress—but surely there are others.

Diplomatic forums that work by absolute consensus and can thereby be subverted by any state are increasingly rejected. This is a fresh and creative development in the realm of nuclear disarmament as it forestalls the predictable opposition by nuclear-weapons states and their allies to concrete abolition measures—if not their absence from certain diplomatic forums where they are not in a position to block progress. But no abolition process will be complete unless and until countries with nuclear weapons participate fully. Let us not forget that, more than a treaty, the end goal is the actual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Ongoing discussions about the shortcomings of the multilateral disarmament machinery and the best forum in which to advance nuclear abolition are necessary, but they are of secondary concern. Even well intentioned efforts to create more discussion forums for nuclear disarmament are of limited value in the absence of a fundamental change in the role of nuclear weapons in the security doctrines of the states that rely on them (Stone 2015), and of the requisite political will to make the change.

Pending such a development, more forums may simply provide these states with further opportunities to regurgitate the same talking points that aim to justify their continued possession of nuclear weapons. Of this we can be certain: With genuine political will for nuclear disarmament there will be no shortage of creative diplomatic solutions for procedural matters.

The step-by-step approach to illusory progress
Despite being the bedrock of the nuclear disarmament “strategy” of nuclear-weapons states and many of their allies, the step-by-step approach has remarkably little depth and specificity. It appears at every meeting of NPT states parties, and in statements from nuclear-weapons states to the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. It is the core response to calls for progress based on the recognition of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

After decades of being touted by some states as the roadmap for nuclear disarmament, one might think that considerable thought has been given to the details of the ‘step-by-step’ approach. That parameters, timelines, and process have been precisely defined. That a serious, honest diplomatic effort has been made to explain its methods, expectations, and deliverables to the international community. That the major disagreements surrounding this approach relate to specific technical provisions of an otherwise well-articulated plan for nuclear abolition.

Except, there is no plan. There is no credible process today that would lead any observer to predict nuclear abolition in the foreseeable future (Jaramillo 2015).
A survey of the many references to this approach at various disarmament forums yields no response to key questions of both substance and process. What is repeatedly found is a variation of “a pragmatic step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament” (Global Affairs Canada 2014), which includes steps such as the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiation of a fissile materials treaty. Always the reference to CTBT and FMCT, always the categorizing of this approach as “pragmatic.”

It is hard to see the pragmatism in a strategy that never brings nuclear abolition any closer to reality. CTBT ratification and FMCT negotiation are important. But they have thus far been pursued in a haphazard, piecemeal manner with no clear linkage to an explicit and credible abolition effort.

Other unanswered questions about the step-by-step approach: What comes after CTBT ratification and FMCT negotiation? Would the states that have long championed a step-by-step approach then be ready to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention? Or will additional steps be needed? Who knows? Perhaps not even ‘step-by-step’ proponents.

Elusive political will
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward famously said of his threshold test for pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And genuine political will for nuclear abolition is nowhere to be seen in the nuclear-weapons states.

Part of the problem is that nuclear weapons are not yet widely seen as a fundamental moral wrong of the same magnitude as an issue such as slavery. Viewed from this perspective, any real or perceived benefits of nuclear-weapons possession are outweighed by considerations grounded on our very humanity (Reaching Critical Will 2016). Moral imperatives do not allow for baby steps—some of them backwards.

Some people argue that the current chill between Russia and the United States is not conducive to nuclear disarmament. I would ask: Since the end of the Second World War (or the Cold War) what geopolitical environment would have been more conducive to these negotiations? Why was the moment not seized?

The reality is that there will never be ‘ideal’ international security conditions for nuclear disarmament. Neither Crimea nor Syria will be the last sources of instability involving nuclear-weapons states in general, or U.S.-Russian strategic interests in particular. The expectation of ripe conditions for disarmament cannot be allowed to be used in perpetuity as an excuse for the lack of progress. When would it NOT be premature to undertake a serious process for nuclear abolition?

Non-nuclear-weapons states have never made the fulfillment of their nonproliferation obligations contingent upon ideal international security conditions. Nuclear abolition will be a complex, multifaceted undertaking that will need to coexist with international security crises of varying gravity. Disarmament measures must be started, implemented, and concluded in geopolitical conditions that are predictably less than perfect.

The endgame for nuclear abolition is remarkably straightforward: there must be a universal, non-discriminatory process, with provisions for the irreversible elimination of existing nuclear arsenals and a timeline for verified implementation.

Nuclear-weapons states and their allies have labeled such a process “disingenuous.” But isn’t it more disingenuous to expect to arrive at a world free of nuclear weapons without a multilateral process such as the one described above? Is there historical evidence to suggest that an arms control undertaking of such magnitude could be achieved without a multilateral treaty or convention with concrete disarmament provisions, verification mechanisms, and a timeline for implementation?

Such a process, ambitious as it is, is not only necessary, but indeed possible. If we have the political will to get it started.


Article 36. 2013. Banning nuclear weapons. February 24.

Global Affairs Canada. 2014. Nuclear weapons. December 4.

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. 2016a. The case for a ban treaty.

_____. 2016b. Humanitarian pledge. February 29.

Jaramillo, Cesar. 2015. NPT Review Conference: No outcome document better than a weak one. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 3.

Mehta, Aaron. 2016. Pentagon protects nuclear modernization programs in FY17 budget. DefenseNews, February 10.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 2015. NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and forces. December 3.

Reaching Critical Will. 2016. Humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

Stone, Jon. 2015. David Cameron says that he would use nuclear weapons. Independent, October 4.

United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. 2016. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

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