This article was originally published by Reaching Critical Will.
How can an approach to global security built on the threat of mass annihilation be compatible with a 21st century understanding of international cooperation, asked Austria during a rather surreal debate on Thursday. A handful of states that include nuclear weapons in their security doctrines extolled their perception that these weapons afford them security and stability and must be maintained by “responsible” states until some distant future date when the “conditions” for nuclear disarmament are “correct”. This aggressive articulation of support for the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons seems to have been sparked by a more vocal and assertive display of support for the prohibition of these weapons. As the commencement of negotiations towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons gains traction, these nuclear apologists have—rather unwisely—begun escalating and entrenching their support for maintaining weapons of terror.
Fear mongering from the weapons supporters
Perversely, although with apparent sincerity, states supporting the continued existence of weapons of massive, indiscriminate violence sought to argue that in fact it is those supporting a prohibition that are acting irresponsibly, threatening the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and fuelling polarisation in the international community.
Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Hungary, Republic of Korea, and Poland all gave a version of accounts in which banning nuclear weapons is destabilising and where pursuit of the decades-old failed step-by-step approach is the only “effective” way forward. They all asserted that a prohibition treaty would upset the international order in varying ways, with Poland claiming it would “destroy the NPT system” and Hungary comparing prohibition supporters to climate change deniers because they “ignore the security dimensions of nuclear weapons”.
“This is not a game,” warned Poland. “Our lives and our future are at stake.”
A dangerous game
The sake of our lives and future is exactly why nuclear weapons must be outlawed and eliminated. It is the wielding of nuclear weapons that is destabilising. It is the perpetuation of the idea that nuclear weapons afford security that is irresponsible. It is, as Mexico said, the doctrine of deterrence that undermines the NPT and the broader multilateral system.
Any peace that we have experienced in the past 70 years is because of our efforts towards collective security in spite of, not because of, nuclear weapons, argued Ambassador Lomonaco of Mexico. Nuclear weapons “force states into an automatically adversarial relationship in which they threaten each other with the most destructive technologies of violence we have been able to develop as human beings,” remarkedThomas Nash of Article 36 speaking on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
The real challenge to the NPT comes not from prohibiting nuclear weapons but from failing to fulfil NPT commitments. This includes the commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons, but also, as Switzerland noted, commitments to transparency, de-alerting, and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines—commitments that many states railing against the prohibition claim to support and yet have failed to implement.
A nuclear weapon ban treaty will not undermine the NPT. It only undermines a perverse conception of the NPT as an instrument that confers legitimacy on nuclear weapons for the five states recognised as possessors under that Treaty and for their allies who include the potential use of those weapons in their security doctrines.
Whose security is it anyway?
The crux of the problem is not polarisation “caused” by the majority of states seeking to prohibit nuclear weapons. Rather the problem is the entrenched position of a minority of nuclear-armed and allied states that is fundamentally incompatible with international law and generally accepted moral principles. The problem is not that the majority of states ignore the security dimensions of nuclear weapons but that the minority does not seem to believe that humanity is a prerequisite for genuine, sustainable security. State security, in their view, is seen as distinct from and apparently more important than a much broader concept of security that as Austria’s Ambassador Hajnoczi includes the environment, economics, and human beings, among other things. As Mr. Nash said, “security is not security without humanity.”
This false binary privileges those seeking to maintain an imbalanced, discriminatory set of international relationships in which nuclear weapons are a symbol of power. Ms. Shorna-Kay Richards of Jamaica questioned why these states would wilfully posit nuclear weapons as instrumental to their security, asking why then should all countries not pursue nuclear weapons.
A number of other reasonable questions for these states remained unanswered at the end of the debate. Why, if they are so convinced of the perceived security benefits of nuclear weapons, would they want ever to get rid of them? How can they say with certitude that nuclear weapons bring stability and security in one breath and in the next say they are committed to nuclear disarmament? How can they claim that they want peace and security yet perpetuate the existence of and reliance upon weapons of mass destruction? Why are these countries even party to the NPT, if threatening the use of nuclear weapons is so useful for security?
A crisis of faith
The nuclear-supportive states in the room seeking to disrupt efforts towards a prohibition came across at times a bit like believers that the sun revolves around the earth having their entire worldview put into question. It is as if they have deemed nuclear weapons as critical to their survival, to the extent they no longer recognise that their security is interdependent with the security of other countries. In saying that they are being threatened by aggressive states undertaking exercises on their borders, they seem not to recognise the perceptions of their own actions by the states they fear. These perceptions of aggression of course go both ways and nuclear weapons lock these relationships into a highly negative dynamic from which it is very difficult to escape. These states also missed the opportunity of today’s debate to address what Austria, Brazil, and many others have described as a suicidal policy of nuclear deterrence. Instead they overlooked the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons and asserted that their security concerns are being ignored.
The majority of states, which reject nuclear weapons and are seeking to prohibit them, do not ignore this minority’s perceived security concerns. They are trying to change their perspective – seeking the paradigm shift that many have said is essential to move those states out of their current nuclear-armed security tangle. The reality that is denied in the dogma of nuclear weapons is that, as Ms. Eunice Akiwo of Palausaid, they are immoral, they are inhumane, and soon they will be illegal. In this context, it is irresponsible for these states to claim that prohibiting nuclear weapons will be destabilising. Rather they should redouble their efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their own security doctrines and stop seeking to undermine the positive developments towards a legally-binding instrument that strengthen the global norm against nuclear weapons and increase international security for all.