A ban treaty would be the natural culmination of the decades of brilliant civil society work that have brought us to this point.
Such a treaty would be voluntary and non-coercive, yet ever more normative as more countries joined. It would grow in importance only in the most democratic manner. It would affect nuclear arsenals in an indirect and therefore flexible manner, and only according to the evolving unique security circumstances of each state. It would not conflict with any existing or future disarmament or nonproliferation agreement or treaty, but rather would support them all. It would not add new obligations for NPT non-nuclear weapon states that are not in nuclear security relationships, which is most of the countries in the world. All these states have nothing to lose in a ban — apart from whatever nasty forms of leverage some nuclear weapon states (like the U.S.) and their allies might try to apply.
A ban would stimulate and empower civil society in many countries, with benefits across humanitarian issues.
Here in the U.S., a ban treaty would tremendously empower everything we are doing against nuclear weapons. I would like to explain this further because many people think that a ban would have no effect on U.S. policy, given that the U.S. won’t sign it.
Nuclear policy in the U.S. is not made in a smooth, top-down, confident manner. There are many reversals and problems. The nuclear weapons establishment has many adversaries inside government and outside, not least its own bureaucrats and fat-cat contractors, who struggle to hide the scandals and ongoing fiascos. Key mid-career people are quitting early at facilities we know from job frustration, taking their knowledge and experience with them. Retirements left one plant (Y-12) without knowledge of how to make a critical non-commercial material at industrial scale. At the only U.S. nuclear weapons assembly plant, in Texas, snakes and mice infest one or more key buildings, which date from World War II. Rain comes through the roofs and dust through the doors. In Oak Ridge, huge pieces of concrete have fallen from ceilings and deep cracks have appeared in a structural beam in a key building. All this infrastructure may, or may not be, fully replaced. It is contested in many cases, difficult, and expensive.
At Los Alamos, the main plutonium facility has been largely shut down for almost three years because of inadequate safety and staffing. Approximately seven attempts have been made since 1989 to construct a new factory complex for producing plutonium warhead cores — all have failed. It might just be that nuclear weapons production, in the final analysis, is not compatible with today’s safety and environmental expectations and laws. Transmission of nuclear weapons ideology and knowledge under these conditions is a difficult challenge.
A growing ban would reach deep into the human conscience, affecting everything, including career decisions. It would affect corporate investments as well as congressional enthusiasm for the industry. I have spoken with nuclear weapons CEOs who know it is a “sunset” field with only tenuous support in the broader Pentagon, despite all the nuclear cheer-leading we see. Modernization of the whole nuclear arsenal is very likely unaffordable, even assuming current economic conditions hold (they won’t).
A ban would also affect the funding, aims, and structure of the U.S. nonprofit universe and think-tank “ecosystem,” as well as media interest and coverage.
Beyond all this, I believe a ban would also help decrease popular support in the U.S. for war and war expenditures in general. Why? There is a tremendous war-weariness in the U.S., right alongside our (real, but also orchestrated) militarism. A growing ban on nuclear weapons would be a powerful signal to political candidates and organizations that it is politically permissible to turn away from militarism somewhat, that there is something wrong with the levels of destruction this country has amassed and brandished so wildly and with such deadly and chaotic effects. Ordinary people here in the U.S. are seeing greater and greater austerity and precarity. They work extremely hard and have less and less to show for it. Polls (decades of them) show the public has never really supported the scale of nuclear armaments we have. One 1990s poll disclosed that most Americans think we have more than ten times fewer warheads than we actually do, more like the U.K., France, and China! Our economy is in bad shape and our infrastructure is visibly declining, sometimes with fatal results. A ban could help this benighted country recognize its folly, at least to some degree. It would be a wake-up call signalling that widely-held U.S. assumptions about our place in the world might need just a teensy bit of adjustment.
I hope this helps fill in the picture somewhat for those far away who may not see why a ban would be powerful here in the U.S.
The case for such a simple, totally flexible, and powerful treaty, with relatively low diplomatic cost for most states, is to our eyes unassailable.