by Carl Bildt
The vast majority of countries want to eliminate the existential threat of nuclear catastrophe, and rightly so. But achieving a world free of nuclear weapons is easier said than done, and there is a risk that some attempts to do so could prove self-defeating.
Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear stockpiles around the world have been significantly reduced. Russia and the United States have each shrunk their nuclear arsenals by 80%, and during Barack Obama’s presidency, the US urged Russia to pursue further reductions. In Western Europe, the United Kingdom and France have both made their already small arsenals even smaller.
These countries had various reasons for reducing their stockpiles. But, as signatories to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – the foundation of global efforts to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons – they also had an obligation to do so.
In recent years, progress toward nuclear disarmament has stalled. Russia is currently modernizing its strategic nuclear forces, and has started to mention its nuclear capacity more often in public statements. That explains why efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals in Western Europe have come to a halt. The US, for its part, is also reviewing its options for modernizing its nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has continued to produce the fissile materials used in nuclear weapons. Efforts to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone have gone nowhere, largely because of Israel. The international community could not agree on a way forward at NPT review conferences in 2005 and 2015. And, of course, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have created another nuclear crisis in East Asia.
Against this backdrop, a large bloc of countries has proposed a far-reaching Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a draft of which was endorsed by 122 United Nations member states in early July. Unfortunately, what started as a worthwhile humanitarian effort has culminated in a severely flawed proposal.
Three issues stand out. First, since no nuclear states support a nuclear-ban treaty, the current proposal, by itself, would not rid the world of a single nuclear warhead. Worse, the new treaty could undermine the NPT, which, despite its own flaws, has far wider backing, including that of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US). Finally, by treating the concept of extended nuclear deterrence as illegal, or at least immoral, the draft treaty could actually threaten security in Europe and East Asia.
The initial draft treaty, when it was unveiled earlier this year, did not include language explicitly banning the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. But the version that countries voted on in July did. This is a critical change. The threat of a nuclear counterstrike is what keeps countries from using nuclear weapons in the first place. And so-called extended deterrence through alliances is what protects non-nuclear states from being blackmailed by nuclear states. Without extended deterrence, non-nuclear countries could see fit to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.
It is for this reason that the Netherlands, the only NATO country to participate in developing the nuclear-ban treaty, ultimately voted against it. Japan, the only country that has ever been attacked with nuclear weapons, has also withheld support for the treaty, because it relies on extended nuclear deterrence from the US.