Can unarmed states prohibit nuclear weapons?

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

This article first appeared in the Mint. The views are of the author(s).

Guess what terrifies nations armed with the most powerful weapons ever invented? Believe it or not—a mere UN conference to ban them, which began on 27 March in New York. This gathering of nations without nuclear weapons to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”, has caused greater consternation among the nine nuclear-armed states and their shielded allies than the spectre of Armageddon through deliberate, inadvertent or accidental nuclear use. 

This was amply demonstrated when the US, UK and France, along with several other countries which live under nuclear umbrellas, publicly protested against the conference and sought to justify why they were boycotting it. In doing so, they not only exposed their uber anxiety over the conference but also, inadvertently, focused a spotlight on the proceedings, which might otherwise not have garnered as much attention.

The supreme irony is that despite the fear of the nuclear-armed states, neither the conference nor the subsequent treaty, which is likely to be concluded later this year, will disarm a single nuclear weapon. Yet the trepidation of the nuclear weapon states is not entirely irrational.

First, the 120-odd nations that participated in the negotiations highlight that nearly two-thirds of UN members have been able to ensure their security without the possession or protection of nuclear weapons. In contrast, the 40 nations staying away—less than one-fourth of all UN members—perceive that nuclear weapons are essential to ensure their security. This is also the rationale provided by the US and its allies to justify their nuclear weapons and their boycott of the conference. However, as Alexander Marschik, the Austrian delegate to the conference, retorted: “If nuclear weapons are truly indispensable in providing security, then why should not all states benefit from this advantage?” This argument also lays bare the fallacy that deterrence based on nuclear weapons is more stable than deterrence without nuclear weapons, given that relations among nuclear weapon states are crises-ridden.

Second, the conference participants and deliberations have also underlined the dangers of nuclear weapons use to non-nuclear weapon states. While a hypothetical nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan is a convenient favourite of experts to prove that the humanitarian consequences of even limited use will be global, this scenario is far more alarming and existential when considering nuclear use by the US, Russia and China.

Unsurprisingly then, some of the countries spearheading the negotiation process—Austria, Cuba, Ireland, Mexico, Mongolia and Sweden—are likely to face the brunt of nuclear fallout if weapons are used in their region by the heavily-armed nuclear nations. To put this in context, the fallout from the single biggest nuclear test conducted by the US on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific on 1 March 1954 with a yield of 15 megatons—five times more than all the firepower used in World War II—spread over 18,000 sq. km and showered radioactive material as far as Australia, India, Japan and the US. It was this one test that prompted Jawaharlal Nehru to propose a nuclear test ban treaty.

Third, the conference and treaty will plug a serious legal gap in that nuclear weapons (unlike chemical and biological weapons) are the only weapons of mass destruction that are not prohibited by international law. This is an unfathomable lapse given the potential of nuclear weapons use to lead to global extinction.

If nuclear-armed states are unhappy with the momentum picked up by the negotiations, then they have only themselves to blame. This conference is a direct result of the diminishing faith in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) process, the conference on disarmament, and the nuclear-centred world order even after the end of the Cold War. Ever since the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, the nuclear-armed states failed on two counts. First, they failed to keep their commitments made in NPT review conferences, primarily on disarmament, thus alienating even the most loyal non-nuclear adherent. Second, despite the growing disconnect between the emerging nuclear disorder and the evolving world order, the nuclear weapon states (also permanent UN security council members) failed to accommodate aspirant powers and establish a new world order that was not based on nuclear weapons.

Against this backdrop, the proposed treaty offers a significant opportunity, at the very least, to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence and subsequently to move towards a nuclear-free world order. To be clear, the treaty will not eliminate existing nuclear weapons in the first instance; it is more likely to establish an international norm that prohibits the development, acquisition, manufacture, possession, transportation, transfer or use of nuclear weapons. As envisaged in these negotiations, the treaty is likely to allow for the future membership of nuclear armed states with the objective of eliminating their nuclear arsenals, but only in cooperation with them. Thus, by participating in the negotiations, nuclear-armed states could underscore their commitment to a nuclear-weapon free world and also contribute to the contours of the treaty. By staying out, they gain nothing and lose goodwill.

Whether the nuclear-armed states come in or stay out, one thing is clear: The pen that writes the treaty might still turn out to be mightier than the mightiest sword built by mankind.