A resurgence of small-minded nationalism around the globe, most worryingly in several nuclear-armed countries, has gravely concerned many who champion the international organizations that promote global peace and security, human rights and humanitarianism and sustainable development. Here in the U.S., foreign policy experts across the political spectrum have despaired at Donald Trump’s disregard for multilateral security institutions, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and outright disrespect for global diplomatic norms.
Trump’s call for a new nuclear “arms race” is particularly chilling, given America’s commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That treaty keeps nuclear weapons out of the hands of all but a few countries, while legally binding the U.S. and others to nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, almost no political leader in Washington has had the courage to restart the kind of sweeping nuclear weapons negotiations that – with bipartisan support – made the world a much safer place at the end of the Cold War.
Yet despite these challenges to progressive global security, we are on the cusp of what may be the most significant positive change in global nuclear politics in almost three decades.
A short train ride from the Beltway, at the U.N. headquarters in New York, the conversation is very different. Since March, 130 countries – a substantial majority of the UN’s 195 members – have been negotiating a convention banning nuclear weapons. They are spurred on by a civil society coalition, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and the support of Nobel Peace Laureates, faith leaders, medical professionals and domestic lawmakers.
Declaring nuclear weapons as inhumane, the draft treaty released last month places them in the same legal category as other weapons of mass destruction (biological and chemical) and with those that cause unacceptable harm (landmines and cluster munitions). The next three-week round of negotiations on the ban, mandated by the UN General Assembly, begins June 15. Barring any surprises, it is likely that the U.N. will adopt the treaty by the middle of July.
In D.C., nuclear weapons are debated through a myopic frame of “national security”, forgetting that it was long ago decided that the indiscriminate killing of civilians is unacceptable and illegal. The process leading to a nuclear weapons prohibition has been built on “the imperative of human security for all,” seeking “to promote the protection of civilians against risks stemming from nuclear weapons.” Indeed, the draft treaty text also offers assistance for victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and the remediation of contaminated environments.
Despite their obligation to uphold international humanitarian law, the Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been opposed by the nuclear-armed states and those in nuclear alliances. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley held a bizarre protest in the hallway outside the U.N. General Assembly Room during the March negotiation session, paradoxically expressing the Trump Administration’s desire to “have our voices heard” by boycotting the talks. As a result, the D.C. foreign policy establishment has largely ignored the ban treaty process.
However, ban treaty advocates have pushed forward nonetheless and are close to success. The non-nuclear-armed states driving the negotiations – such as Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria and South Africa – have decided to move forward without those entangled in the nuclear weapons apparatus in order to stigmatize nuclear weapons, and cast as pariahs those in their thrall.
The ban treaty process is already having a political impact on nuclear-armed and nuclear-allied states. The Netherlands came to the March negotiations (despite pressure from NATO not to), instructed to do so by its parliamentarians. Norwegian parliamentarians have also passed a resolution supporting the ban, despite the government’s opposition. In Germany, more than 90 percent of citizens back the idea of a prohibition treaty and 85 percent want U.S. nuclear weapons removed from their country.
In the U.K., the debate on a nuclear weapons ban is becoming entwined in the politics of Scottish independence. British nuclear submarines are based in Scotland, despite the Scottish public’s overwhelming anti-nuclear sentiment. Scottish nationalists have hinted that they would join the ban treaty if their country gained its independence. This could force the U.K. to find new locations for its nuclear weapons. And in the U.K. we have seen how quickly domestic politics can change, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is supportive of the prohibition effort.
The private sector may also play a role, as the new treaty could persuade – or even require – banks to disinvest from nuclear weapons production.
As this political pressure builds, treaty proponents hope it will push the nuclear possessor states to restart meaningful disarmament talks.
For activists on the streets and officials in the negotiation rooms, the nuclear weapons ban treaty offers a way to reclaim political agency, showing that – even in difficult times – it is possible to address global security challenges through advocacy, diplomacy and multilateralism. By writing a treaty they are choosing to develop new norms, rather than being defined in reaction to the ugly nationalism of our time. They are demonstrating that internationalism is alive and well and can achieve progressive change.