Progress on Nuclear Disarmament Has Always Depended on Non-Nuclear-Armed States and Civil Society

This is the final piece in my series onDeconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference”. It is republished from NPT News in Review. The previous two posts pointed out the problems with the claim that nuclear weapons prevent war and the considered the politics of nuclear weapons states’ denial of humanitarian consequences.

Over the last month at the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference we have heard too many times that progress on disarmament “relies on engagement with the nuclear weapons states.” This usually comes from nuclear-dependent states, such as Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Australia, which are not officially nuclear-armed but have military doctrines that rely on US capabilities. Some even store US nuclear weapons on their soil.

But this conventional wisdom is lazy, lacks courage, and misrepresents the history of normative progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is beholden to the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the USA, Russia, China, UK, and France. It is an argument for the status quo, in which, as Costa Rica put it on Monday, 18 May, nuclear-armed states “pat themselves on the back” for their meager and slowing limitations on arsenals. Indeed the outcome of the NPT RevCon—with consensus on the outcome text blocked by nucleararmed states but 107 non-nuclear states backing a call for nuclear weapon prohibition and elimination—shows where the momentum for progress lies.

In reviewing the history of nuclear weapons, the major moments of change occurred when those at the “fringes”—small states, middle powers, humanitarian agencies, human rights advocates, faith leaders and religious organizations, activists, intellectuals, and artists—spoke out, withdrew their consent, or moved forward on their own.

Many justifiably point to US President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 UN speech as a game-changer in the discourse about nuclear weapons, clearing stating that they “must be abolished before they abolish us.” But what is often overlooked is how much political pressure the US and Soviet foreign policy elite were under in the 1950s to end the debilitating terror of nuclear weapons.

Religious institutions like the Vatican and World Council of Churches issued strong condemnation of nuclear weapons. The 1955 “Manifesto” by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell signed by prominent intellectuals around the globe called for an “agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments” and led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. This was accompanied by a groundswell of social discontent, such as the Aldermaston Marches and the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—with its famous “peace sign” logo—in the late 1950s.

The momentum for nuclear disarmament was dissipated by the complete breakdown in trust between the superpowers during the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it is worth remembering that Kennedy held back from escalating the crisis because the worldview of his civilian advisors had developed outside of military structures. The pressure to avoid nuclear war from civil society had been transmitted to the White House and ultimately prevailed.

Frustrated and frightened by an arms race that threatened the whole of human existence, during the 1960s small states and middle powers decided that they could not wait for the superpowers to halt their destructive spiral. Just a month after the height of the confrontation over Cuba, the UN General Assembly (where smaller states have a majority) passed resolution 1909 calling for “a convention on the prohibition of the use of nuclear and thermos-nuclear weapons.”

The Latin American and Caribbean states went even further by innovating the first nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) —the Treaty of Tlatetlolco—in 1967. Since then, the majority of states are now members of NWFZ treaties. Several small states, particularly Ireland, played an instrumental role in getting the two superpowers and nuclear armed states to commit to the NPT, including the article VI obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament.”

Traditional theories of international relations—focused as they are on the distribution of bombs and tanks rather than the role of symbols and idea—has also often underestimated the effect that the arts have on shaping the thinking of policymakers. “Dr. Strangelove” did more perhaps than any UN panel or politician’s speech to undermine the faulty logic of “mutually assured destruction.” And President Reagan admitted in his diary that watching the 1983 film “The Day After” alerted him to the immense dangers of nuclear war.

Such artistic products both drew from and inspired further unprecedented levels of protest in the 1980s, including the Plowshares actions, Greenham Common occupation, and the million people who gathered in Central Park in 1982.

In the last five years we have seen the increasing coordination between disparate groups traditionally marginalized from global policymaking on security. The launch in 2007 of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) brought new public attention to nuclear disarmament and galvanized a new generation of politically savvy activists.

ICAN has been particularly effective at organizing in coalitions with middle powers and small states, resulting in the three conferences on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. This modelled a refreshingly different way of talking about nuclear weapons, putting victims and survivors (both past and future) and the human impact—rather than outmoded notions of “deterrence”—at the center of the conversation.

And this is not just talk. There is now new impetus for action, symbolized by the Humanitarian Pledge— signed by 107 states so far—to “fill the legal gap” in order “to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

The late international relations theorist and nuclear weapons apologist Professor Kenneth Waltz once scoffed that it would be “ridiculous to construct a theory of international politics based on Malaysia and Costa Rica.” He believed that if you wanted to understand the way the world works you only needed to pay attention to the great military powers.

But, as Costa Rica pointed out in a side event this week, the emerging field of humanitarian disarmament has shown just how blinkered this supposedly “realist” view is. Antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions were banned through a disciplined and tightly coordinated coalition of civil society, middle powers, and smaller states. Even though some of the major military powers have failed to sign these treaties, they have largely accepted the new norms.

Costa Rica and Malaysia are both members of the Humanitarian Pledge. They are precisely the countries to pay attention to if you want to construct a new, more humane, theory of international politics. Looking to the supposed margins—small states, activists, advocates, humanitarians, intellectuals, and artists—we can envision theory that instead of cultivating passivity ushers in a world free of nuclear weapons.

~ by Matthew Bolton on 25 May 2015.

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