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Why have nuclear powers rejected the TPNW nuclear treaty?

On July 16th, 1945, the United States detonated the first-ever nuclear bomb in an experiment known as the Trinity Test. Less than a month later, on August 6th and 9th, two more atomic bombs were deployed over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively – the first and last time nuclear weapons have been utilised in armed conflict. This was a crisis unprecedented in its devastation — psychological and physical.

Unsurprisingly, nuclear weapons have not been deployed once since that dreaded day. These weapons of mass destruction are uniquely capable of posing an existential threat to humankind’s future. In the years following the Second World War, numerous attempts to eliminate nuclear weapons were pursued by peace movements and bureaucrats alike – even as weapon numbers climbed to a peak of 70,300 in 1986. These parties have criticised nuclear deterrence policies and the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) as a flawed theoretical construct that provides a false sense of security to the nations in question. As a result of their efforts, the estimated global nuclear warhead inventory stands at 13410, a reduction effort of nearly 80%. Nevertheless, the project must persist as long as even a single nuclear weapon exists.

What is the TPNW?

January 22nd, 2020 was a landmark day in the history of nuclear disarmament. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), negotiated in 2017, was formally ratified by over 50 countries. This treaty legally prevents nations from participating in “any nuclear weapons activities”. The undertakings in question prohibit development, testing, production, acquisition, and nuclear weapons use. In another unique move, the treaty obliges nations to provide aid to individuals affected by the use of nuclear weapons and take measures of environmental remediation in areas under state control.

Traditionally, nuclear disarmament groups have sought the elimination of nuclear weapons through a two-pronged policy approach that emphasises non-proliferation and disarmament. This treaty, which falls under the latter, serves as a good faith effort by nations to fulfil their responsibilities as signatories of the older Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and pursue disarmament. It strengthens the prohibitions built into the 1970 pact and extends the nuclear disarmament architecture by providing comprehensive legal provisions to create a binding framework. Although it is only applicable to states that have signed (86 as of the last count), the treaty nevertheless sets a strong legal precedent against which future nuclear policies may be completed. However, the signing of this treaty raises some crucial questions regarding its efficacy and enforceability.

Who didn’t sign the treaty is more important than who did. 

The big question relates to the nature of the signatories of the treaty in question. Why is it that none of the nuclear states – the US, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel – have signed or ratified the treaty? Of these nine, the first five are already party to the NPT – why did these nations refuse in particular? Furthermore, other nations that participate in nuclear weapons sharing for national security purposes have declined to participate in this discourse. The 30 NATO countries have tried to thwart the advances of the treaty. Even Japan, the only nation to experience nuclear weapon strikes in battle, has refused to support it.

NATO has publicly treated nuclear deterrence as a critical component of its defence program. Given that nuclear weapons exist, NATO insists that it must wield the same to mount any credible attempts at security. While “NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation”, there is a persistent belief that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented – and as such it is better to be a nuclear alliance. In line with this argument, NATO countries then opted out of the TPNW.

But this account, it seems to this author, is a simplistic enactment of power relations at the international level. Consider for one, the fact that NATO HQ mounted a misinformation campaign against TPNW in the months preceding it. This convenient interpretation of the TPNW sought to characterise it as fundamentally flawed in its undertakings – misconceptions that the nuclear disarmament campaign ICAN promptly and thoroughly addressed. It came in the wake of an open letter drafted by the United States urging countries that had ratified the TPNW to withdraw support based on “strategic error”. These instances were strategic undertakings designed to preserve the interests of the nuclear powers in question, and sway the vote.

In a similar explanation of the vote regarding its abstention, India publicly stated that it was unconvinced of the ability to implement the treaty on the international level and hence unwilling to be a party to it. India too attaches high commitment ” to universal, non-discriminatory and verifiable nuclear disarmament”, said a press release on the same day. As demonstrated, India is not the only one. Japan and many other states have resisted calls to ratify the treaty, despite significant public pressure to the contrary.

A realist vantage point can help us understand the motivations that prompt nuclear powers to resist the external imposition of security policy. The international stage is rife with mistrust, and global players are not inclined to take the actions of other forces as marked by good faith. Any attempt at arms suppression (in the form of nuclear warheads) is likely to be taken by nuclear powers as an attempt to level the power balance by their non-nuclear counterparts. This is perceived as threatening, based on the deeply embedded belief that nuclear weapons cannot ever truly be uninvented.

An alternative stance would argue that it is faith in nuclear deterrence practices that leads to states resisting disarmament. However, claims that nuclear deterrence works have been debunked time and time again. For one, nuclear deterrence requires rational decision-makers, and this is not guaranteed. No system is foolproof, and any state may make critical errors (in judgement and instrument). Furthermore, nuclear deterrence encourages nuclear proliferation, which exponentially increases the chance of these errors occurring (more instances in which such errors may manifest). As such, nuclear deterrence is little more than a veneer through which states may justify arms acquisition and development. Hence, we see clear cut rationality through which nuclear states may justify practices of nuclear tolerance.

Instead, such states see it fit to pursue their own foreign policy to mitigate nuclear weapons threats. Consider the Biden administration’s ongoing talks with Russia to renew the nuclear weapons pact or pursue the Iranian nuclear accord. States prefer to mediate their own agendas, which is in line with practices of autonomy followed by the great powers – that seek to assert themselves as hegemons over and above any global mandate.

Nevertheless, it would be fruitful for these states to rein in opposition to the TPNW and concede its effectiveness. Not every nation can negotiate foreign policy on its own terms and conditions, and the TPNW, in many senses, levels the playing field concerning nuclear policy. It affords a sense of security in the international domain to smaller players, all while furthering the disarmament agenda.

Additionally, the opportunity that has been presented should not be so readily discarded by member states of NATO. These powers would do well to cognise of the fact that they merely indulge in nuclear weapons sharing, and possess no nuclear capital of their own. If even a few of these states saw fit to ratify the TPNW and act against NATO, it could create a domino effect that might compel other states to cross over, and even exert pressure on the US and its ilk. These member states would do well to set an example and take a stab at nurturing a sense of security rooted in long term prospects – such as complete elimination of the nuclear option.

It does not seem reasonable for nuclear states to continuously project their commitment to nuclear disarmament and world peace while being selective regarding disarmament policy. This is a rational consequence of power relations at the international level based on mistrust and a sense of autonomy. Albeit reasonable, it is unethical. And while it may be the case that these sovereign states do not play by the rules of morality when it comes to politics – they would do well to remember the looming existential threat that nuclear weapons afford us and take steps to remedy the same.

Rahil is a third-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University in India, studying Political Science, Philosophy and International Relations.

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