There was great hoopla and celebration among anti-nuclear activists in January 2021 when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons became international law. I think most of the people in this movement know the obstacles they face, which is why I have always found it strange that they celebrate as if these obstacles didn’t exist, as if things were really going to change now that nuclear weapons are illegal. I have rained on this parade since it started and been criticized, ignored and exiled for doing so (see the links to previous posts on this topic at the end of this post).

Those who disagree with me ask what is wrong with pushing ahead, being hopeful and believing the momentum behind the treaty will win in the end. The treaty of course has some positive effect on creating awareness of nuclear dangers, but the general approach has been wrong because it is setting up a younger and naïve generation for disillusionment. It is my belief that the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been disappointed enough times already.

I got the impression sometimes that even the leaders of ICAN themselves believe international law is enforceable. I see no discussion of the long-established record of the United States holding itself exempt from international law. Within the United States there is even no interest in prosecuting governments and political leaders for violations of domestic law and the constitution. Article 6 of the constitution states that the United States’ treaty obligations are the law of the land, which means that any violations of the UN Charter, such as wars of aggression or meddling in the internal affairs of other nations, should be prosecuted domestically as treason. But that has never happened.

The approach to abolishing nuclear weapons should have had a dual approach. One part of the approach should have been the creation of the treaty, and the other should have emphasized the need to build alliances of real political and economic power that could force the rollback of the American Empire and make it submit to international law. When that problem is resolved, and the United States is forced to shrink both its conventional military forces and its nuclear arsenal, other nuclear states can be convinced that their nuclear deterrence is no longer necessary. But this would be a long, hard journey toward the creation of trust and balance of power between the nations of the world.

In an interview given to The Grayzone on January 25, 2021, Newsweek contributor and author William Arkin expressed views similar to mine. When asked if there was any significance in the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, he bluntly replied, “None… the idea that there is going to be an impact from the treaty that bans nuclear weapons is naïve.” A partial transcript follows:

William Arkin: So many things have changed in the strategic picture between the United States and Russia… I don’t see how you can have just a numbers game without addressing any longer the question of the qualitative pieces of our strategic stability. We’ve reduced the number of nuclear weapons on each side from tens of thousands to thousands… but something has happened in the interim. Conventional weapons have become more precise and they have become more intrinsic as a part of the nuclear arsenal. Cyberweapons have become part of the offensive capability of both sides. After many decades of trying, ballistic missile defenses are finally beginning to bear fruit and are possible stoppers of a nuclear attack, which means that they can also undermine strategic stability. And finally there is a new generation of nuclear weapons, particularly hypersonic weapons and other very fast-moving weapons that might overwhelm the defenses of the other side or, more importantly, in the case of a crisis, not provide the other side with a sufficient amount of time to deliberate as to whether they want to retaliate… that undermines strategic stability, which is to say that neither side can believe that they could undertake a first strike against the other without guaranteed retaliation. That’s been the fabric of deterrence, of the unhappy peace that we live with, for the last fifty years. That has begun to be eroded. We have not really seriously looked at the arms control implications of the development of new technologies, even those that are not nuclear directly but support and augment the nuclear arsenals. I’m afraid we are not going to be able to just have a numerical ceiling on nuclear weapons without folding in greater considerations of what impact these new capabilities—conventional, cyber, space, hypersonics, electronic warfare—have on strategic stability…

The United States is an empire… we are all over the place… and we are now bombing in ten countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, so the truth of the matter is that our first task has to be to end perpetual war, but the nuclear situation has always existed sort of on its own plane. And one of the features of nuclear arms control and the nuclear relationship between the two countries was that even in the darkest days of US-Soviet relations and the darkest days of US-Russian relations, there was a recognition on both sides that nuclear arms control was in both sides’ interests, and I certainly hope that this prevails in this new environment…

Aaron Mate: What is the significance of [the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons]?

William Arkin: None. Let’s be clear. It’s a global treaty which prohibits many things, and one of those things is storage and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and that’s why countries like The Netherlands have declined to ratify. So you have a treaty that goes into force… and that treaty, that has been signed by [entirely] non-nuclear countries of the world, has not been signed by any of the nuclear countries of the world. And that’s not just the nuclear powers but that’s also the six European nations which are strong colluders in the nuclear arsenal—Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy—which host and store US nuclear weapons on their soil. So until we can resolve the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe, until we can have meaningful numerical reductions, and until we can fold the other nuclear powers—both the acknowledged and unacknowledged powers, including Israel—into some kind of arms control regime, the idea that there is going to be an impact from the treaty that bans nuclear weapons is naive. Does it help to create the fabric of international law—which, in my mind, has existed for decades—that makes the use of nuclear weapons illegal? Yes. Does it help to strengthen the international institutions which agitate for arms control and agitate for greater strategic stability? Absolutely. But until China, the UK and France, as well as the United States and Russia are fully engaged in an arms control process, and until the other nuclear powers—India, Pakistan and Israel—are acknowledged and brought to the negotiating table, and until the North Korea situation is resolved, I don’t see the treaty being of much impact.

William Arkin’s upcoming book: The Generals Have No Clothes: The Untold Story of Our Endless Wars (Simon and Shuster, April, 2021).

Previous posts on this topic:

Unenforceable Nuclear Ban Treaty Becomes International Law

New Conventional Weapons Change the Game of Nuclear Deterrence

Military Alliances and Nuclear Disarmament

A New Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons: Would that it were so simple