Bombs, Bans, and Norms

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Early drafts of the Nuclear Ban Treaty green-lighted by the UN First Committee seek to prohibit the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, threat of use and use of nuclear weapons. This would be the most ambitious treaty negotiated since the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war. The Kellogg-Briand Pact didn’t work out so well; it became a dead letter within three years, when Japan invaded Manchuria.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact failed to prevent war because rising powers were not interested in maintaining the status quo. The Nuclear Ban Treaty seeks to negate the most powerful weapons on Earth – without the approval of states bearing these arms. To avoid the fate of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Nuclear Ban Treaty requires not only worthwhile ends, but also persuasive means to bring nuclear-armed states into the fold – or at least to positively influence their behavior.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact did not check the ambitions of the heavy hitters. How, then, would a Nuclear Ban Treaty alter the behavior of nuclear-armed states? Proponents advance three main reasons for proceeding, despite the odds. First, they argue, it is not just the right thing to do, but also a moral imperative at a time when nuclear dangers are rising. Second, negotiating this treaty will pressure nuclear-armed states to do more — and more quickly – to move in the direction of disarmament. Third, the treaty will strengthen essential norms.

These arguments focus on ends, not means. What inducements and penalties would backers suggest to give this treaty traction with outliers – other than to hold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hostage? If none of the Ban Treaty’s ambitious objectives are met, then after the initial negotiating high wears off, there will be a lengthy hangover of disappointment and division, which could pit the Ban Treaty against the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to the detriment of both. Clarity of means as well as ends is needed to meet the dictum of “doing no harm.”

Moral imperatives matter greatly, but they usually take a backseat in international relations to the exercise of raw power. As for setting norms, buy-in by at least some nuclear-armed states is crucial, because the fewer the outliers, the more a norm is likely to take hold – and to be respected by outliers. If all states that possess nuclear weapons are unified in not joining a Nuclear Ban Treaty, norm-setting won’t happen.

The hard reality is that there are no shortcuts to norm-building; norms are usually strengthened in stages, not all at one go. Norms relating to the most deadly weapons take a frustratingly long time to take hold. The norm of not possessing or using chemical weapons came in two stages – with seven decades in between. It took over three decades for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to be negotiated after the Limited Test Ban Treaty – and two decades later, it still awaits entry into force.

Because the timeline of nuclear disarmament seems so distant or improbable, I understand the impulse to shoot for the Moon. But the Moon landing also required a staged approach, where crucial challenges were systematically surmounted. Shooting for the Moon is not conducive to norm-building. A well-crafted, staged approach can be conducive to norm-building – but it doesn’t necessarily make the voyage any shorter.

Let’s return to the example of banning morally repugnant, inhumane chemical weapons. The Geneva Protocol was negotiated in 1925, banning the use of chemical and “asphyxiating” weapons. A number of states that signed up to the Geneva Protocol did so conditionally, reserving the right to retaliate in kind. In effect, the first stage of this seven decades-long process constituted a conditional ban on first use. To those who argued at the time, or to those who would argue in retrospect, that a conditional ban on use was a woefully insufficient response to the mass carnage from chemical weapons’ use in World War I, there is a simple rejoinder: The Geneva Protocol’s conditional ban on use held up during World War II. Existing stockpiles and retaliatory capabilities reinforced a nascent norm against first use.

U.S. ratification of the Geneva Protocol took all of five decades. Then, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was negotiated seven long decades after the Geneva Protocol. This second stage was all-encompassing: the CWC banned the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer and use of chemical weapons. The process of banning chemical weapons took far too long, reflecting the barriers thrown up by domestic politics in the United States (the balkiness of the Senate) and the hard realities of international power politics. But persistence paid off: we are now living in a world in which the use of chemical weapons by any leader effectively makes the user a war criminal.

It’s true that the strictures of the CWC are not universally respected. A few states are presumed to possess stockpiles they have not declared and are not in the process of eliminating, as required by the CWC. One dictator in one state continues to use chemical weapons against his own population. Similarly, there is only one outlier to the norm of not testing nuclear weapons. Single outliers do not make these norms a failure; instead, they attest to how extensively they have gained ground over many decades.

My takeaway from this case study is that the keys to success – and to prevent horrific backsliding – in the Arms Control Enterprise are norms relating to battlefield use and testing. Given the size of existing nuclear stockpiles, verifiable norms governing behavior are essential. During a period of unraveling of treaty commitments, behavioral norms gain even greater importance.

The longer the period without battlefield use of nuclear weapons, the more this norm gains ground, and the harder it becomes for national leaders to authorize crossing the nuclear threshold. The absence of battlefield use for over six decades has been reinforced by the absence of nuclear testing by major and regional powers for almost two decades. Weapons that have utility are tested regularly; the absence of testing reflects diminished military utility. Granted, nuclear weapons remain immensely powerful even without testing, but the absence of testing reinforces the recognition that these weapons are a class apart: Weapons that are too powerful and pregnant with malignant meaning even to be tested are not to be used on battlefields.

It will take one or two more decades of proper adherence to the twin norms against testing and battlefield use to further isolate those who cling stubbornly to concepts of military utility. The greater the recognition that nuclear weapons have no military utility, the easier it becomes to greatly reduce force structure.

This is a long game, but we’re getting there, one day at a time. We could also fall into the abyss tomorrow, perhaps by accident, unauthorized use, or by desperate choice. Whatever the reason, the avoidance of a humanitarian disaster is riding on the norms against battlefield use and nuclear testing, not on the negotiation of an ambitious Nuclear Ban Treaty that nuclear-armed states decline to join.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on November 6, 2016.

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