- Nuclear Weapons
Taking it Home
Witnessing the UN discuss a nuclear weapons ban
Lobbying in Washington for nuclear disarmament has not been easy of late. It is sincerely an emotional challenge to face day after day the growing threat of a new nuclear build up (or worse).
Last week, when I boarded a train to New York to attend a United Nations summit on a nuclear weapons ban leading toward their total elimination, I stepped out of Washington and into the dazzlingly different world of the United Nations.
That week in late March, 132 nations gathered to create a UN resolution to formally, explicitly, and permanently ban all nuclear weapons. Goosebumps tickled the back of my neck as I looked around the room. Before me were rows and rows of diplomats representing the majority of countries in the world, all in consensus that nuclear weapons need to be declared illegal by international law.
Nuclear weapons need to be declared illegal by international law.
Being immersed in the militarized DC culture and then plunging into the peace centered nuclear ban negotiations is a shock to your system. You feel dizzy just witnessing such a torrent of calls for transnationalism and universal disarmament. One starts to feel as though everyone around the globe suddenly woke up and agreed to seek together a world free of nukes and war.
I interrupted my star-struck mind and reminded myself of the crucial caveat: not a single nuclear state was present. Not only did all the nations who actually have nuclear weapons boycott the entire conference, they did all they could to stop other countries from going. The United States put tremendous pressure on Japan and NATO allies to completely avoid the talks. While Japan did not attend most of the conference they did deliver remarks on the opening day. France pulled all the stops to keep its former African colonies from attending, but those nations were all present. This was a gathering of historically disempowered nations boldly taking international law into their own hands and asserting their right to a world free of nuclear weapons.
It was taken as a given throughout the talks that all nuclear weapons should be banned and speedily eliminated, so the debate focused on details of implementation. How will this treaty interact with and reinforce structures put in place by the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? Will a nation be able to join the treaty and then eliminate its nuclear arsenal? Should financing of nuclear weapons be illegal? If so, what constitutes financing?
I found myself pondering the most important question of all: Will these talks influence the conversation back in Washington?
While the delegates went back and forth on these practical questions, I found myself pondering the most important question of all: Will these talks influence the conversation back in Washington?
Fortunately, history suggests that this aspirational arms control treaty will change US behavior. The 1997 land mine treaty was never signed by the United States, but as the majority of the world ratified it and the taboo around landmines solidified, the United States entirely stopped using them. In 2008 most countries adopted a treaty banning cluster munitions. Again the United States was never party to the treaty, but global pressure had its effect. The United States has not used cluster munitions since 2009, and in 2016 the last US manufacturer of cluster munitions stopped making them.
While there is precedent for Washington to follow New York’s lead when it comes to arms control, nuclear weapons are fundamentally different than any other kind of weapon. A nuclear weapons ban threatens more than one tool in a military’s vast toolbox, it calls for a fundamental redefinition of military strategy, foreign policy, and even national identity.
Whether this treaty will actually lead to reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile is ultimately up to us. I simply took a train back to Washington from New York, but it will take all of us to transport the sentiment in that UN conference room into the halls of Congress.