An Overview on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

What is TPNW and Why is it Historical?

TPNW is the first legally binding multilateral agreement to ban nuclear weapons

One of the foundational pillars of global nuclear security found in the 1968 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) is the obligation made by the nuclear-weapon states to take steps towards total disarmament of their nuclear arsenals. Yet, the TPNW – opened for signature at the end of a long process of debate in 2017 – is a new ‘legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination’. The TPNW is replete with a sophisticated and robust host of prohibitions – weapon development, testing, acquiring, stockpiling, threatening, etc. – as a pursuant to commitments of participating NPT signatories (i.e. the nuclear club and non-nuclear crowd respectively). While many IGOs and NGOs alike have contributed to the push and pull of nuclear politics which produces history today, it cannot be denied that some of the most effective pressure comes from the ‘humanitarian initiative’ – an effort to reframe the narratives around nuclear deterrence and security onto the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use. Organizations like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) have been effective in selling the idea that international society should legally accelerate disarmament by stigmatizing, prohibiting, and eliminating nuclear weapons.

How does TPNW affect Current Nuclear Politics?

While the TPNW is legally binding for the 50 states that have already ratified it through a ‘humanitarian narrative’, the nuclear club itself has not even signed it. Tensions between the club and the non-nuclear weapon crowd are high, with the necessary trust for a safe and non-nuclear world order in the balance.

The TPNW’s aim is to legally accelerate disarmament. However, it potentially leaves the classical project of deterrence in its wake. To appreciate this, it is important to recall that the grand bargain between nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon possessing states (nNWS) is that nNWSs agree not to develop nuclear weapons/technology in exchange for a NWS agreement to pursue both general and complete nuclear disarmament. An implicit consequence of this is the ‘doctrine of nuclear deterrence’, where NWSs provide nNWSs the ‘nuclear umbrella’, that is, protection from nuclear exchange via daily deterrence while other pillars in the NPT are being worked on by international society.

It should also be appreciated that umbrella states are only those which are bound by the NPT and support the P5 (NWSs) having nuclear weapons – thus directly benefitting from their security through public advocation/request. Many nNWSs do not support the P5 nuclear position like the developing states of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and do not technically have direct access to the security umbrella. However, it can be argued that the exercise of nuclear deterrence – given that more than one powerful state has nuclear weapons – indirectly confers a security advantage to NAM objectors; a potentially uncomfortable security reality for disarmament over deterrence advocates.

Breakdown at the Faultline of Trust

While it is easy to justify accelerated disarmament with the rhetoric of ‘we need to do it anyway for both NPT commitments and humanitarian law’, it could be argued that NWSs feel circumnavigated by their nNWS partners. At the same time, doubts about the compatibility of NPT and TPNW have been raised, perhaps demonstrating the most public controversy.

Much, but not all, of the non-nuclear crowd have developed a cynical view of the nuclear club, insofar as suspicions like:

  1. The club will never give up weapons. Perhaps NWSs were never serious about the commitments upon which international society rests? If so, does it render their public commitments to international institutions as mere political theatre which, in reality, facilitates the maintenance of NWS influence and/or control over the IR system?
  2. The threat of nuclear catastrophe is higher than it has ever been due to new aggressive postures on the international stage by China, Russia, and the US. The collapse of treaties like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), along with the development of both ballistic missile and fissile refinement technology, makes Cold War analogues look like the dark ages. Therefore, if the NWSs are currently unwilling to shift the proportional focus from deterrence to disarmament, perhaps they are not as concerned with these threats damaging nNWSs.

An Unstable Present Makes the ‘What Ifs’ Worse

This comes at a time where the US, even with an outgoing Trump administration, is both domestically and internationally unstable like we have never seen before. Disinformation and cyberwarfare have contributed to this post-truth world where – to the US electorate and statements proposed by some US international officials – nothing is true and everything is possible. Similarly, the European project has in some forums moved on without the US or castigated it as an unreliable partner. This trend has been exacerbated by US efforts to dissuade and/or pressure states from signing TPNW. Given this reality, the US extension of the security umbrella is questionable – whether it is through American offers or norms which might lead the world to reject said offers.

The truly stigmatizing feature of TPNW – and thus its broader role in accelerating disarmament – is the maneuverer to make it illegal to possess nuclear weapons as opposed to simply ‘using them’. Obviously, this pressure is aimed squarely at the nuclear club to put them on notice, and could be seen as the central theme in the story of NWSs not signing the TPNW.

Among the many impacts being guessed at today, which ultimately only history shall reveal, two stand out:

  1. The grand bargain and thus the relations between the nuclear club, the umbrella they offer, and the non-nuclear crowd; are being strained to the point that a lack of trust will have serious ramifications for the project of collective nuclear security. Perhaps this is the natural result of the trust faultline?
  2. If nNWS advocates of TPNW are wrong about the imperative to accelerate disarmament – especially when considering the current security situation of international society – they will have authored two long lasting harms. First, it could open the door to cheapening through the use and ownership of political language; the humanitarian appeal upon which collective security and nuclear society was built upon. Second, this normative transformation will effectively invert the tried and tested protocol of deterrence for accelerated disarmament to be preferred. There may be a point in the future where we need to rely on deterrence logic and/or game theory. Normatively speaking however, with the punishments of international humanitarian law, we may forget how to use it when we need it most – to stop a nuclear exchange.

Either way, the Doomsday Clock is 100 seconds to midnight and history is upon us. Hopefully we make the best of it, learning to trust each other long enough to not only disarm but to safely wield peaceful nuclear energy. If we can do that, there is nothing our species cannot achieve.

Featured image credit: “Photo of the Day: September 20, 2017” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0


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