A world beyond nuclear weapons: is it feasible?

By William Maxwell Mayo

Anti-nuclear weapons protest march, Oxford, England, 1980.

This September 26th, the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons feels like it is no longer merely an attempt to raise consciousness about the potential dangers of nuclear war. It rather appears as a direct response to very real-world events.

The Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine — laced with nuclear threats and intense fighting around nuclear power plants — together with last month’s 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which ended with no agreement on the final document, brought back to the headlines the existential threat of thermonuclear weapons. Safeguards to prevent catastrophe have dramatically atrophied since the end of the Cold War, renewing questions about how to scale down risk. Earlier this summer, one proposal quietly made progress with the hope of doing just that.

On June 21-23, 2022 the States parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) convened their first ever meeting in Vienna, Austria. As the first nuclear disarmament treaty in over two decades, the TPNW is an overt attempt to change the strategic parameters of international security and to protect both humanity and the planet from the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons through a global ban. The proposal was introduced at the United Nations (UN) in 2017 and entered into force in early 2021. To date, the treaty has been ratified or acceded to by 66 UN member states and signed by another 23. The list of signatories does not include any of the nine nuclear powers: the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

In many ways the TPNW intends to reinforce the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, the backbone of which is the NPT. The NPT signifies party states’ commitment to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons with the stated goal of eventual disarmament. The TPNW aims to completely eliminate testing, developing, possessing and threatening use of nuclear weapons, citing the humanitarian disaster that would follow their use. As an enforcement mechanism, the States parties to the treaty would assign one or more International Authorities (IA) to oversee the process.

The Vienna meeting concluded with two documents: a Declaration and an Action Plan. The Declaration restates the TPNW’s objectives as well as the humanitarian dimension behind the imperative to ban nuclear weapons. The more substantial Action Plan contains 50 action points for the parties of the Treaty to accomplish next. Most importantly, the Action Plan announces the deferral of appointing an IA.

Clearly, the main challenge for the TPNW is to convince the nuclear powers to relinquish their nuclear stockpiles. In the context of renewed Russian nuclear threats towards Ukraine and the nuclear powers’ focus on expanding and modernizing their nuclear stockpiles, it's hard to imagine progress on this front. Looking past these short-term policies, the structural conditions that create security dilemmas and generate nuclear proliferation would need to be fundamentally altered to enable collective drawdown. Even if a majority of the nuclear powers sincerely wanted to eliminate their nuclear weapons, without a supranational body capable of enforcing the treaty, it would be challenging to move beyond the stalemate of a collective action problem.

Absent an International Authority capable of monitoring, verifying, and enforcing disarmament the parties to the TPNW have limited options for progress. A potential strategy is to increase group bargaining power by aggressively aggregating as many non-nuclear states as possible into the treaty. By definition this number could be maximized at 188 states (193 UN members plus four non-UN members minus the nine nuclear powers); in practice, this maximum total is closer to 150 as NATO members and US allies in the Indo-Pacific support the US nuclear umbrella. This number would still represent a supermajority of UN member states, representing nearly half of the human population and a significant percentage of the global economy. Such a block could create political pressure to change the norms pertaining to thermonuclear weapons. However, if the difficulty of expanding the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is of any indication, the odds of any progress are long and uncertain.

Within the current international system, the best-case scenario for TPNW realization might rest in the independent decisions of the most powerful non-signatory, i.e. the US. If the US were to choose to take advantage of its unique agenda-setting power, progress could be made towards nuclear arms reduction and eventual disarmament. Though the US and Russia maintain rough parity on nuclear stockpiles, the US remains the world's strongest military power and could maintain second-strike deterrence with less than the current number of missiles deployed on high alert. With Chinese leadership planning to substantially enlarge its arsenal, the US could unilaterally set a lower ceiling for China to build towards. Doing so could simultaneously create pressure, and relieve insecurity, on Russian leadership to follow suit. Down the Operation Castle Nuclear Test, 1954

line, trilateral nuclear negotiations could also bear fruit,

although the incentives for China and Russia are unlikely to materialize until nuclear parity is perceived by all three parties. The downside of TPNW is that signatories are relegated to shaping norms and lobbying US leadership to address the humanitarian risks of nuclear weapons.

For now, the TPNW is an aspirational rather than a realistic goal. Even if the threat of nuclear weapons is correctly framed as both an existential risk and a morally unacceptable humanitarian cost, persuading a great power to alter its nuclear policy is unlikely to result in a total prohibition. The refusal by Russian leaders to create a demilitarized zone around the Russian occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine is a clear reminder of how challenging it is to lower the risk of a nuclear disaster.

In reality, as long as anarchy reigns in the international system, we will have to coexist with such appalling possibilities. But we also live in times of great transformation. As a global society, we could instead recognize that anarchy, far from a law of nature, is a choice, a decision by which we de facto endorse the persistent likelihood of these abominable outcomes. Those hoping that the TPNW can become a reality might be better advised to focus their efforts on devising an effective political strategy to supplant international anarchy and establish an international authority able to enforce the treaty. To do so in reality, this authority will need to approach the role of a world government. Until that day, the TPNW will be waiting.

William Maxwell Mayo is an Analysis Intern at the Streit Council for a Union of Democracies, where he conducts research on existential threats in the context of global politics and international strategy. His work focuses primarily on nuclear war. He is currently earning a Masters degree in International Security Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Political Affairs, studying East Asian security issues.