The Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 received relatively little notice. Controversial laureates in the past have fueled heated debate, including such figures as Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama. This year’s choice went to a relatively obscure international organization: The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
The news prompted a yawn and eyerolls from many, who see abolition of nuclear weapons as a utopian daydream and hopeless cause. We should not be so dismissive. ICAN was awarded the famous gold medal, not just for agitating against nukes, but for taking concrete action towards an international treaty on the topic.
The debate over nuclear weapons has long been abstract and of little interest to liberty-minded individuals, who tend to care more about the various ways governments are actively hurting people around the world with more conventional means.
That’s too bad, because America’s nuclear arsenal represents a ripe target to tackle. It is immoral, unlawful, and worst of all, it’s a waste of taxpayer money.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty actually did succeed in putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle
Early in the 1960s, there was a problem. The nuclear genie was out of the bottle, and by some projections there would be twenty-five or thirty nuclear-armed nations within two decades.
Ever since the United States started the club in 1945, it had been joined by the Soviet Union (1949), United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), and China (1964). Programs to acquire nuclear weapons were either underway, or being seriously considered, by a wide variety of regional and middle-sized powers.
The consequences of this trend were worrying. Confined to the Cold War and the two superpower blocs, deterrence and mutually-assured destruction offered some comfort against the possibility of nuclear war. If the number of nations with nukes continued to balloon, however, it seemed just a matter of time until they were used.
So the nuclear powers made a deal with the rest of the world in 1968. The five countries that already had the bomb agreed to pursue a policy of disarmament. Most of the rest of the world agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons. In exchange, they were promised assistance and support for peaceful civilian nuclear programs.
The landmark Non-Proliferation Treaty that originated that year, which was ratified in 1970, wasn’t perfect. India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have all refused to sign. They instead pursued and developed their own nuclear arsenals.
They have been the exceptions. The vast majority of the world’s nations have adhered to the norm and expectation of the treaty, and not tried to acquire nuclear weapons. Four additional nuclear powers, sure beats a world with thirty or more.
Broken promises by the five nuclear weapons superpower states
The five recognized “nuclear weapons states” have not kept up their end of the bargain, however. The treaty commits them to “pursue good-faith negotiations on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race, to nuclear disarmament, and to general and complete disarmament.”
While treaties limiting and reducing nuclear arsenals have been concluded, there has never been any serious negotiation among the nuclear powers for total disarmament and abolition. After decades of waiting, the rest of the world is getting impatient. That’s where ICAN comes in.
Instead of waiting for the perpetual foot-dragging of the Big Five, the non-nuclear-weapons-states created themselves an abolition treaty. 58 have already signed it, and 122 nations have endorsed it through the UN General Assembly.
Just as the Non-Proliferation Treaty created a global norm and immense pressure to join, ICAN’s goal is to create momentum behind an explicit abolition treaty that is signed by most of the world’s nations. This will create more pressure for the five recognized and four unrecognized nuclear-weapons states to eventually accede to it.
How can we create nuclear peace?
As some have argued, the distinction between a rifle or tank or other conventional weapons and the nuclear bomb is not merely one of degree. There is a qualitative difference in kind.
Other weapons can be used for aggression, but they can also be used for legitimate defense against aggressors. Nuclear bombs, on the other hand, serve only one purpose: mass indiscriminate slaughter of innocents.
One libertarian advocate of nuclear disarmament, Murray Rothbard, wrote:
For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner. Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake.
While this argument strikes some ears as strictly moralistic view, there are good utilitarian reasons to reach the same conclusion.
After all, the government is probably the least trustworthy institution on the planet. Why should we trust it with the power to destroy civilization? Is anybody really comfortable with Donald Trump having access to hundreds of megatons of apocalyptic power?
Nuclear weapons aren’t really an effective deterrent
A common counter-argument, though, is that nuclear weapons act as a deterrent, and thus prevent war from breaking out at all.
Support for this argument is dubious, however. The possession of nuclear weapons on both sides did not prevent India and Pakistan from engaging in a shooting war in 1999.
Further, the vast nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia have not prevented them from engaging in costly and destructive wars of intervention.
Moreover, nuclear weapons are far from the only capability that large nations have to inflict mass destruction.
Even a full-blown conventional war between Russia and the United States without nuclear weapons would be highly destructive and a global catastrophe. That surely provides its own deterrent. Does the possibility of nuclear Armageddon add any more deterrence?
Ditching the expensive orthodoxy of the nuclear ‘triad’
Finally, the world’s aging stockpile of nuclear weapons is expensive. The issue has also caused budgetary problems for nations like France and the United Kingdom, too. These arsenals must be constantly maintained, updated, and kept manned and deployed.
In the U.K., political debate about renewal of their Trident nuclear submarines has focused mainly on the massive cost of building yet another generation of ballistic-missile submarines.
For America, the problem is even worse with our commitment to maintaining the nuclear “triad” of ICBMs, submarines, and bomber airplanes. This triple redundancy is a relic of the Cold War, and costs an estimated $25 billion annually. Even without disarmament, the Pentagon has long debated the merits of dropping the triad and going to a submarines-only posture, as France and the United Kingdom have already done.
The submarines aren’t cheap, though. A replacement for the aging Ohio class is estimated to cost up to $4 billion each, and the current size of the fleet numbers fourteen. All to maintain a capability the United States doesn’t need and almost certainly will never use.
It’s time to ban the nuclear bomb
Of course, the main hold-up to this disarmament is the demand for parity with our potential opponents, mainly Russia but also China. U.S.-Russian treaties have progressively reduced the size of each nation’s arsenal. Both nations’ stockpiles are far larger than that of any other’s.
Russia also wastes money on its nukes. A mutual alignment of interests help both to finally support its abolition. If the U.S. and Russia agree, it’s likely the U.K., France, and China will all shortly follow suit.
Concerted, patient and united efforts can still keep rogue nations from nuclear weapons
That leaves only the four rogue nuclear powers: Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. All of them, however, have relatively small arsenals. They are primarily a regional rather than global threat.
Over time, international pressure can work. Many nations also resisted and dragged their feet on the abolition of chemical weapons. But then refusing to join the rest of the world was no longer a viable option. Ratcheting global sanctions against holdouts could make maintaining a nuclear arsenal more costly than it’s worth.
As for future rogue states who manage to build a few bombs: That will always be a possibility. But the reality is that such a small arsenal would present little threat to the ability of the world’s conventional militaries to invade and depose any regime that launches a nuclear first strike.
America and other nuclear-weapons-states promised the world they would pursue disarmament almost 50 ago. It’s time to make good on that promise. Lovers of liberty and limited government should be among the most significant supporters of the effort.
The Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 was entirely in line with what Alfred Nobel intended when he specified in his will a prize for those who have:
Done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
(Photo of the Nobel Peace Prize medal that was given to Rigoberta Menchú and is protected in the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City via Wikipedia.)