Nuclear weapons have been at the forefront of international concern since the end of the second World War. As a response to this ongoing issue, the United Nations (UN) decided to hold an important vote on whether to start negotiations regarding a treaty ban on nuclear weapons. On 27 October 2016, 123 out of the 177 UN members voted to approve the resolution. However, it does not come as much of a surprise that of the nine countries who hold nuclear weapons, none of them voted in favour of the resolution. In fact, many of them, including the United States and the United Kingdom, were not only in opposition to the resolution but also plan to modernize their weapons.
Scotland, on the other hand, has been quite adamant that the world must get rid of nuclear weapons, and has consequently been very critical of Westminster’s stance on the issue. The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) wrote an open letter to UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and have garnered the support of many Ministers of the Scottish Parliament, arguing that the UK should “at the very least cease their efforts to prevent these negotiations from taking place, and instead agree to participate in the process of negotiation.”
The general Scottish sentiment on the UN vote can be summed up in the words of Bill Kidd, Minister of the Scottish Parliament and co-President of the international organisation Parliamentarians for Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament: “This result at the UN in New York is a very powerful symbol of the feeling of people the world over that nuclear weapons aren’t needed and aren’t wanted. Only the arrogance of politicians in the Nuclear Weapons States stands in the way of a world without these weapons of mass-murder where real international security can be built.”
This then begs the question of whether future negotiations, or even a treaty itself, can truly be effective without the cooperation of the states that actually possess nuclear weapons. Critics argue that even with an overwhelming majority in favour of the ban, a resolution cannot succeed without these powerful actors.
On the other hand, others believe that the mere statement of a nuclear weapons ban by the UN will create a moral precedent and incentive for the nuclear weapons state to disarm.
The issue with that optimistic belief is that no single nation wants to be the first country to disarm. The consequence is that even in the event that there is a UN ban treaty, it is meaningless to only have support from states that don’t have the access to the banned weapons. This reluctance to be the first state to get rid of nuclear weapons is most obviously demonstrated by Obama’s unwillingness to make a ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons pledge on the part of the United States.
President Obama has, since the beginning of his administration, been quite clear about his position on nuclear weapons. In 2009, he made a speech in Prague announcing his drive to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, and hopes that the world will eventually get rid of them. While he has managed to achieve some success, such as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, talks at the Nuclear Security Summits, and the Iran nuclear deal, his recent efforts have been short lived.
President Obama also paid a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in May, where he once again took the chance to speak out against the use of nuclear weapons. His statement on the nature of the problem is one that resonates with the entire world: “We must have the courage to escape the logic of fear…we may not realize this goal in my lifetime. But persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe.”
In his final few months in office, Obama, along with several US officials, proposed a ‘no first use’ policy for the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Essentially, what this would mean is that no American president would be the first to use a nuclear weapon. This would have been a landmark decision, not only as a change in the country’s historic stance, but also for the steps towards a nonnuclear world.
However, the pledge failed, as Obama decided against supporting the policy, at the urging of his many advisers. They expressed to President Obama the many consequences that would likely result from the vow, all of which have to do with the foreseeable reactions of other states.
For example, Japan and South Korea, who are already concerned about an American pullback from Asia, would further be rattled by this declaration as they rely on America’s nuclear deterrence. In addition, with China and Russia’s recent moves in the South China Sea and the Baltic, a declaration would be imprudent at the moment, as they might take pledge as a sign of American weakness.
However, many of those who advised against the ‘no first use’ vow suggested that the non-use of nuclear weapons is already seen as an unwritten policy. Combine that with Obama’s personal commitment to the non-use of nuclear weapons and it seems that the main problem at hand is not a moral one, but one relating to issues of relative power and maintaining alliances.
The actual threat of a full-fledged nuclear war is not very high at the moment, nevertheless, nuclear power states and their allies rely on the availability and supply of these weapons in order to provide deterrence. In other words, the irony of the situation is that the biggest force preventing the use of the weapons is their very existence in the hands of opponents. If one power were to eliminate or simply vow not to use them, there is an overwhelming fear for the consequences it poses in the balance of international relations and evidently security.
So while Kidd was right in saying that it is the politicians who stand in the way of a nuclear free world, we should not assume that they are all standing on grounds arrogance and selfishness. Clearly there are many implications and factors that need to be taken into serious consideration before pointing the finger and shaming those who are too afraid of eliminating their nuclear power capabilities. While this is still no defence for the continued development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the only possible solution must come from a mutual effort on the part of those who possess the weapons. It cannot be a unilateral motion, nor could it effectively be pushed onto reluctant states. With that said, having international organizations such as the UN making consistent effort in motivating and insisting peace resolutions does have potential for significant change, even if the process might be slower than the states in favour of disarmament might want.
Image: White House, Pete Souza