The ban is here! | Photo: Photo: ICAN | Aude Catimel

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – a Winter’s Tale

It is a truly historic event. Today, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) effectively enters into force. A treaty that was not only negotiated against the will of some of the world’s most powerful states, but also explicitly challenges deeply entrenched power structures. Whether and how the treaty can be effective depends on how its supporters and opponents approach the treaty and each other. The strategy of ignoring the treaty, as practiced by Germany and other NATO states, will certainly no longer be possible once the treaty takes effect.

The Humanitarian Initiative

The history of the TPNW reads like a fairy tale of international politics: a handful of small and middle powers negotiate a treaty that challenges the status of the big and powerful and gives voice to the frustration and concerns of non-nuclear-weapon states about the lack of nuclear disarmament. Not only does the treaty question the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and their possession by a few states (the „official“ nuclear powers), but also the practice of nuclear deterrence, which is based on nuclear weapons possession as a strategy to prevent nuclear war.

Although efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons have a long history, it was a window of opportunity about a decade ago that provided an impetus to ban nuclear weapons. The window opened with a call for nuclear disarmament by four former U.S. secretaries of state and Barack Obama’s 2009 „Prague Speech“, in which he committed the U.S. to pursuing peace and security through a world without nuclear weapons. A year later, the official nuclear-weapon states (U.S., Russia, China, UK and France) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) committed themselves to far-reaching disarmament steps at the 2010 Review Conference and, thus, to fulfilling their disarmament obligations under the NPT. The time seemed ripe for „global zero”. In this context, a broad coalition of state and civic actors succeeded in bringing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons more into the center of the international debate. This shift in international discourse was intended to redirect the focus from the frequently invoked „security benefits“ of nuclear weapons to the danger that these weapons and their destructive power could pose to the majority of the world if nuclear deterrence should fail just once. In other words: As with other humanitarian arms control efforts, the focus was deliberately on human security, not traditional (i.e., state) security.

The dedication of the so-called „Humanitarian Initiative“ did not diminish even as the international climate deteriorated significantly and the world moved toward the „arms control crisis”. On the contrary, the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference and the gradual unraveling of bilateral arms control treaties, contributed to a sense of „urgency“ – and indeed, the negotiations on a prohibition of nuclear weapons were prepared, started and concluded in less than a year.

Own Graphic: Milestones of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons 2010-2021.

Nuclear disarmament and discourses

In addition to the obvious – a global ban on nuclear weapons and their use – the TPNW is also intended to deconstruct long-established narratives about nuclear weapons, delegitimize nuclear weapons and their use, and thus, pave the way for nuclear disarmament. In many ways, the TPNW is an extension of existing treaties: it prohibits the deployment or transfer of nuclear weapons, as do Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones; it bans „nuclear explosions,“ as does the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; and it inhibits the transfer of nuclear weapons, as does the NPT. However, the TPNW extends beyond these treaties by also banning the use of nuclear weapons and even outlawing threats to use nuclear weapons. Consequently, it is irreconcilable with the policy of deterrence of the nuclear weapon states as well as NATO. Moreover, it eliminates the distinction created in the NPT between a few states that are allowed to possess nuclear weapons and all other states that are prohibited from possessing nuclear weapons, thus creating, in principle, a regime of equality. What is unique in the area of nuclear disarmament is the explicit recognition of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use and nuclear testing – not only on a verbal but also on a practical level. Indeed, the TPNW also provides for compensation and victim assistance for affected states – thanks to the commitment of states that experienced the consequences of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War firsthand. For the first time in the history of nuclear disarmament, the treaty lends a voice to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the „hibakusha“) and to victims of nuclear weapons testing.

Apart from great enthusiasm, the TPNW also caused great turmoil. The initial reaction of nuclear-weapon states and those involved in nuclear sharing was rather simple: decrying that the TPNW would jeopardize the NPT and otherwise ignoring the treaty. However, the importance that even the nuclear powers attribute to the treaty is evident – for example, in the (physical) protests by the U.S. and its allies before the ban treaty negotiations in New York or in U.S. attempts to dissuade states from signing the treaty. Yet, the greatest controversy was, perhaps, caused in those states that pride themselves as „pioneers of disarmament“ – such as Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. None of these states has been able to find a panacea for dealing with the treaty. Instead, they seemed to hope for a long time that the problem would solve itself.

NPT and TPNW: complementary or competitive?

A positive or negative attitude toward the nuclear weapons ban is divided primarily on the question of whether the TPNW and the NPT complement or compete with each other. Despite the mantra-like reassurances of the ban supporters, the nuclear-weapon states still fear that the TPNW could undermine the NPT. Most supporters of the TPNW see it as an addition to (and in a sense a completion of) the NPT. The treaty is intended to fill the disarmament gap, but not to make the NPT redundant. It is not without reason that the TPNW’s preamble explicitly refers to the NPT and that the treaty calls on its members to fulfill their obligations under the NPT. However, although the TPNW goes beyond the NPT’s provisions in many respects, it fails to provide more stringent verification rules that would be necessary to create a nuclear-weapon-free world. One of the greatest concerns is that, over time, state parties to the TPNW could feel less committed to the NPT’s goals and norms and, therefore, would no longer abide by their obligations or even withdraw from the NPT with its elaborate verification regime („forum shopping„). At present, it does not seem as if this worst-case scenario would come true. The experience with Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones shows that prohibition regimes and the nonproliferation regime can exist in parallel without states considering withdrawal from the NPT – and that these treaties even reinforce each other. In contrast, the ban treaty opponents’ objection that the TPNW is ineffective without the signature of nuclear-weapon states touches a sore point. After all, the statement that nuclear weapons are illegal and internationally outlawed as of today applies only to the states parties to the TPNW.

Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the TPNW would jeopardize the NPT. Meanwhile, efforts to develop concrete and achievable disarmament steps have, if anything, intensified since the TPNW was negotiated. The NPT Review Conference, scheduled to take place this summer after a year’s delay, is seen as an indicator for future (dis-)engagement. Either the ban treaty could act as leverage to accelerate disarmament efforts and obtain concessions from the nuclear-weapon states, or it could become a spoiler, as feared by the nuclear-weapon states and their allies (in which case, however, the failure of the Review Conference would be a self-fulfilling prophecy).

A look into the crystal ball: confrontation, coexistence or cooperation

With its entry into force, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has become political reality. The treaty has sparked new discussions about nuclear disarmament and challenged established narratives about nuclear weapons. Importantly, the TPNW should be viewed as a long-term project rather than a short-term solution – it has the potential to bring about lasting (but incremental) change. The impact of the TPNW depends greatly on how its advocates and antagonists deal with the treaty and each other. Eventually, there must be a political exchange between those supporting and opposing the TPNW in order to develop effective steps toward nuclear disarmament. The nuclear-weapon states will almost certainly refuse to recognize the TPNW for a long time to come. But as long as the nuclear powers’ allies also reject the TPNW, it is unlikely that any further momentum can be ignited.

In a nutshell, three scenarios are conceivable: confrontation, coexistence or cooperation. (1) If the nuclear-weapon states (and to some extent their allies) continue to belittle the new treaty and deny its root causes (lack of nuclear disarmament and a highly unequal nonproliferation regime), the situation could lead to open confrontation. The result could be not only a failure of the NPT Review Conference, but a further „radicalization“ of the conflict that would damage both, the TPNW and the NPT.

(2) If the strategy of not engaging, not recognizing, and ignoring the treaty were to continue, the two treaties could coexist for the time being – and ultimately preventing the TPNW from taking full effect. This would also increase the likelihood that frustration among non-nuclear-weapon states over a lack of progress in nuclear disarmament would only continue to grow and that conflicts in the NPT would be fueled further.

(3) Effectively addressing the arguments of both sides – particularly concerns about possible competition between the NPT and the TPNW, but also concrete disarmament steps – could help create a cooperative exchange between both treaty regimes. The TPNW’s impressive advocacy for the victims of nuclear weapons use and nuclear testing could and should gain further traction in the NPT as well. On the other hand, a more intensive exchange between the two treaty regimes could also help address shortcomings of the TPNW, such as in its verification regime. A look at Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones can illustrate how such cooperative engagement might work, as they have long been part of the international disarmament structure without competing with the NPT. Thus, engagement with both treaties should focus on enabling cooperation between the TPNW and the NPT, on acknowledging the TPNW as a voluntary, further-reaching commitment to nuclear disarmament, and on developing joint steps towards a nuclear-weapon-free world based on this commitment. Only then can the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons be fully effective and actively contribute to nuclear disarmament.

Jana Baldus

Jana Baldus

Jana Baldus ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin der HSFK im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind nukleare Abrüstung und Rüstungskontrolle. // Jana Baldus is a doctoral candidate in PRIF’s Research Department “International Security”. Her research interests are nuclear disarmament and arms control.

Jana Baldus

Jana Baldus ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin der HSFK im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind nukleare Abrüstung und Rüstungskontrolle. // Jana Baldus is a doctoral candidate in PRIF’s Research Department “International Security”. Her research interests are nuclear disarmament and arms control.

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