Comment to colleagues regarding a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty as a viable diplomatic option

(Sent to a number of colleagues this morning)

Dear colleagues —

With great respect to all who are working on this issue, I think it is important to face the fact that the US and Russia (just to pick the two states with most of the nuclear weapons) will not, for the foreseeable future, negotiate any kind of nuclear weapons convention or enter into any other comprehensive disarmament treaty under any circumstances.  Neither will they enter into a ban treaty — again for the “foreseeable future,” a long time, long enough to make any such strategy irrelevant for us, the living.

Those who imagine that there could be a nuclear weapons convention negotiated need to supply some convincing data and arguments.  There are none I know of.  It is all wishful thinking.  The historical data all go the other way.  What the General Assembly says, or what Ban Ki Moon says, is meaningless in this regard, because no significant political process that commits voting states lies behind these pronouncements and votes, and because the US and Russia will not surrender their nuclear weapons because of *ANY* UN votes or pronouncements.  They simply have no influence.  To say otherwise would be to assume an unthinkable surrender of sovereignty and national identity for these two states (as well as other nuclear weapon states).

The chemical weapons convention and biological weapons convention are not good models for eliminating nuclear weapons because these other weapons were not so deeply interwoven with the identity of these two states and because in the US at least their military utility was correctly perceived as low to nil to negative, and at the time nuclear weapons were (and still are) available as the winning weapons in any conflict whatsoever, should a “Dunkirk-style” defeat loom for US expeditionary (i.e. imperial) forces anywhere in the world for example (I am quoting from some or another old official justification).

The above describes the political reality prior to the US-fomented coup in Ukraine and the advent of open efforts to destabilize Russia economically and politically, an effort which in the US is perceived by dominant factions as necessary for the long-term health of the US economy, however mistaken and stupid that is.  Both the US and Russia understand what is going on not just in Ukraine but in many other modalities and across many other fronts as a kind of hybrid but real conflict — or in a single syllable, a war.  This is a very serious situation with deep US roots and it will not be resolved into the kind of relative amity many thought existed during the “START II era” for the foreseeable future.  NATO expansion, Yugoslavia, US withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and now Ukraine, have permanently ended that, among many other insults.

Politics in the US (and in Russia) have moved to the right in the last decade or two.  In the US I would say this process has gone on since the late 1970s.  In the US this process is continuing with no end in sight.  In the US, it takes 67 Senate votes to ratify a treaty, and those 67 votes wouldn’t be there even if a president wanted such a treaty, which no foreseeable future US president will.

I say “foreseeable,” because these conditions will eventually change in the US — but only, I believe, when the existence of the US state is visibly threatened from non-military threats, internal and external, or else when a thorough political change occurs as a result of unmistakeable, magisterial forces that galvanize ruling elites and citizens alike.  (Don’t think of the US as a democracy, please).

Meanwhile, while nuclear weapons are expensive they are expected, assuming a trillion-dollar outlay over the next 30 years (a low estimate for the program of record) to not rise to more than 6% of all military spending.  While DoD and military leaders already say, repeatedly, that the program of record is not affordable under current budgets, and Republicans look to further cuts to social programs including from “mandatory” spending in pension accounts filled by paycheck deductions over many years, nuclear weapons aren’t so expensive as to drive the US to seek a nuclear weapons convention or ban.

One interesting question is the limit of “foreseeable” — how far in the future lies the prediction limit of even the most broad-brush judgments (such as the above).  For example, will the US be able to put a single new Ohio-class replacement submarine into service in 2031, as planned?  The US Navy is a very impressive organization, the contractors are very capable, and the individuals in charge of this program are very impressive people.  Even so I for one can’t say for sure they will succeed, because there are too many environmental and resource issues that will come to bear, which will be expressed economically, socially, industrially, and politically.  These are “black swans,” or really “grey” swans because some of the coming crises are already visible to some extent.  The nature of these and other growing problems and of our social and political response to them is unknowable of course.  But the default political tendency in the US is to move to the political hard right in response to scary problems.  US participation in a nuclear weapons convention is probably even less likely in the event of serious internal crises.

To be sure, the US nuclear modernization program of record is already failing to some extent and is understood to be failing to some extent by sophisticated internal actors.  We can be confident it will fail further and more and more deeply over time.  We can’t tell how or how much.  But none of this adds up to endorsement of complete nuclear disarmament or negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention.

The only disarmament diplomacy which can succeed for the foreseeable future is one that does not require participation by the nuclear weapons states, including the US and Russia.  This is one of the many reasons why efforts to produce a ban are so important, even though the US, Russia, and other nuclear weapons states will *never* sign such a treaty.  The mechanisms by which a ban will help produce disarmament in non-signatory nuclear weapons states are in general not going to be those which are discussed by diplomats, let alone NGOs, in open international settings.

To pick just one example, a ban will immediately lower the legitimacy of nuclear threats in the world’s eyes, and therefore the likelihood of nuclear use.  This is very important because the risks of nuclear war are, I believe, growing.

All nuclear weapon states are implacably hostile to effective disarmament diplomacy — by definition really.  I take it as obvious that there is no disarmament process anywhere underway now.  Anybody who wants nuclear weapon states involved in disarmament diplomacy is in effect helping that diplomacy fail.

I really hope that values such as “openness” in diplomatic processes, and any other values that are quite secondary or tertiary to nuclear disarmament, don’t get in the way of producing a ban treaty.  The US at least can be expected to use all of its resources to undercut efforts to produce any threatening disarmament measure, including a ban, up to and including putting financial pressure on states and actors within states, blackmail, getting disarmament diplomats fired or transferred away, and so on.

Greg Mello

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