On the eve of the August meeting of the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) in Geneva

We very much hope the siren songs advocating “alternatives” to banning nuclear weapons — all of which alternatives are meaningless or fantasies — are not too distracting to delegates and NGOs at the upcoming OEWG meeting. For the nuclear weapon states and their proxies and dependents, distraction, dilution, and delay now comprise much of the game.

Here in the US, the menu of hypothetical “steps” toward implementing the “Prague vision” has been growing of late. As if there were a “Prague vision,” beyond maintaining a nuclear apartheid world! Actual disarmament, as opposed to a vague aspiration, i.e. propaganda, was never part of that “vision.” The president said as much at the time. The nuclear establishment in Washington and around the country immediately understood this, though that understanding did not stop them from using the speech in their own propaganda to great effect. Subsequent administration actions have proven this administration’s insufficiency of interest and will. Given the powerful forces supporting nuclear weapons in the U.S., a president who was serious about cutting back nuclear weapons would act first and explain later.

Even such widely-ballyhooed “steps” as the CTBT in the 1990s, and now more directly New START, greatly increased the political power of the US nuclear weapons enterprise, making disarmament harder. The 1992 nuclear test moratorium was very useful, but the subsequent compromises were too great and were ultimately ineffective for ratification anyway. We have been paying for them ever since. New START occasioned formal promises later written into law to modernize everything in the U.S. triad and left huge loopholes for non-deployed and bomber-delivered warheads. Both treaties were, on balance, steps backwards, away from disarmament. President Obama has been fulfilling those promises, requesting nuclear weapons development and production budgets that are the highest in history in real terms.

But that is far from all. Especially given what he has done, and allowed to be done, vis-a-vis Russia as regards NATO, missile defense, Ukraine and more, and also not forgetting the East Asian “threat” that obsesses Washington and his administration — President Obama has been undercutting the nuclear disarmament agenda for years. Even as regards the April 5 Prague speech, consider the context. Obama had just attended a celebratory NATO summit on April 3-4 marking the organization’s 60th anniversary and its continued expansion eastward (Albania and Croatia were accepted as NATO members a few days before, on April 1). Does this indicate a coherent disarmament “vision?” I don’t think so.

Now, at this late point in his administration, after 6 years of anti-disarmament commitments, and after poisoning our relationship with Russia in many extremely serious ways, Obama does not have the freedom of action or margin of power necessary to unilaterally implement substantive nuclear disarmament “steps.”

He can make gestures of course, which is what he usually does. More than this, he can and should cancel or delay certain nuclear weapon projects, such as the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO, a nuclear-armed cruise missile which would pretty much destroy nuclear arms control), or cut projects which have no real technical merit, like the expanded pit factory at Los Alamos and the first so-called “interoperable” warhead (IW-1). But as for lasting, substantive unilateral or bilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament steps — these he cannot now do. Alas.

However, and very significantly, he could quietly end the State Department’s efforts to undercut a treaty banning nuclear weapons and instead instruct his diplomats to support it. This would be a huge development. As we wrote in May, a ban treaty

is necessary because there is no legal and normative clarity regarding the possession of nuclear weapons, as the General Assembly recognized when it created this working group.

Disarmament can proceed by many paths: parallel and sequential; unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral. All of them would be enabled—and none impeded—by a clear and universal prohibition of nuclear weapons. The steps in the so-called “progressive’ agenda are impractical without first clearly stigmatizing nuclear weapons. A ban treaty would turn public opinion worldwide against nuclear weapons more strongly, including in nuclear-armed states that do not subscribe to the treaty.

The reality of a ban treaty would occasion a massive breakthrough in the world’s awareness of nuclear weapons. It would reconfirm and strengthen humanity’s negative valence toward these instruments of mass murder, releasing into consciousness and politics the pent-up frustration and animus against these weapons that many people, including political and opinion leaders, have carried their whole lives.

A ban would awaken and inspire civil society, with crossover benefits to civil society efforts in human development, solidarity, and human rights. A ban would provide a tangible source of hope for humanity and a bulwark against cynicism. Political and opinion leaders would have to take this new reality into account and incorporate it into their worldviews, actions, and identities. The status of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons careers would fall.

It would affect corporate investments and decisions, as we have seen with other weapon systems that have been prohibited. It will affect political values and spending priorities in the nuclear-armed states, whether or not they sign the treaty. All the nuclear-armed states have limited public funds and have competing demands for those funds both from within the military sector and from outside it. Nuclear investment decisions are often contested and will be increasingly so. Key destabilizing modernization decisions are being taken, in the U.S. at least, by relatively narrow margins.

As a thought experiment, if I were in the State Department, and I sought to prevent any serious damage to the prestige, legality, and utility of the US nuclear arsenals, I would indirectly use my international contacts to foster distractions and non-ban alternatives, which I knew in advance to be fruitless because they would depend on US (i.e. my) cooperation, which would never be forthcoming. I would string along divisive, futile processes for years if possible and encourage them in any way I could, for example through allies and dependent states, through my foundation friends, and so on. (In practice, this is the largely the unconscious outcome of shared values within the relevant circles.)

This would divide the NGO and diplomatic community nicely, and if I were lucky, postpone a ban treaty.

The single worst thing about the ban treaty process — for me in the State Department — is that I do not control it. NGOs and diplomats who argue that nuclear weapon state “buy-in” is important (because they have the weapons) do my work for me. Thanks to them, I can take it easy because my country will never agree to anything substantive in the nuclear disarmament line.

By requiring my country’s involvement — because we have the weapons, right? — they are giving a veto over all progress to nuclear weapons themselves!

That is how it has been for 70 years. It will not change if the State Department and CIA and other agencies in the public state, or the various uncontrollable factions in the wider U.S. “Deep State,” have any say in the matter.

The point is that the ban treaty process, now well underway and close to very positive results, does NOT give such agencies and factions de facto veto power. “Step-by-step” approaches, “framework” approaches, “building blocks,” comprehensive disarmament treaties, do give nuclear weapon states and their agents veto power. That is why these approaches will never bear fruit — until such time as other states have formally made nuclear weapons illegal to possess, use, and share.

In the meantime, NGO pleas for a “no first use” declaration from the US remain pathetically disempowered. They also undercut the humanitarian initiative by implying that ANY use of nuclear weapons would be useful, or moral. Where is the petition against any SECOND use of nuclear weapons?

In this regard, Robert McNamara said on more than one occasion that he strongly advised presidents Kennedy and Johnson to NEVER use nuclear weapons, under any circumstance whatsoever, even if the US were attacked with nuclear weapons.

I am also reminded that when Norman Cousins approached Albert Schweitzer in Africa about supporting a nuclear test ban treaty, Schweitzer declined. He said, in periphrasis because I do not have the quote handy, that this was a dangerous approach. It is not nuclear tests which should be banned, but nuclear weapons. This has turned out to be prescient.

At one of our own Study Group public meetings in the early 1990s in Los Alamos, Hans Bethe said we did not need a nuclear test ban treaty because we did not need nuclear weapons. At the time I thought that was too clever by half, but the wisdom of that statement has grown on me.

If all the compromise policies of all the arms control groups were implemented tomorrow — typically these run to as much as 10-12% of proposed nuclear weapons budgets — the world would still be unable to turn from the war and violence that is tearing it apart toward realistically facing, with justice, the dire threats of abrupt climate collapse, poverty and development, sustained and spreading drought, wars and the collapse of states, mass migrations, and so on. We cannot let compromise, or cosmetic, nuclear solutions crafted in or for the U.S. to distract the world community.

The fate of nuclear weapons and perhaps humanity itself largely revolves around approaches to nuclear disarmament which, in their legal and political norm-setting stages, do not require the participation of the United States, its nuclear-dependent states, or other nuclear weapon states.

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