Is anyone else getting that “Cold War” feeling? Spies are being poisoned, diplomats are being expelled, everyone’s building walls, and global leaders are openly bragging about who has the biggest nuclear button. It feels like we’ve been here before.
On the one hand, there is hope that the announcement of talks between North Korea and the US demonstrates that everyone realises the importance of dialogue, leaving open the possibility of disarmament down the road. On the other hand, both Russia and the United States have reportedly put in place plans to expand their respective nuclear arsenals. Are we back to the bad old days of turning out nuclear missiles “like sausages”? Has the world given up on disarmament?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Athena, who argues that there hasn’t been any serious attempt at disarmament since the START treaty 27 years ago. Is she right to believe that progress has been stalled for decades?
To get a response, we put her comment to Susi Snyder, the Nuclear Disarmament Programme Manager for the peace organisation Pax in the Netherlands. What would she say to Athena?
Well, Athena, I can really understand where you’re coming from with this. It doesn’t feel like there has been any serious attempt, but in fact there has been. Just last year, 122 governments adopted a new treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. So, they set up a pathway forwards to get rid of all nuclear weapons. This is the first time ever that nuclear weapons have been made fully and comprehensively illegal. And while the nuclear-armed states didn’t participate, it still set a really clear framework and a rejection of the weapons overall, and that’s totally new, and a serious, significant attempt.
Not only that, but there was a treaty negotiated in 2010 between the US and Russia, called the New START treaty, and that has helped to bring numbers down. It’s not as good as rejecting and eliminating all nuclear weapons, but it was a small step in the right direction.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Anne Harrington, Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University in the UK. Her research interests include nuclear deterrence, disarmament and nonproliferation. So, what would she say to Athena?
I would say that the idea that arms control is actually a mechanism for disarmament is something that has always been hotly debated in the US context, especially in academic circles, and there are many people who see arms control as a means to strategic stability, but they are very careful to distinguish that from any attempts at disarmament.
However, I’ve argued previously that the US does try to sell arms control as part of demonstrating its commitment to disarmament, particularly in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) context, and that’s basically an incredible pledge to disarm that the US has been advocating. They’re trying to show they have this commitment to disarmament through pointing to things like New START, but genuine commitment to disarmament has never been really fully taken on, at least in the US context. So, I would agree with Athena, and add that the START Treaty 27 years ago wasn’t actually a genuine attempt at disarmament either.
We also had a comment from Ted, who wonders why don’t we start with the “easy part” when it comes to nuclear disarmament, which he believes is the nuclear sharing arrangement between the US and five European NATO allies (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). Ted believes this agreement violates the spirit (if not the exact letter) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Is he right?
How would Susi Snyder respond to Ted’s comment?
Well, Ted, I’ve got to agree with you: the NPT makes it really clear that countries should not give other countries nuclear weapons, and countries shouldn’t accept nuclear weapons from anyone else. So, these five countries – Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey – are definitely violating the spirit of that treaty.
Also, what makes me really worried is that pilots in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands – though not in Turkey – are training to drop American nuclear bombs. They’re not training to drop them in the middle of the ocean somewhere, they’re training to drop them on cities. And I don’t feel comfortable that my tax money is being used to potentially use nuclear weapons, and that’s not something anyone in Europe should feel good about. The planes can only reach targets within Europe. So, it’s a great first step to get the bombs out, and it’s something that can be done really quickly and easily, and does not require any new treaty negotiations because there are no legal requirements for them to be in Europe. They should go, it makes everybody safer, and it’s a great way to move the debate forward and to help us make a safer place to live in.
Finally, what would Anne Harrington say to the same comment?
This idea that nuclear sharing arrangements violate the spirit of the NPT is something the Russians have been pushing in the context of the NPT review conferences. They have come up with this argument only relatively recently, and it’s really a very revisionist reading of history because the history of the NPT negotiations were very much a history of the US and the Soviets continuing to work out what they had begun with the Limited Test Ban Treaty process, which was a settlement particularly looking at what West Germany’s relationship to nuclear weapons was going to be.
The US had originally proposed a much stronger nuclear sharing agreement, including the Multilateral Force proposal, and what we have today is actually a significant walking back of those early proposals. The Soviets were, in the 1960s, and important part of shaping what the nuclear sharing agreement looks like today, and the negotiation context of the NPT. So, I would actually question whether or not it violates the spirit of the NPT. That said, I do think that there are legitimate ways to push back against the idea of nuclear sharing from a disarmament perspective. I am just not sure that aligning ourselves with the Russian revisionist history of the NPT is the way to do it.
Has the world given up on nuclear disarmament? Is the international community backsliding when it comes to nukes? Or has progress been made? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!