Ban the Nukes: The Impact of Nuclear Weapons on Global Politics


Since the creation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) enacted in 1970, 190 parties have agreed “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament.”  In 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to negotiate a nuclear-weapon-ban treaty, a treaty that “prohibits the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, threat of use and use of nuclear weapons.” These negotiations are to take place in 2017.

Matthew Harries, managing editor of Survival and a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), helps cut through the red tape of the nuclear arms issue and focus on the real problem with a nuclear ban treaty. Harries points out that a focus on a ban treaty could fracture current alliances and support Russian and Chinese intents to empower their arsenal.

As talks ensue after the proposition of a ban treaty, Harries believes that the NATO alliance will become fractured over the debates, thus detracting from the unified effort needed to take on Russian nuclear saber rattling. Alongside a weakened NATO, stereotypes that the UN is hostile to U.S. interest and consistently lacks seriousness could be vindicated and flourish, thus eroding trust between longstanding alliances. East Asian allies are also in the crosshairs, with possible legal obstacles limiting extended-deterrence-related operations. These restrictions would include cutting off transit for nuclear weapons through national territory, airspace, or waters, and prohibiting participation in nuclear planning or subscribing to nuclear doctrines.

Russian and Chinese influence also play a part in the ban discussion, with Harries focusing on two main points. The first is that both countries lack the moral pressure from civil society movements to impact government decision making. Countries that have seen mass anti-nuclear demonstrations and protests, such as the UK, also experience a reduction of nuclear involvement, and without this option, there is little chance to encourage the country to disarm. The second important factor is that there is little chance that U.S. extended nuclear deterrence will encourage Russia and China to do the same. There is a greater correlation, in Harries’ opinion, between the size of Russia’s nuclear arms program and the strength of the U.S. military.

Though there are sound intentions with the ban treaty, Harries makes outstanding points that reveal a more complicated and interconnected issue. If attempting to build solidarity in the face of mutually assured destruction undermines the nuclear underpinning of the U.S. alliance system and supports governments with little intent to disarm, is the ban truly creating peace? It will be interesting to see where the negotiations in the next coming months will go, but one thing is certain after reading Harries’ paper: Nukes are the ace in the hole for global politics.

– James Dykman, World Affairs Council Intern

Photo: New York Times