Poison Control

Why can't we get rid of nukes the same way we got rid of chemical weapons?

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." I suppose the OPCW's role in averting 72 hours of airstrikes against Syria didn't hurt its chances.

Last Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." I suppose the OPCW’s role in averting 72 hours of airstrikes against Syria didn’t hurt its chances.

The OPCW has been doing worthy work for more than a decade. The Nobel press release makes the point that the committee, having awarded "numerous prizes" to strengthen efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, now was "seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons."

So the Norwegian Nobel Committee wanted to share the love. I am glad. There are plenty of people toiling away under gray skies in Den Haag who deserve a moment of sunshine.

There is, however, an implicit criticism in the award. After all, what does the committee have to show for those "numerous prizes" intended to eliminate nuclear weapons? Despite eight different Nobels to nine individuals and three organizations, nuclear weapons remain at the core of our security policies. Chemical weapons, on the other hand, are very close to being a thing of the past.

Those of us interested in reducing the danger from nuclear weapons might well ask how the world made so much progress when it comes to chemical weapons. We might learn something.

The widespread abhorrence of chemical weapons, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee notes, dates to the horrors of the First World War. It seems fashionable to dismiss our aversion to poison gas on the basis that all kinds of awful things happen in war. It helps to read first-person accounts of gas attacks or even the fictionalized account in All Quiet on the Western Front. (Erich Maria Remarque had served in the German army during the war but was not, so far as I know, gassed.)

Six years after the end of the war, the ill-fated League of Nations held a conference that resulted in the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, better known as the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use, but not the possession, of chemical weapons. Most of the major powers, particularly the combatants in the First World War, acceded to the Geneva Protocol in relatively short order — France in 1926, the Soviet Union in 1928, Germany in 1929, the United Kingdom in 1930. Many signed with reservations, such as warning that the protocol would cease to be binding with regards to enemies that did not observe it. This was deterrence before Hiroshima.

The United States did not sign until 1975. (The State Department has a whiny little fact narrative that points out the United States accepted a similar prohibition on chemical weapons in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, then blames the French for rejecting that treaty over its submarine limits. Charles Evans Hughes surely spat out his freedom toast.)

Despite the hold-outs and reservations, norms and some measure of deterrence (largely) kept chemical weapons from being used on the battlefield during the Second World War — although let’s not pat ourselves on the back when it comes to the subject of poison gas and fascism. Over time, though, we’ve come to regard chemical weapons as basically awful. The post-war leaders that have used chemical weapons reads like a who’s who of nutjobs — Muammar al-Qaddafi against Chad, Saddam Hussein against Iran, and now Bashar al-Assad against his own people. There are other disputed cases, but they don’t change the fundamental fact that chemical weapons use is popular largely with the world’s worst countries.

Eventually, the international community negotiated the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC expanded the 1925 Geneva Protocol’s prohibition on the use of chemical weapons into a verifiable ban on the development, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and it created the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help implement the convention.

Syria’s accession to the CWC leaves only a handful of countries outside the treaty — charming little garden spots like Angola, Egypt, South Sudan, and North Korea. (Israel and Myanmar have signed, but not ratified.) Although the United States and Russia are, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee notes, lagging on CW destruction, the delays relate to funding and local opposition by environmental groups. Neither country retains an operational chemical weapons stockpile. It’s taken nearly 90 years since the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but the end of chemical weapons is more or less in sight. The norm against chemical weapons is so strong President Obama ad libbed a military threat against Syria before realizing he didn’t really mean it. There is a deep, visceral disgust toward chemical weapons.

Which brings us to nuclear weapons.

We hear a lot about the elimination of nuclear weapons. President Obama is for eliminating nuclear weapons, although he doesn’t think it will happen in his lifetime. Global Zero and other disarmament groups want a treaty that sets a time-frame for elimination.

Well, I don’t know how long Barack Obama is going to live. (What’s the life expectancy for a 52-year-old smoker, anyway?) But this process is going to take longer than 20 years — particularly if we keep going about it the same way.

It is worth noting that it took 70 years to go from a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons to a verifiable regime that bans their development, production, and stockpiling as well. It took so long because many people continued to believe that chemical weapons had military or political uses, that our chemical weapons were necessary to deter their chemical weapons, and that you couldn’t "un-invent" a technology that was commonplace. Of course, these weren’t the real barriers. We didn’t ultimately get the Chemical Weapons Convention because of a breakthrough in verification technology or because we’d solved all the problems that led people to arm themselves in the first place. We got the Chemical Weapons Convention because we, collectively, decided to eliminate chemical weapons. It took 70 years to convince ourselves, collectively, that we didn’t want to live with poison gas anymore.

By contrast, we haven’t even started that process with regard to nuclear weapons. Disarmament proposals are clever, but they leave intact the possibility that we might use nuclear weapons for one goal or another. In 1961, Mort Halperin wrote a proposal to ban the use of nuclear weapons. This proposal had all the hallmarks of a good idea ahead of its time, including falling on deaf ears. We needed nuclear weapons — to keep the Red Army in its barracks, to keep Soviet missiles out of Cuba, to keep Taiwan and South Korea free … well, non-communist at any rate. Those rationales ended with the Cold War, but we kept saying nuclear weapons are useful, to the point that you’ll get a nice little homily from any U.S. or U.K. official involved in the nuclear business about how we "use" nuclear weapons every day. (I actually jab a pen in my hand to avoid rolling my eyes when I hear that hoary old chestnut.)

Even our disarmament talk pays homage to the continuing utility of nuclear weapons. We spend a lot of time talking about how the vision of elimination is necessary to create the political will to take more modest steps, or how we can work to create the political conditions that will allow elimination. But we won’t say what we said about chemical weapons in 1925: that their use "has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world" and that "this prohibition shall be universally accepted … binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations."

And that’s why we haven’t banned them. Instead, we are willing to say that we would use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances or circumstances that are extremely remote. But if, for example, you state that we should never again use nuclear weapons "under any circumstances," you can hear the lawyers sucking in air through their teeth. Even the International Court of Justice, in its 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of the use of nuclear weapons, punted, noting that while the use of nuclear weapons was generally illegal, there might be exceptions.

If we really believe that nuclear deterrence cannot go on forever, that relying on nuclear weapons for our security is at some level ultimately unsustainable, the place to start is by observing that nuclear weapons belong in the same category as chemical weapons. I suspect that our reluctance to do so explains in large part why nuclear weapons are still with us, nearly 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There is now a growing interest among some observers to start building the consensus against the use of nuclear weapons. The Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative — a group of 12 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates — is pressing the United States and other nuclear-weapons states to face up to the human cost of a nuclear war. In March, Norway hosted a conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The United States and the other nuclear-weapons states skipped it. (Maybe Oslo’s famous $20 beers were too rich for TDY. Norway totally should have held it in a casino. What? Too soon?)

The conference was, I am told, a smashing success. (Mexico will host a follow-on conference next February in Nayarit.) Afterward, 80 countries, including some important U.S. allies, sponsored a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. More than 80 countries! It’s harder than it should be, getting 80 countries to say that using a nuclear weapon would be unwelcome from a humanitarian standpoint. The trouble was this line: "It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances." It’s a reasonable sentiment, not so far off from Reagan’s common-sense observation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

But that phrase — "any circumstances." That phrase caused a lot of heartburn, especially among Japanese lawyers who worried that the language might be inconsistent with U.S. nuclear policy and, therefore, U.S. security guarantees to Japan. Japan was not one of the 80 signatories. The Japanese public, on the other hand, is well aware of the human toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They don’t seem to have a lot of time for the hypothetical concerns of lawyers. They know that nuclear bombs are a bad thing for the people getting bombed and don’t mind saying so. Under political pressure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has now decided to sign the statement. Abe has also invited world leaders to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to "to witness first-hand the impact that could be inflicted by the use of such weapons."

I visited Hiroshima this summer as part of a group convened by the prefectural government. It was a very moving experience, particularly the museum. The hardest part, for me, were the children’s school uniforms, with the dark numbers burned out. For a colleague of mine, it was the child’s tricycle, its surface bubbled from the intense heat. These objects matter. It’s hard for a person to contemplate the enormity of the loss all at once. It’s only when you confront a singular instance of tragedy — the story of the child who wore the uniform or rode the tricycle — and start to multiply that suffering by a few, then by a score, and then by the thousands, it’s only then you start to have trouble breathing. Well, that’s how I experienced it, at any rate. It is easy for us to talk about deterrence in a cold, analytical manner that obscures the horror of what it would mean to make good on a threat to use a nuclear weapon. A visit to Hiroshima makes that ugly reality a little harder to push aside.

President Obama really ought to take Abe up on his offer. The president has said he seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons, but I wonder if he’s really thought about why we should recoil at the threat of nuclear war. When Obama talks about the destruction of nuclear weapons, he remains as cool and detached as ever. The closest Obama has come to describing the horrors of nuclear war is telling his audience in Prague that the beautiful city would have ceased to exist in a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange. Yet even this observation was prefaced with an odd, false note — that the destruction would have happened "in a single flash of light."

That’s not how it works. The ruin and dying continue after the flash of light, for days. Hence the most depressing comment about the reality of nuclear war — the survivors would envy the dead. If you visit Hiroshima, you’ll find monuments to Marcel Junod, the Red Cross official who visited the city days after bombing, bringing much needed medical supplies.

If Obama were to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would realize how lucky Hiroshima would have been to have all the death and suffering over in a "flash of light." I have no doubt that the president would find the courage do the right thing. What’s holding him back? It isn’t as though our allies would be upset. I sometimes hear that "more than 30 countries around the world rely on the U.S. nuclear weapons umbrella." Setting aside my many objections to that claim for the moment, a goodly number of those countries attended the conference in Oslo and signed the statement on humanitarian consequences. These are our allies.

The United States should sign the statement and send a delegation to the conference in Nayarit. This isn’t so hard.

Oh, who am I kidding? The United States is going to refuse to sign the statement and skip the next conference, too, just as it refused to sign the Geneva Protocol in 1925. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but good Lord, is it a long arc. It is too bad. President Obama speaks movingly about his commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. If only he knew how! Well, if he’s really interested, he has a model in the decades-long fight against chemical weapons. It starts with a recognition that we can’t use these weapons, then takes decades of hard work to persuade others to join us. It’s a long slog, with plenty of low points and setbacks. But, Mr. President, it’s not impossible. Just ask your fellow Nobel laureates at the OPCW.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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