U.S. Seeks to Scupper Proposed Ban on Nuclear Arms

The Obama administration once sought a nuclear-free world. Now it’s fighting a ban on those very weapons.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 1: (AFP OUT) President Barack Obama arrives to speak during a closing session at the Nuclear Security Summit April 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C. After a spate of terrorist attacks from Europe to Africa, Obama is rallying international support during the summit for an effort to keep Islamic State and similar groups from obtaining nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction. (Photo By Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 1: (AFP OUT) President Barack Obama arrives to speak during a closing session at the Nuclear Security Summit April 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C. After a spate of terrorist attacks from Europe to Africa, Obama is rallying international support during the summit for an effort to keep Islamic State and similar groups from obtaining nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction. (Photo By Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images)

Almost eight years after President Barack Obama pledged in a landmark speech in Prague to seek “a world without nuclear weapons,” U.S. diplomats are mounting an aggressive campaign to head off a bid by non-nuclear states to ban such atomic arms.

American diplomats say the increasing belligerence of China and Russia — from the South China Sea to Syria to the Baltic — as well as the advancing pace of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, make it untenable for the United States and its allies to support such a far-reaching commitment to scrap their nukes.

“The security climate is not such that it is conducive to nuclear disarmament,” said a senior U.S. official, asserting that a treaty could undermine the nuclear deterrent in Europe and Asia.

“Until we have a relaxation of these tensions, and you’ve got a Russia that is willing to engage in further nuclear disarmament, it’s going to be difficult to make progress,” he said.

But supporters of the ban, including delegates from non-nuclear states and arms control experts, say that Washington is exaggerating the risks. They believe a ban would increase pressure on the world’s major nuclear powers to abide by their decades-long obligation to dismantle their nuclear weapons arsenals, the cornerstone of global efforts at limiting nuclear proliferation.

“I would argue this [nuclear weapons ban] is consistent with Obama’s vision of having a world without nuclear weapons,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Foreign Policy. “The legal prohibition of nuclear weapons is by no means a substitute for the disarmament actions that need to be taken, but it can contribute to further delegitimization of nuclear weapons.”

The U.S. diplomatic blitz against the proposed ban, which includes strong pressure on allies inside NATO and in East Asia, reflects mounting pessimism in the Obama administration about realizing the president’s vision of a nuclear-free world. Paradoxically, U.S. resistance means Washington is aligning with Beijing, Moscow, London, and Paris — nuclear powers that seek to preserve their atomic prerogatives and vow not to participate in negotiations on the proposed ban. What’s more, the heavy-handed U.S. push seems to be backfiring in some cases, driving non-nuclear countries to openly support banning nuclear weapons.

Austria, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa have spearheaded the drive for a resolution calling for the formal launch of negotiations on a nuclear ban in 2017. The U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote on the resolution as early as next week. Proponents expect it to pass easily; success, they say, would mean winning 120 votes in the 193-member assembly.

The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the foundation of nuclear disarmament efforts, struck a critical bargain: The five major nuclear powers would gradually dismantle their arsenals in exchange for a commitment from other governments to forgo such weapons. South Africa began developing a nuclear arms program in the 1960s but destroyed its nuclear weapons decades later. Brazil’s military government explored the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, but later renounced any intention to create a nuclear deterrent.

Kimball said that non-nuclear states, including some of the more than 40 co-sponsors of the resolution, have grown increasingly frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of nuclear disarmament and the recent efforts of nuclear powers to revitalize their nuclear arsenals.

The United States, for example, plans to spend as much as $1 trillion over 30 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal. China, Russia, and the United States are reportedly developing the next generation of nuclear weapons, or upgrading the technical capability of existing weapons.

The United States maintains that the NPT has been a major success. It has greatly limited the number of countries pursuing nuclear weapons even though it has not prevented outliers that never joined the treaty — including Israel, Pakistan and India — from developing nuclear weapons programs. North Korea withdrew from the NPT after developing nuclear weapons. The NPT has driven generations of disarmament pacts that have eliminated 85 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. It also provided a legal basis to pressure Iran to place its nuclear program under international scrutiny to prevent Tehran from developing a secret nuclear weapons program.

That’s one reason Washington is lobbying so hard against the resolution. U.S. officials argue that the proposed ban would do nothing to further global disarmament because it wouldn’t include the nuclear powers.

“A treaty banning nuclear weapons will not lead to any further reductions because it will not include the states that possess nuclear weapons,” Robert Wood, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, told foreign delegates at the U.N. on Oct. 14. The United States, he pledged, will vote no on the resolution and refuse to participate in negotiations. “We urge all others to do the same,” he added.

Susie Snyder, a nuclear disarmament program manager at PAX, an advocacy group devoted to a nuclear free world, said Washington has faced setbacks in its diplomatic campaign. On Oct. 18, Wood pressed his case to African ambassadors behind closed doors at the U.N. to oppose the resolution. In the days following that meeting, four African countries — Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — agreed to co-sponsor the resolution, bringing the number of co-sponsors to 44, she said.

“The arguments used by the U.S. against a ban treaty are just scare-mongering and threats,” she told FP. “The really interesting thing is that their efforts are backfiring.”

Despite plentiful apparent support for the resolution, the United States and its nuclear peers hope to peel off enough support to persuade the sponsors to withdraw it, or at least slow the momentum for a ban.

Washington has pressured treaty allies, including Japan and South Korea and fellow NATO members Norway and the Netherlands, to vote against the resolution. U.S. diplomats say a yes vote by NATO members would be “incompatible” with their obligations as members of the alliance, according to a senior European diplomat. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington has warned states considering voting in favor of the resolution that a ban could jeopardize defense arrangements with allies around the globe.

The diplomatic pressure has fallen heavily on the Netherlands, a stalwart NATO ally whose Parliament strongly supports a nuclear weapons ban. Europeans outside of NATO, like Sweden, are also facing pressure to vote no or at least abstain. But Sweden, which participates in a number of cooperation agreements with the alliance, has vowed to vote yes on the resolution. Norway and Japan, meanwhile, are said to be on the fence. But officials say Washington has gained ground with its close allies, including the vast majority of NATO members, which are expected to vote no.

“The Americans are tough,” the diplomat added. “They are saying, ‘You can’t do anything else but vote no, because you are part of an alliance. It would be completely incompatible and irresponsible to support that [ban]. It’s a threat to the core of our security doctrine.’”

Photo credit: ANDREW HARRER/Pool/Getty Images

Correction, October 23, 2016: North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty in 2003. An earlier version incorrectly stated that North Korea had never ratified the nuclear treaty. In the 1970s, Brazil launched a program to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Brazil had developed nuclear weapons.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch