by Joshua Peck
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the single most significant international agreement addressing the survival of the planet, was voted into force as of January 22, 2021. Latin America played a key role in promoting this treaty. For example, on February 14, 2014, Mexico hosted a conference attended by at least 20 delegations–including three from other Latin American countries (Costa Rica, Cuba, and Chile) and the Holy See–that focused on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the need to outlaw them along with other weapons of mass destruction.
On July 7, 2014, the TPNW was approved (but not yet ratified) by 122 countries. The negotiations were overseen by Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez from Costa Rica. In a Toda Peace Institute article, Cesar Jaramillo argued that the Latin American nations’ role in getting the treaty passed was not surprising given that they already had signed and ratified the Treaty of Tlatelolco (1967) establishing a nuclear-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean regions. Mexico, in support of its ratifying the TPNW, argued that the TPNW is “a global extension of the various treaties that establish zones free of nuclear weapons” and that “the collective will of the international community” can move the nuclear-armed nations to adopt the treaty.
The effort to move the nuclear-armed nations to adopt the treaty faces considerable resistance, particularly from countries in the northern hemisphere. In contrast to Latin America’s support for the TPNW, the United States has consistently voted against UN resolutions calling for its adoption and has demanded that its allies, including NATO, join in rejecting the treaty. Sixty-one countries, primarily in the global south, have ratified the treaty, with hardly any western nations and no NATO nations having done so—largely because of pressure from the United States. The arguments used by NATO to justify continued building, storing, selling, and threatening the use of nuclear weapons provide a dramatic contrast to Latin American and other nations’ arguments promoting the adoption and ratification of the TPNW. This article focuses on the competing arguments for and against the TPNW and asks you to decide which ones are most likely to save life on earth.
Many arguments in favor of the TPNW explicitly or indirectly invoke a fundamental set of moral principles– for example, making explicit appeals to universal ethical codes, invoking humanitarian laws and standards, rejecting imperialist aggression, and enjoining the public to recognize the threat nuclear weapons pose for global extinction. Amulya K.N. Reddy, an eminent Indian scientist associated with the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, said that the question of nuclear disarmament “is a question of right and wrong, good and evil, ethics.” Professor Eric David warned that insisting on an ability to launch a nuclear retaliatory strike “will perhaps protect the sovereignty of the state suffering the first strike, and will perhaps satisfy the victim’s desire for revenge, but it will not satisfy humanitarian law, which will have been breached not once but twice; and two wrongs do not make a right “
Another morality-based argument in support of the TPNW stresses that nuclear weapons are an extinction-level threat. John Kultgen argued that the United States and Russia, both having essentially created a doomsday machine, are morally atrocious. Dr. Ira Helfand warned that nuclear weapons “could change the whole system of the planet and [cause the] extinction of the human species in the end.”
In dramatic contrast to support for the TPNW based on ethical principles, the arguments made against the TPNW by NATO and the US Department of State reverberate with concerns for security—at least for NATO states and their allies. The TPNW, according to NATO, “does not reflect the increasingly challenging international security environment” and “fails to recognize that a world where the states that challenge the international rules-based order have nuclear weapons, but NATO does not, is not a safer world.” State Department official and NSC Senior Director Christopher Ford argued that “Responsible countries, well aware that existing nuclear weapons possessors are hardly likely to give up their arsenals without being assured that other countries will not be able to develop nuclear weapons, have been working to shore up the nonproliferation regime against the challenges it faces.” Ford also said, “By damaging deterrent relationships that have for decades reduced the incentives some states have felt to pursue their own indigenous nuclear weapons programs… the TPNW could result in an increase in the number of states possessing or seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.”
NATO and representatives of the US government have scoffed at the TPNW and its supporters for using “moralistic” language. For example, Ford claimed that the TPNW “is a triumph of moralistic virtue-signaling over good sense and the pragmatic hard work needed to advance its stated goals.” On the other hand, proponents of the TPNW have a good deal to criticize in the US/NATO fear-mongering rhetoric. For example, the US and NATO often refer to the sanctity of the “international rules-based order.” In a Journal of International Political Theory article, Jan Ruzucha argues that the true meaning of this oft-repeated phrase is that the nations of the imperial core can dominate countries in the imperial periphery, which typically lack nuclear weapons. The phrase, “responsible countries” is also identified as morally dubious language given that the US, identified by Ford as one of the so-called “responsible countries,” is the only country ever to have targeted and killed innocent civilians with nuclear weapons. Additionally, the US hardly seems deserving of the “responsible” label, given that they have almost nuked their own cities dozens of times and that their testing of nuclear weapons has had an extremely deleterious effect on Pacific islanders.
In further criticism of the US/NATO arguments against the TPNW, Imam Saffet Catovic, a core member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions Climate Action Task Force, comments that the policies of nuclear deterrence promoted by the US and its allies “leads to proliferation because it makes the mindset that nuclear weapons are the source of power, and therefore, necessary.” He says they send the message that “if you want to do something we don’t like, and you don’t have a nuclear arsenal, we can invade you.” According to David Barash, having nuclear weapons on “hair trigger alerts” heightens the risk of nuclear war by making adversaries nervous–as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly ended in total disaster. Finally, Barash argues that because nations without nuclear arsenals have attacked nuclear adversaries in the past (such as in the Korean War), there is no reason to believe that nuclear deterrence has prevented any wars, but there is reason to believe it has started some.
In conclusion, there are two major positions on the TPNW–the moral position in favor of joining the treaty, promoted by Latin American and other non-NATO countries, and the “security”-glorifying position promoted by the United States and its NATO and other allies. Which arguments are most convincing to you? Opponents of the TPNW position their nuclear politics as protectionist, yet ask yourself “Are weapons of such apocalyptic power truly ‘protectionist’, truly able to guarantee security for all? Gandhi said, “Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person … and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything from it? Will it restore to him control over his life and destiny?” I ask, “Will an apocalyptic nuclear policy help the person of whom Gandhi speaks? Have the bullies, the advocates of one-upmanship, the nuclear weapons saber-rattling members of NATO convinced you that preserving their own nuclear weapons on behalf of “deterrence” and denigrating moral, humanitarian, and global survival principles will ensure the survival of life on the planet revered by Gandhi (and many of the rest of us)?”
Joshua Peck is an intern at Massachusetts Peace Action