Bangkok Post

IF WE CAN’T BAN NUKES, LET’S STIGMATISE THEM

- An­dreas Kluth is a colum­nist for Bloomberg Opin­ion. An­dreas Kluth Military · U.S. News · Politics · Nuclear Threat · Warfare and Conflicts · World Politics · United Nations · NATO · Japan · South Korea · United States of America · Germany · Russia · Russian Empire · China · United Kingdom · France · Israel · Pakistan · India · North Korea · Thomas More · Immanuel Kant · Martin Luther King, Jr. · Martin Luther · Martin Luther · Martin Luther King · Iran · Ronald Reagan · Soviet Union · Union · Mikhail Gorbachev · Alfred, Lord Tennyson · Utopia, FL · Harry Truman

There are po­ten­tial catas­tro­phes so dire, only an ap­proach that blurs the re­al­ist and the utopian seems ap­pro­pri­ate. Take for ex­am­ple the Treaty on the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Nu­clear Weapons. Adopted by the United Na­tions in 2017, it seeks to com­pletely get rid of the most sa­tanic arms ever cre­ated.

The treaty’s al­ready been signed by 84 states and rat­i­fied by 45. To take ef­fect — that is, to be bind­ing on its sig­na­to­ries — it needs only an­other hand­ful of rat­i­fi­ca­tions. And a group of 56 in­ter­na­tional big­wigs re­cently signed an open let­ter to nudge that along. They in­clude for­mer pres­i­dents and prime, for­eign and de­fence min­is­ters from 20 Nato mem­ber states plus Ja­pan and South Korea, as well as one for­mer sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the UN and two of Nato.

One of their stated ob­jec­tives is to get the cur­rent lead­ers of their coun­tries to sign the treaty. That’s cheeky, since all of the na­tions in ques­tion are presently un­der the US “nu­clear um­brella” which they’d have to leave or dis­avow. Un­likely. Sev­eral, like Ger­many, even have Amer­i­can nukes sta­tioned on their own ter­ri­tory.

And then re­mem­ber that, strictly speak­ing, none of the sig­na­to­ries so far, nor any of the coun­tries rep­re­sented by the au­thors of the let­ter, even mat­ters. Only nine na­tions have nukes to­day: the US, Rus­sia, China, the UK, France, Is­rael, Pak­istan, In­dia and North Korea. And all of them demon­stra­tively boy­cotted even the talks lead­ing up to the treaty. The chance they’d ever sign is that of a snow­ball in a fis­sion event.

Does all this make the treaty and the let­ter a fu­tile in­dul­gence? Quite the con­trary. To me, th­ese short texts join a long list of ide­al­ist trea­tises that were never acted upon but nonethe­less changed world his­tory. Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516 springs to mind, or Im­manuel Kant’s Per­pet­ual Peace of 1795. Both wanted, among other things, to abol­ish armies; nei­ther could yet imag­ine nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion, of course.

Nei­ther More, who was be­ing partly satir­i­cal, nor Kant, in his realm of pure rea­son, ex­pected the pow­ers that be to come around to their point of view overnight, or ever. But rather like Martin Luther King when he orated “I have a dream,” they sim­ply con­fronted us with an ideal state so in­tu­itively com­pelling, so morally in­con­tro­vert­ible, that the di­ver­sions from it in our lived re­al­ity be­gan ap­pear­ing grotesque and un­ac­cept­able.

The same goals mo­ti­vate this treaty. The first is to shake hu­man­ity, cur­rently dis­tracted by a pan­demic, out of its com­pla­cency about the risks of nu­clear war. The sec­ond is to grad­u­ally build a global con­sen­sus that even­tu­ally makes any mil­i­tary plans built on nukes so shame­ful that they won’t even be con­sid­ered.

The first goal, in seek­ing to cor­rect our flawed risk as­sess­ment, is al­ready hard. Since the end of the Cold War, most peo­ple have be­come much less afraid of nu­clear war, when in­stead they should worry more. As I’ve ar­gued be­fore, both game the­ory and geopolitic­s sug­gest that the dan­ger of nu­clear con­fla­gra­tion has in­creased.

The in­cum­bent pow­ers are “mod­ernising” their ar­se­nals and in­cor­po­rat­ing nukes into “tac­ti­cal” sce­nar­ios that defy sim­ple de­ter­rence mod­els such as the Cold War’s “mu­tual as­sured de­struc­tion” (MAD). Up­start pow­ers like Iran want to join the club. Space and cy­berspace have been added to land, sea and air as po­ten­tial bat­tle­fields.

The big­ger goal is, of course, sham­ing the na­tions and lead­ers that keep their nukes. For in­stance, stigma could, in time, turn do­mes­tic opin­ion in China and dis­suade its lead­ers from their all-out ef­fort to “catch up” with stock­piles in the US and Rus­sia. It could even sway pub­lic at­ti­tudes in Rus­sia, In­dia and else­where. It could bring the US back to the arms-con­trol ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Two Amer­i­can pres­i­dents em­bod­ied the im­per­a­tive to tem­per nu­clear re­al­ism with ide­al­ism.

One was Ron­ald Reagan, who ne­go­ti­ated with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gor­bachev to limit their arms race, but who also hewed pub­licly to this prin­ci­ple: “A nu­clear war can­not be won and must never be fought.”

The other was Harry Tru­man, the only leader who ever or­dered nu­clear bombs to be dropped in war, but who then helped launch the UN to pre­vent any such thing from hap­pen­ing again. In his wal­let he kept what could be in­ter­preted as a poetic ver­sion of the Treaty on the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Nu­clear Weapons. They’re th­ese lines by Al­fred Ten­nyson:

“Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the bat­tle-flags were furl’d,In the Par­lia­ment of man, the Fed­er­a­tion of the world. There the com­mon sense of most shall hold a fret­ful realm in awe, and the kindly earth shall slum­ber, lapt in univer­sal law.”

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