Don’t ban the bomb

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Bret Stephens

“War,” Ge­orges Cle­menceau sup­pos­edly said, “is too se­ri­ous a mat­ter to be left to mil­i­tary men.” Maybe it’s time for some­one to say that peace is too se­ri­ous a mat­ter to be left to paci­fists.

The thought comes to mind on news that a lit­tle-known or­ga­ni­za­tion called the In­ter­na­tional Cam­paign to Abol­ish Nu­clear Weapons (ICAN) has won this year’s No­bel Peace Prize. The NGO, founded just a decade ago, was cited by Oslo “for its work to draw at­ten­tion to the cat­a­strophic hu­man­i­tar­ian con­se­quences of any use of nu­clear weapons and for its ground­break­ing ef­forts to achieve a treaty-based pro­hi­bi­tion of such weapons.”

This makes ICAN that very fa­mil­iar crea­ture—an­other te­diously bleat­ing “No Nukes” out­fit, much like the Pug­wash Con­fer­ences that won the prize in 1995—with one big twist. ICAN doesn’t just want to get rid of nu­clear weapons by the usual vol­un­tary means.

It set out to ban them out­right.

In July, del­e­gates from 122 coun­tries voted in fa­vor of an 11-page treaty that would ban the devel­op­ment, test­ing, build­ing, ac­qui­si­tion, pos­ses­sion, trans­fer or threat­ened use of nu­clear weapons, much as bi­o­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal weapons are now banned. The treaty is sup­posed to en­ter into le­gal force if 50 states rat­ify the deal. So far, only Guyana, Thai­land and the Vat­i­can have done so.

As a mat­ter of in­ter­na­tional pol­icy this is a non-starter. None of the world’s nine known nu­clear pow­ers—from the United States to North Korea—par­tic­i­pated in the treaty-mak­ing process, none par­tic­i­pated in the vote, and none ac­cept its out­come.

As a mat­ter of pol­i­tics, the No­bel Com­mit­tee has man­aged to put the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, for once, on the right side of all the world’s ma­jor pow­ers—surely not what the Nor­we­gians in­tended. Even peren­ni­ally paci­fist Ja­pan didn’t par­tic­i­pate in ne­go­ti­a­tions, a telling sign the coun­try is keep­ing its nu­clear op­tions open in the age of Kim Jong Un.

But ICAN knows it’s play­ing a long game, try­ing to cre­ate a no­tional le­gal pro­scrip­tion that over time will gain pop­u­lar, moral and ul­ti­mately po­lit­i­cal cur­rency in law-abid­ing demo­cratic states. It could even hap­pen sooner than many peo­ple think if Bri­tish Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn, long a nu­clear-dis­ar­ma­ment ac­tivist, be­comes prime min­is­ter. Maybe he’ll some­day win a No­bel Peace Prize, too.

That’s the prob­lem with a prize that, as Jay Nordlinger ob­served in his 2012 his­tory of the award Peace, They Say has gen­er­ally con­fused the cause of paci­fism with the cause of peace. Does any­one to­day re­mem­ber what gen­uine, durable and his­toric con­tri­bu­tions to world peace were made by Nor­man An­gell, Robert Ce­cil, Emily Balch or Alva Myrdal—prize win­ners all? And how would those con­tri­bu­tions stack up against the record of, say, the 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion at Nor­mandy?

More dan­ger­ously, the peace prize has nour­ished the flame of an idea that should have gone out for good 76 years ago—namely that dis­ar­ma­ment, par­tic­u­larly by democ­ra­cies in the name of set­ting a good global ex­am­ple, is an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent of peace.

Wal­ter Lipp­mann, no­body’s idea of a rightwing re­ac­tionary, put his fin­ger on the prob­lem in the tragic wake of an­other sup­pos­edly golden era of arms con­trol. “The dis­ar­ma­ment move­ment,” he wrote in 1943, proved “trag­i­cally suc­cess­ful in dis­arm­ing the na­tions that be­lieved in dis­ar­ma­ment.” In the name of peace, the good left them­selves in­creas­ingly de­fense­less, their al­lies and de­pen­dents in­creas­ingly anx­ious, their ri­vals and en­e­mies in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious and, in time, vi­o­lent.

“The gen­er­a­tion which most sin­cerely and elab­o­rately de­clared that peace is the supreme end of for­eign pol­icy got not peace,” Lipp­mann added, “but a most dev­as­tat­ing war.”

One of the sup­posed para­doxes of our day is that the past quar­ter-cen­tury has been a golden age of nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment. From a mid-1980s peak of more than 70,000 war­heads world­wide we’re down to fewer than 15,000. South Africa, Ukraine, Kaza­khstan and Be­larus all vol­un­tar­ily aban­doned their nu­clear weapons at the end of the Cold War.

Yet none of this has made the free world safer. Ukraini­ans can rue their 1994 de­ci­sion to aban­don their nu­clear ar­se­nal as the rea­son Vladimir Putin felt free to in­vade in 2014. The United States with­drew its tac­ti­cal nu­clear weapons from South Korea in 1991 as a peace-build­ing mea­sure. So much for that. Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo are very qui­etly mulling their nu­clear op­tions as doubts about the re­li­a­bil­ity of U.S. guar­an­tees grow. So is Saudi Ara­bia in the face of Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, or at least it was dur­ing the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Through­out the Cold War, non-win­ners of the No­bel Peace Prize such as Harry Tru­man, Dean Ach­e­son, Win­ston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Mar­garet Thatcher, Hel­mut Schmidt, Ronald Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush pre­vented an­other world war by ig­nor­ing the anti-nu­clear ide­al­ism that an­i­mates ICAN. What a shame that a name as pres­ti­gious as No­bel should en­trust the cause of peace to its most in­com­pe­tent and—if heeded—dan­ger­ous prac­ti­tion­ers. Bret Stephens is a New York Times colum­nist.

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