With all the bad news filling the headlines, we are thrilled to trumpet something uplifting: the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a scrappy coalition of groups from around the world that played a decisive role in the adoption, this past July, of an international treaty banning the production, possession, and use of nuclear munitions. While many activists had become discouraged over the prospects for further progress on the nuclear issue, ICAN turned the tide by emphasizing the humanitarian impacts of a nuclear war, which would affect every country on the planet, whether or not they were parties to the fighting.
As the Nobel Committee ruefully acknowledged, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons “will not in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon,” given that the nuclear-armed states have shown no interest in signing it. For the organizations and governments that share ICAN’s objectives, this means a lot more work ahead to bring the treaty into force (this will occur when 50 nations ratify it) and persuade the nuclear-armed states to join it. Needless to say, this will not, in today’s fractious political landscape, prove an easy task.
But getting states to sign the treaty is not the only objective of this effort: Equally vital is the drive to establish an international legal norm against the use of nuclear weapons, akin to the existing norms against land mines, cluster munitions, and biological and chemical weapons. “Nuclear weapons are even more destructive [than those other munitions],” Nobel Committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen noted, “but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition.”
Propounding and establishing a norm against the use of nuclear weapons has never been more critical. For decades, we have been spared unimaginable death and destruction in part because of arms-control treaties that reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange, and in part because of the disinclination of leaders to be the first to order such a strike since the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This nuclear taboo was especially evident during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Ronald Reagan, in his final years as president, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also came to recognize the horror of nuclear war, and so discussed the elimination of these weapons.
Today, any reluctance on the part of key world leaders to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons appears to be vanishing. One after another, top officials in Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea, the United States, and NATO have taken steps or made statements indicating a greater inclination to employ such arms.
Russia, for example, appears to have violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers, by deploying a cruise missile capable of flying within that range. Moscow has also adopted a strategic doctrine that calls for the early use of nuclear weapons in the event of a major NATO assault on its territory—a move that has been cited in the West as justification for the deployment of additional nuclear-capable aircraft and cruise missiles to deter the Russians. In much the same manner, military officials in India and Pakistan have announced plans to employ nuclear weapons at an early stage in any major encounter.