Spring 2020

Nuclear Disarmament without the Nuclear-Weapon States: The Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty

Harald Müller and Carmen Wunderlich

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) represents a daring act of self-empowerment: nuclear have-nots produced an international disarmament treaty without the involvement of the nuclear-weapon states or their allies. In this essay, we assess how the new treaty relates to the existing nuclear order and its four central norms: constraints on use, political restraint, nonproliferation, and disarmament. We discuss the TPNW’s origin in and impact on this contested order. At the heart of contestation are two security concepts: deterrence versus the immediate ban of nuclear arms, which result in fundamentally different ideas on how to pursue the road to “global zero.” Whether or not the TPNW and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons are compatible depends on how the opponents handle their controversies. The key is to overcome the emotionalized polarization and rediscover a common basis in order to prevent damage to the existing nuclear order and bring forward nuclear disarmament in practice.

Harald Müller is Senior Associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and Supervisor of Peace Research Center Prague. He has been Executive Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt for twenty years and Professor for International Relations at the Goethe University Frankfurt. He served, inter alia, as Vice President of the EU Consortium for Non-Proliferation, as Chair of the UN Advisory Board on Disarmament, and on German delegations to NPT Review Conferences from 1995 to 2015. He is the editor of Great Power Multilateralism and the Prevention of War: Debating a 21st Century Concert of Powers (2018).

Carmen Wunderlich is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the University of Duisburg-Essen in the Department of International Relations and Development Policy. She is also a Research Fellow at the Peace Research Center Prague. She is the author of “Rogue States” as Norm Entrepreneurs: Black Sheep or Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing? (2020), editor of Norm Dynamics in Multilateral Arms Control (with Harald Müller, 2013), and has published in such journals as Contemporary Security Policy, Review of International Studies, The Nonproliferation Review, and International Politics.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is the product of more than fifty years of norm contestation regarding disarmament. It is essential to see the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty as a dependent variable of the politics surrounding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The TPNW has not fallen from heaven and is not the result of malign intentions, but is a consequence of the history of debates on and practices of disarmament since negotiations on the NPT began in the 1960s.

The TPNW, signed in 2017, represents a new approach to nuclear disarmament: rather than being hapless bystanders, the have-nots came together and produced an international disarmament treaty without the nuclear-weapon states (NWS)–the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China–or their allies. What looks, for the NWS, like an undesirable intrusion onto their turf represents, for ban supporters, an act of self-empowerment in an area they regard as crucial to their own security and survival.

It is not, as some critics have maintained, preordained by the nature of the TPNW that it will damage the NPT. Whether the two treaties are compatible or not depends on how opponents and proponents of the TPNW handle their controversies. Reasonable policies can create a modus vivendi. Antagonistic policies can create incompatibility. Right now, the outcome is indeterminate.

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