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Applauding the Nobel committee — while remaining skeptical that nukes can ever be abolished

Berit Reiss-Andersen, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge via REUTERS
Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, poses with the logo of ICAN, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize 2017.

I take the award of Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — for their work advocating the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — as a strong statement by the Nobel committee against the prospect of nuclear war or any future use of nuclear weapons.

By some miracle, or collective act of wisdom, no nukes have been used since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last days of World War II.

Of course, as a statement against nuclear proliferation and a statement that nukes must never be used to commit mass murder, the Nobel Committee’s decision is laudable.

I hope our current president, who wondered aloud during the campaign what was the point of having nuclear weapons if you can never use them (although he added that he would be “the last person that wants to play the nuclear card”) takes the hint. 

But, of course, I am skeptical that nuclear weapons can truly be abolished. Since Nagasaki, the list of nations possessing nuclear weapons capability has grown to nine. So I wanted to pass along a statement put out this morning by University of Minnesota political scientist Mark Bell, who specializes in international relations and specifically on nuclear proliferation, and who added some far more expert skepticism.

“It remains to be seen whether the nuclear ban treaty will actually advance the cause of nuclear disarmament. None of the states possessing nuclear weapons or relying on the American nuclear umbrella have signed on to the treaty, and most nuclear weapons states are in the process of modernizing their nuclear arsenals. There is a danger that by focusing on the ban treaty, its advocates may distract from achieving more immediate nonproliferation and nuclear security goals that would be more likely to enhance international security.”

In fact, in addition to not signing the treaty, as the New York Times reported, the United States and other nuclear powers boycotted the negotiations leading up to the treaty and persuaded many of their allies to do the same, and some of the nuclear powers “denounced the treaty as a naïve and dangerous diversion.”

I don’t denounce it as a dangerous diversion. I applaud the sentiment and hope it can do some good. But I would certainly agree with Bell’s statement that “it remains to be seen” how much good it can do.

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Comments (7)

I agree

with your skepticism. The nuclear genie got out of the bottle seventy odd years ago -- we're not going to put it back in.
However, almost anything is better than doing nothing. We made it through the Cold War without us, the Chinese or the Russians using nuclear weapons, although we came close in Korea.
I think that now the danger is not from state actors (even ones like North Korea) who clearly have something to lose (the second strike deterrent). The real danger is groups like ISIS or even less coherent actors who don't provide a target for any sort of counter attack, nuclear or otherwise, beyond 'boots on the ground', which is fighting on their turf.

Optimism

Despite our reputation for pessimism, Scandinavians like me have a streak of optimism which I see in gestures like the Nobel Prize for Peace in general and this particular award committee for the work of this committee. I think many Americans like me put the fear of the bomb which we became aware of us almost as soon as we were able to understand speech on the back burner after the fall of the Soviet Union. It seemed like such a relief when in perils were probably never before greater.

I have no idea how many treaties exist with respect to limiting the growth and spread of nuclear arms but we have not exactly charted a clear path since 1980, anyway. Reagan repudiated the ABM treaty (I think it was) to reignite an arms race and promote a pie-in-the-sky missile defense (Star Wars) that would bankrupt the Soviet Union. Apparently, Reagan was misinformed that the Soviet Union was already bankrupt and that he needn't have bothered. No matter, last I've heard, Star Wars in still in annual defense appropriations and the failure of test after test has not killed the dream of its becoming reality someday.

Then Israel stole the bomb secrets from the US, a fact which I gather has never really been acknowledged. Nor the fact that Israel has the bomb which is an open secret at least to its Arab and Muslin neighbors. Which of course lies at the heart of the fears about Iranian nuclear development.

Then there's Pakistan and India, where the threat of a nuclear war is probably nowhere greater.

The world went from one in which the US had a monopoly on nuclear arms to a sort of bilateral world, where the Soviet Union (and then China) had them. Then there were discussions about "bilateral nuclear arms treaties". Then we began to hear about "multilateral nuclear arms treaties." We need to hear more about these kinds of treaties. The ones where all of those nations who have or want to have nuclear arms or technologies become partners in keeping their jealous eyes one another,through agreed upon inspections and reporting. Or maybe toward the elimination of all forms of nuclear technology. (We still haven't agreed on what to do with the spent fuel rods in Xcel Energy's Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear generating plants.) I remain optimistic we should and can abolish nuclear arms if groups like this committee are held up as North Stars pointing in the right direction.

“Reagan repudiated the ABM

“Reagan repudiated the ABM treaty (I think it was) to reignite an arms race and promote a pie-in-the-sky missile defense (Star Wars) that would bankrupt the Soviet Union. Apparently, Reagan was misinformed that the Soviet Union was already bankrupt and that he needn't have bothered.” I can assure you that if Gorbachev did not become communist party leader, I would be eating grass in the Soviet Union now, just like North Koreans do… and you would still be afraid of the Soviet Union’s nukes…

While, with this choice, the

While, with this choice, the Nobel committee has at least put it's car back on the rails, it's too late to regain it's lost credibility.

Tomorrow they might just as well award Hugo Chavez posthumously, for liberating Venezuela from the horrors of capitalist prosperity and stability.

The goal should be to reduce the likelihood of use

It is important to note that the only time nuclear weapons were used was when there was only one nuclear power and there was no danger of a nuclear retaliatory strike. Now that the technology is known (nuclear genie out of the bottle) as to how to produce a nuclear weapon, "In a blind world, the one-eyed man is king."

I think our goal should be to reduce the risk of nuclear war to the lowest possible level, not simply disarmament for disarmament's sake. It is debatable whether the risk is lower with zero nuclear weapons or with a minimal number required to assure a deterrence against their use. With technological improvements, reduction of tensions, and all states actively involved in a non-proliferation regime, I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons. But we are a long way from it.

Fear of invasion or regime change by conventional weapons is a prime motivator for a country to develop a nuclear weapon, as it is less expensive and more effective at deterring a conventional attack. Therefore, negotiating conflicts is a good way to reduce this fear and remove the rational for pursuing a nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles.

We have been successful in reducing the risk of nuclear use through negotiations, treaties, inspections, and verification technology, and we should keep on that path.

Skepticism > Nihilism?

The skepticism of Black et.al. in the case of abolishing nukes and doing things like reversing global warming is dangerous.

While the odds of doing these things are extremely low -- if we use this fact as an excuse to surrender without continuing to fight for sustainability, we have become complicit in our own destruction.

That's called nihilism and is an abomination of what it means to be human.

Will We Abolish Nukes?

I doubt it very much. Even if, by some miracle, all nuclear weapons vanished overnight, we would still know how to replace them.

The good work of groups like ICAN is in reminding us of the evils of nuclear war. We can't get rid of the weapons, we can't unlearn the know-how to make them, but we can restrain our will to use them. When we have leaders who fantasize about winning even a "limited" nuclear war, or who pout because they may never get a chance to push The Button, that reminder may be the only thing keeping us from annihilation.