A Daring Peace Prize

In selecting the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has made a daring move.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute, 2017

This year’s laureate was the driving force behind the recently concluded Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

As of last Friday, October 6, the date of the prize announcement, the Treaty has been ratified by only three states (Guyana, Thailand, and Vatican City), far short of the 50 needed for it to enter into force. And even should that number be met in the near future, it remains that the Treaty will be binding solely on those states that have endorsed it.

Unless a state possessing nuclear weapons is soon willing to join their ranks – a highly improbable scenario given that no such state was among the 122 signatories of the Treaty, and indeed the nine members of the nuclear club entirely boycotted the proceedings – the Treaty will have application only to those without nuclear weaponry, hardly a glorious result.

Has the Nobel Committee driven its much vaunted prize over the cliff of idealism, as some critics have contended?

Idealism this may be, but it also bespeaks an acute moral realism; it is this combination of idealism and realism that makes this year’s prize so daring. To my mind, the risk was well worth taking.

Critics of the prize have focused exclusively on the second rationale for conferral of the prize – ICAN’s role in organizing the coalition that led to adoption of the Treaty. As a result, the committee’s first rationale has gone virtually unnoticed, namely the fact that ICAN had so effectively drawn attention “to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.” In the run-up to the Treaty negotiations, ICAN organized several civil society conferences around this theme. ICAN actively contributed to three international conferences that were subsequently held in Oslo, Nayarit-Mexico, and Vienna on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear use. The conferences were attended not just by NGOs and the other “usual suspects,” but also by official representatives from a large number of states.

One would think that sustained reflection on the health, infrastructure and environmental effects of nuclear weapons detonation is hardly something new – that such knowledge is well researched and is widely known. But the truth is that far too little research has been done in this field.

The implications of such knowledge for our legal and political evaluation of nuclear weapons – how and when (if ever) they can justifiably be used – had not been fully addressed until recently, when they were given careful consideration at the three conferences in question. (See this volume for cutting-edge legal analysis).

From the very beginning of the Cold War until the present day, the dominant discourse on nuclear weapons has been framed in terms of deterrence. We are told that states possess nuclear weapons for purposes, not of use, but of deterrence. These weapons have a preventive function; their possession ensures that they will not be used.

For this reason there is little need to reflect on the horrendous consequences of nuclear use, for, if successfully managed, these weapons preclude the very outcome we most fear. We are better off not taking our fears too seriously, for if we do, and the deleterious effects of nuclear use become overly manifest to the general public, our will to possess them for purposes of deterrence will erode, making their use more likely. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

The doctrine of deterrence is standardly presented as the quintessence of hard-nosed realism. But scratch below the surface and you will find a good dose of magical thinking. The absence of nuclear war over the last seventy years has been chalked up to deterrence, as though this were so patently obvious that alternative causal explanations need not be entertained, nor ipso facto, be carefully researched. Confidence in the alleged preventive effects of deterrence has little or no basis in scientific theory. It is an ideology built up around the belief that peace is most effectively constructed on a foundation of fear and threats.

I have argued elsewhere that whoever issues a deterrent threat – do this to me and I will retaliate – must be willing to embrace the consequences of retaliation should the threat fail. Countries that depend on nuclear weapons for their security must accept a readiness to use these weapons in retaliation in the event they are made the target of an attack. Deterrence is premised on a threat of retaliation and the commitment to follow through on that threat should it fail to prevent a first strike by one’s adversary.

And who is to say that one day, perhaps closer than we think, such a failure will not occur, whether by malign intent, miscalculation, or some combination of accidents resulting in a perfect storm.

Not to have thought through the implications of deterrence failure – a scale of humanitarian catastrophe that can dwarf the most terrible of natural disasters – is proof of a reckless and willful blindness, a voluntary ignorance. We can try to fool ourselves by speaking euphemistically of the protection we receive from the “nuclear umbrella.” But this is far from a defensive crouch; the protection in question derives from our acceptance of nuclear retaliation as a purportedly justifiable response to unjustifiable attack upon ourselves or our allies.

In sum, deterrence depends on an acceptance of nuclear use, and cannot be detached from it. Refusal to entertain the humanitarian consequences of such use – even as motivated by a strictly defensive concern – is to evince a grave lack of moral realism.

I leave aside the very real and growing problem of nuclear weapons that are designed specifically for battlefield use. Not only large and (seemingly) stable nuclear states such as the US have invested heavily in these weapons, but Pakistan and other conflict-prone nations have been adding them to their arsenals as well.

Serious reflection on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use cannot but spur our efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

By a stroke of luck, the world has not seen a wartime use of nuclear weapons for over seventy years. But as is well known, what has happened (or not happened) in the past is no predictor of what will happen (or not happen) in the future. And dependency on luck is never a good thing.

Benefiting from the willful ignorance described above, the nuclear possessing states – and those under their protection – have allowed themselves to be lulled into a dangerous complacency. The commitment to work toward disarmament that lies at the heart of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a treaty that six of today’s nine nuclear possessing states have signed (North Korea subsequently withdrew), has been woefully neglected.

The Nuclear Ban Treaty has been negotiated with the proximate aim of injecting urgency into the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. It represents a clear statement that nuclear weapons can have no good use; that their possession cannot be separated from use; and consequently that their possession has no upright place in today’s world. We have no viable choice but to work actively for nuclear disarmament.

By awarding the Peace Prize to ICAN, the Nobel Committee has issued a salutary reminder that we cannot put off this crucial moral imperative; that we do so only at our grave risk and peril.

Note: For an excellent account of what nuclear disarmament entails, see Stable Nuclear Zero: The Vision and its Implications for Disarmament Policy.

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