Nuclear Disarmament and The Nobel Peace Prize

Since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Linus Pauling in 1962, contributions to nuclear disarmament have recurrently been an explicit motivation for granting the Prize.1

According to the Nobel Peace Prize committee, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the Prize this year for creating new momentum in disarmament efforts by again drawing “…attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

The motivation of the 2017 Peace Prize follows that of earlier Prizes for nuclear disarmament, for example, the one awarded to Alva Myrdal in 1982. Myrdal received the Prize for her contributions to the nuclear disarmament negotiations in Geneva and for her broader efforts to raise awareness, not least through her book, The Game of Disarmament (published in 1976). The book, which also draws on information obtained in discussions with the future Nobel Laureates in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (recipients in 1995), graphically describes both the catastrophic consequences of a global nuclear war and critically picks apart the arguments made in support of nuclear weapons; a similar approach for which ICAN was awarded in 2017, this time underlining the humanitarian impact of any use of nuclear weapons.

Earlier Nobel Peace Prize laureates on nuclear disarmament can be clustered into three broad categories; all important in their own right for moving toward actual disarmament:

The first category consists of high-level political representatives, such as Mikhail Gorbachev (who received the Prize in 1990)and Barack Obama (2009), who in part received the prize for pursuing nuclear disarmament, and persons in formal positions, such as Alva Myrdal and Alfonso García Robles (both in 1982), who were key players in disarmament negotiations.

The second category consists of experts on nuclear weapons and organizations that provide technical insights and suggest feasible organized modes of control, such as Joseph Rotblat (1995), Linus Pauling (1962), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 2005). Monitoring is central as fear of cheating is an obvious obstacle to disarmament.

The third category consists of the broader peace movement, such as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW, 1985) and most recently to ICAN (2017). In the 1960s and 70s, Myrdal considered the role of the peace movement as important for changing what she perceived to be unrealistic and irresponsible views on the usefulness of nuclear weapons. These thoughts are echoed in the Nobel Committee’s motivation for awarding the Prizes to both IPPNW and ICAN.

To Alva Myrdal, the peace movement would play a key role in creating the political pressure necessary to revise the states’ understanding of the costs of nuclear weapons, not least by increasing popular awareness of the pending threat. In fact, most of us who grew up during the Cold War will remember the vivid images on TV describing the destructive power of nuclear weapons and their effects on people, infrastructure, and the environment, as well as imprinting on us pictures of a possible nuclear winter.

In research terms, this amounts to working towards changing the state actors’ rational calculations, and thereby creating the potential for opening up to new possibilities for disarmament and – as Myrdal saw it in her time – moderation.

The second component for which ICAN was awarded the Peace Prize was in lobbying UN member states to adopt a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This follows another theme in the awarding of Nobel Peace Prizes: efforts to establish international norms that regulate which forms of violence states are allowed to use during war, and to then formalize these norms into treaties through negotiations in the United Nations. Similar Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded to efforts to ban chemical and biological weapons, as well as land mines and cluster bombs.

In the case of nuclear weapons, a global treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), entered into force in 1970, following instrumental contributions by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling.

This treaty includes clauses central for limiting the further spread of nuclear weapons, and for facilitating the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes (a motive underlying the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to IAEA in 2005). In addition, NPT has a clause on disarmament, Article VI, which states that “[e]ach of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

That said, Article VI has been criticized for not resulting in actual disarmament. Therefore, it is argued, there is a need for a new treaty: one that builds on existing agreements but which seeks to make nuclear weapons illegal – that is, to ban them all together. This treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, was tabled in the UN General Assembly in July 2017 and was supported by 122 states.

While this level of support is impressive, it still means that about 70 states remain hesitant or negative, including all states currently in possession of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the Nobel Committee underlined that this year’s Prize should be seen as encouragement to sign and ratify. As noted by Peter Wallensteen, this is also “…a call for the nuclear weapons states to start serious negotiations of disarmament.”

Critics of this year’s Peace Prize, while often applauding ICAN’s efforts, argue that a new treaty is a less than effective approach in terms of contributing to actual disarmament. For example, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg states that while they share ICAN’s vision, existing treaties remain the bedrock for how NATO perceives the road forward on disarmament. Hence, the problems raised by critics are the same as the ones Myrdal battled with 35 years ago:

  • How does one actually get the nuclear powers – particularly Russia and the USA, which possess the absolute majority of weapons – to negotiate real disarmament?
  • What small, concrete, yet progressive and trust-building steps can be identified that would lead to sustainable disarmament over time?
  • And concerning state leaders who again might perceive the advantages of obtaining nuclear weapons – how do we concretely and practically go about discouraging any such tendencies?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, often called the Iran Nuclear Deal, displays a concrete example of addressing the last problem, according to SIPRI’s Director Dan Smith, and one which we hope will still be indirectly supported by this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Similarly, in 1991, South Africa decided to dismantle its plans. Both cases show that under the right conditions, states can be persuaded to take an alternate path. Here, research is continuously central for understanding how to move forward. As captured in a quote by Alva Myrdal:

“…rhetoric is by no means enough. We have tried to speak for greater emphasis on analysis, and constructivity.”

  1. It was mentioned already in 1959 as a subtheme in the prize to Philip Noel-Baker, who, interestingly, was also recognized for his book, The Arms Race. This book had a similar approach as the one later written by Alva Myrdal.
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