In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly passed a mandate to negotiate a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons. While the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed 122 votes to 1, no nuclear state or NATO member other than the Netherlands voted on the resolution. Seventy nations have signed the treaty, and twenty-three have ratified it. When it reaches fifty ratifying parties, it will be in force. However, many doubt its effectiveness without the support of any of the nine nuclear states. Doug Becker discusses the treaty and the issue of nuclear non-proliferation with Ira Helfand and Wayne Glass.

Ira Helfand is the Co-Chair of the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Nuclear Abolition Committee.

Wayne Glass is a Professor Emeritus in International Relations at the University of Southern California. He is an expert in National Security and Foreign Policy.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Doug Becker: So Ira Helfand what is this treaty trying to accomplish and how does it differ from other current arms control treaties most notably the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?

Ira Helfand: I think the treaty and the prohibition of nuclear weapons is in fact an extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under the NPT, the nuclear weapons states that signed that treaty agreed to negotiate in good faith to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. But fifty years have passed and they haven’t done that. And the non-nuclear armed states have been searching for ways to put pressure on the nuclear armed states to honour their obligations under that existing treaty. The nuclear armed states expect the non-nuclear states to honour their end of the treaty and not develop nuclear weapons, but they have shown no intention at all to honour their obligations under the treaty. And so the international community came together in a very extraordinary fashion and said ‘We are not going to put up with this anymore, we have got to do something to try to put pressure on the nuclear armed states to in fact negotiate the abolition of their arsenals as they promised to do’. So I think that is the real significance of this treaty. For many years now, the non-nuclear weapons states have been frozen out and ignored and they felt that by coming together with this new treaty they could put pressure on the nuclear armed states. And the reaction of the nuclear armed states I think has clearly vindicated this approach, they are very opposed to this treaty, they have worked very hard to derail it, but they have not.

DB: My understanding of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was that it was at least meant to eventually move towards at least significant reductions in nuclear weapons by trying to limit, if not completely control the development of new classes of nuclear weapons. Wayne Glass what kind of effect has the CTBT on states like the United States on trying to modernise their nuclear arsenals?

Wayne Glass: Well as you know the CTBT was defeated by a vote in the Senate in 1999 and so the treaty remains not in force, it has not met all the requirements to become a treaty in force. So in defeating that treaty in the US Senate, it is pretty clear that the US wanted to guard its own options with respect to sustaining and modernising its own nuclear weapons inventory. That is still the case, you know, it is almost an annual battle in Congress about funding new types of nuclear weapons which are in fact modifications of existing weapons so US efforts towards modernising their nuclear arsenal remain in effect unabated despite the existence of the CTBT.

DB: Since the CTBT has been signed has any country that has signed and ratified it tested a nuclear weapon?

WG: Not to my knowledge. There is some game-playing with respect to what constitutes a nuclear test and so nuclear weapons states have been testing things in sub-critical mode, which according to a technical definition doesn’t actually constitute a nuclear detonation. So there are some semantical games that are being played by the nuclear weapons states including the US. The CTBT certainly hasn’t prevented the US from moving forward with modernising and changing their weapons. The US of course would claim that they are just making them safer and more reliable, but in fact, I think some of the testing and program developments are to an effect create a weapon that can perform a different mission. There is this argument over whether that constitutes a new nuclear weapon or a modification of an old nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, I think through the eyes of the rest of the world looking at the US arsenal, much of the world realises that the US is not being impeded from moving forward with their various nuclear weapons programs.

DB: Ira Helfand, what seems to be the foundation behind this conversation, behind the motivation for this treaty, is the particularly unique and devastating effect of nuclear weapons over other forms of weapons. I know in 1925 when the international community was negotiating the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, one question that was raised was: does it matter if you are killed by a chemical weapon or by a conventional weapon? So what makes nuclear weapons any different than conventional weapons?

IH: Well I think the thing that makes nuclear weapons different is that they alone among all weapons have the ability to destroy civilisation as we know it. For an individual, it really doesn’t matter if you are blown up or if you are shot, but we cannot destroy human civilisation with rifles or chemical weapons. With nuclear weapons we can destroy human civilisation and we have come very close to do doing it on many occasions. And what we have learned in the last decade is that even a very limited use of nuclear weapons would create enough climate destruction worldwide to end civilisation as we know it; for example, a war that did not even necessarily involve the US or Russia, a war that took place between India and Pakistan that involved a tiny fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenals. So this is something totally unique about nuclear weapons, this ability not just to kill large numbers of people but to kill such enormous numbers of people that we actually destroy our civilisation.

WG: Of course, that is the big picture and the most compelling picture of all. But unlike conventional kinds of weapons, nuclear weapons also have long-term effects. The various types of radiation that comes from a nuclear explosion can cause instant death as well as long-term death over successive generations of humans that are effected by the radiation from a nuclear blast. So yes, it could certainly destroy civilisation if it happens, but another way to think about the devastation of nuclear weapons is that it can have long-term health effects on humans, not to mention the environment. We are still cleaning up Chernobyl, you can call that a nuclear explosion if you want, but the long-term effects of Chernobyl are quite clear and scientifically proven.

DB: So is this treaty more of an aspirational statement in that the goal of nuclear arms negotiations should eventually move towards a zero option, or do you see short-term or medium-term practical effects of this treaty particularly with the opposition from the nuclear states?

IH: I think our aspiration needs to be the elimination of nuclear weapons and it needs to be done soon – not eventually. The treaty could provide a framework for the nuclear armed states to negotiate the reduction and elimination of their arsenals or they could do it in a parallel form. That really isn’t important. What’s important is that the nine nuclear-armed states sit down with each other and negotiate a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement to dismantle the rest of the nuclear arsenals which they possess. And the role which the NPT can primarily play is to put pressure on these countries to do just that. But there is also a tremendous responsibility for those of us who live in nuclear-armed states to create pressure from within our country for our country to live up to the idea that nuclear weapons need to be abolished, to embrace this treaty, and to in fact lead these negotiations. This is not going to be easy, but we should not look on this as some aspirational goal for decades hence, this is something that we need to do with great urgency. We have come incredibly close to nuclear war on many occasions already during the nuclear armed era and the danger is not getting less, it is growing. Experts believe now that we are closer to nuclear war than we have ever been. We are essentially living on borrowed time, and we need to understand that and act with the urgency that this situation demands.

DB: While possession of nuclear weapons certainly carry a tremendous risk, Wayne you and I both know that within international relations theory there has been quite a bit of conversation suggesting that nuclear weapons actually service peacemakers or peacekeepers, in particular thinking of the relationship between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War. How much confidence do you have that in other scenarios it actually makes countries less likely to go to war because they both have nuclear weapons?

WG: That’s a very important question. I do think that during the Cold War the respective nuclear arsenals had a deterrent value vis-a-vis both competitors. But the risk has always been there and as time progresses the risk increases. The risk of accidental nuclear war is as high or higher than it has ever been because there are so many technical systems that are applied to nuclear weapons in command and control these days that could go wrong. We have been close a number of times…I am concerned that people maybe wrongly come to the conclusion that we have a comfort zone by mutual deterrence with nuclear weapons. The risk in my opinion is still very high and once we cross the nuclear threshold I have not a lot of faith that the combatants will exercise discipline to bring such a conflict to an early conclusion. They talk about it, I mean the philosophers talk about escalation dominance and somehow preventing a nuclear war from getting out of control, but personally I am just not sure the timing of a nuclear war would allow that kind of step by step process to lead to some kind of logical conclusion. I think all bets are off. Once a nuclear war starts I am just not confident that anybody will have the political will to call a stop to it.

IH: I would totally agree with that assessment. I think once we cross the nuclear threshold the chance of avoiding a very large-scale nuclear war is very small. But I think it is also important as you suggested to appreciate how flawed deterrence has been. It may have had something of an inhibitory effect on the US and the Soviet Union, but as Robert McNamara famously said, the reason we didn’t have a nuclear war was simply because we were very lucky. We lucked out repeatedly. On numerous occasions Moscow or Washington actually made a decision to launch their nuclear arsenal, always on the mistaken belief that it was under attack by the other side. And on each of those occasions we essentially abandoned deterrence and said we are going to fight a nuclear war. We put bombers in the air, we took the caps off our missile silos, and we began the process of launching nuclear war. And it wasn’t a wise doctrine, it wasn’t great game theory that saved us, it was luck, and we have to understand that. Our current policy of maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads in a ready state, many of them on hair trigger alert is nothing more than a hope of continued good luck and that is a pretty bad basis for national security policy.

DB: From a normative position, there have been at least two instances since the end of the Cold War where there has been significant considerations given to the so-called low yield nuclear weapons. One was whether or not the US might use a low yield nuclear weapon as a form of bunker buster during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And I know during the initial conversations about military engagement with North Korea, some of the conversations about the so-called bloody nose scenario where the US might strike North Korea quickly to force them to try to give up their nuclear weapons, some of the conversations were about potentially using low yield nuclear weapons against the North Koreans. How much is this treaty directed towards those sorts of questions, to try to prohibit even the consideration of the use of nuclear weapons as an interim step towards prohibition?

IH: I think that is exactly how the treaty is meant to operate in the short term. It is part of an effort to stigmatise and then prohibit and then eliminate the weapons. There is an issue on the table today in which nuclear weapons are also being considered and that is the situation in Iran, and I think it is not at all clear if the US has ruled out the use of nuclear weapons if we get into a fighting war with Iran, that seems to be a very real danger at this moment in time. The treaty is designed to mobilise world opinion, to help people appreciate the imminence and the enormity of the danger posed by these weapons and by stigmatising them make their use more difficult. And this is one of many things that needs to be done right now to cool down the situation between the US and Iran and make certain that this does not escalate into a nuclear war.

DB: Wayne, I know you have done quite a bit of work with people in the Pentagon at the Department of Defence, how much was the potential use of low-yield nuclear weapons part of the conversation while you were there?

WG: This is a really important point because I think there is a lot of self-delusion going on in defence circles about low-yield nuclear weapons – as if the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon was somehow more acceptable than a big one on top of an ICBM. As I see it, if the US were to choose to use a low-yield nuclear weapon in a tactical situation, can you imagine just for a moment how the media would cover that once the news was out? Would they make a distinction between a low-yield nuclear weapon and a nuclear weapon? I don’t think so. And once the media plays that card the politicians will have to act as if it is a nuclear weapon whether it is low-yield or not. And so a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons without defining the differences is important. Those distinctions should be irrelevant: a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. Once you cross the nuclear line I think other factors come into play as to what happens next and it is not a pretty picture. It is important to also note that the Trump Administration has sought to reduce the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons thinking somehow that reducing that distinction that low-yield nuclear weapons would become more acceptable. I disagree, and I think that once that nuclear threshold is crossed whether it is low-yield or high-yield it doesn’t matter and it is a risk that brings into threat the future of civilisation if we are unable to stop the escalation that would follow a nuclear explosion of any sort.

DB: Ira Helfand, you have been doing quite a bit of work internationally reaching beyond the US. What do you see as the status of nuclear weapons especially throughout Europe where none of the NATO members other than the Netherlands participated in the vote for the treaty. Of course, there are a couple of smaller nuclear arsenals in the UK and France, is there a growing recognition of the treaty’s existence and any growing support for the treaty, or are attitudes around the world mirroring that of the US?

IH: I think there is much more awareness of the treaty especially in Europe, but also in Japan and Australia which are important nuclear umbrella states, and possibly to some degree in South Korea. A number of the countries in NATO are considering signing and ratifying the treaty, none of them are about to do it at the moment but there is greater pressure in a number of countries especially in the Netherlands, Spain, Iceland, Norway to break with the US and sign this treaty. And I think, as the treaty moves closer to entering into force which will probably take place sometime next year when the requisite fifty countries have ratified it, I think the pressure will be even greater within the NATO community. We are also seeing in the US a burgeoning movement in support of the treaty and in support of the need to abolish nuclear weapons. The Back From the Brink campaign, which was launched about eighteen months ago, has succeeded at this point in securing a unanimous endorsement from the US Conference of Mayors, from the Washington DC City Council, the Baltimore City Council, the LA City Council, overwhelming support in the California State Legislature, in the Maine State Senate, in the New Jersey Assembly, in the Oregon State Senate, and this campaign is developing across the country. It calls for the US to embrace the treaty and to enter into negotiations with the other nuclear states for a verifiable and enforceable agreement to eliminate the arsenals. And it is bringing the issue to the attention of large numbers of people. But clearly not enough, this campaign needs to grow but it is off to a very strong start.

DB: Wayne, how salient is the treaty given the Trump Administration’s position on nuclear weapons and current trends in US foreign policy?

WG: Here is the scenario. With the current crisis vis-à-vis Iran and the Gulf and nuclear issues relating to it, there is an opportunity for the American public to become more aware of the danger of a nuclear exchange in that part of the world as it is possible that an escalation scenario could occur. That said, if the American people are paying attention to this crisis, it should become a major issue in the political campaign for 2020 and if the presidential candidates begin talking about this issue and the treaty in the same breath, I think there is an opportunity for the American public to become engaged in a way that they haven’t been engaged in quite a long time. Maybe that is in some sense wishful thinking, but as it stands now I don’t see the administration or the Pentagon shifting their attitude towards the nuclear stockpile and its improvements and expansions. The treaty notwithstanding, our decision-makers are truly looking the other way and until the American voters and politicians in the campaign raise the issue and put it to the front burner, I think the current administration is going to continue to ignore it.

IH: That’s exactly right. At the moment there are essentially two existential threats that face humanity in climate change and nuclear war, and they really need to be the central issues that are debated in the 2020 election campaign. There are lots of other incredibly important issues, and I do not mean to diminish the significance of the other issues, but none of those things are going to matter if we destroy the planet through climate change or blow it up with a nuclear war and these are real imminent threats. In 2016, neither one of these issues got any play in the election campaign. It seems clear that this time around climate change will be a major issue and the challenge I think is to make sure that the prevention of nuclear war also becomes a major focus of conversation during this campaign.

DB: There are two non-American developments that I think are particularly salient. The first is that the US is not the only country that is wanting to increase its stockpile and modernise their nuclear weapons. There has been quite a bit of language assertions and suggestions of policies coming out of Moscow that the Russians are just as eager to modernise. And then the other issue is the developments which the Chinese government seems to be interested in increasing the size of their stockpile which at this point is relatively small. How much should the focus be on those two countries and their contributions to undermine the movements to decrease nuclear stockpiles?

IH: I think we need to focus on the US government because I think in the current situation it is the US government that is going to play a lead in getting rid of these weapons if anyone does. Back in the 1980s it wasn’t the US, it was the Soviet Union and Gorbachev in particular who understood the need to get rid of these weapons and really provided the impetus for the developments we saw then that lead to the end of the Cold War. I don’t see a Gorbachev in Russia today and I don’t see one in China either. I don’t see one in the current administration in the US, but perhaps among the twenty candidates who are running to replace Trump there will be somebody who will have the vision and the understanding and the courage to play the role that Gorbachev played during the Cold War. And so I think the US really is the place that we need to be focussing on the most. This does not mean to diminish your concerns about what is going on in Russia and China both of which are also acting as if they do not understand what is going to happen if nuclear weapons are used which is the dilemma that we have encountered over and over again, which is that the people who are in charge of these weapons do not seem to understand what is going to happen if the bombs go off.

I would add in addition to Russia and China, I think we also need to be very concerned about what is happening in South Asia where there is an active arms race. India and Pakistan are building up their arsenals and the chance of that situation getting out of control is very great. The US cannot directly affect that but the only way that situation is going to be bought under control, I think, is if the major nuclear powers make it clear that they are going to work for the abolition of all nuclear weapons including the weapons held by the smaller nuclear armed states.

DB: Wayne Glass, how concerned should we be about South Asia as this hot spot which includes a nuclear arms race?

WG: I share the angst about India and Pakistan. I think it is of great concern and something the US needs to pay close attention to and to work however they can to improve the sense of nuclear security between those two countries.

Just on Russia, at the moment, the US seems to be locked in with the Putin leadership in Moscow and locked into this death spiral. I remember the advent of Gorbachev and the breaking of the ice with Reagan in the 1980s, so part of me being a dreamer hopes leadership changes both in Moscow and in Washington might provide opportunities for conversations that are politically acceptable. Until that happens it is really hard for both Putin and Trump to escape from the policy positions that they have espoused and are now in effect captured by. So I am looking for a sea change, and I am keeping my fingers crossed for a change of leadership just as was the case when Gorbachev took over in Moscow in the 1980s and had those very positive conversations with Reagan and George HW Bush. So I think there is a chance but I think one of the elements moving forward here is a change of leadership in both countries.

DB: What are the best ways for people who are concerned with the presence of nuclear weapons and supportive of the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons to try to exercise some of that influence and try to change the conversation and to put this on the national and international agenda?

IH: I think it is very important that there be enormous public pressure on our leaders. Gorbachev’s decision to change his thinking actually came in response to some significant pressure within the Soviet Union. Reagan’s decision to meet Gorbachev and to change his thinking, which was an incredibly profound sea change in the way he looked at nuclear weapons, his decision to make that change was partially achieved by being educated about what nuclear weapons were going to do, and it was partly a response to the public pressure that was growing in the US. I think we need to try to get to the decision makers and help them understand more clearly than they do the danger that they are leading us all into. And I think it is important that we build a real movement that will put pressure on our leaders to do the right things. The Back From the Brink campaign is modelled very directly on the freeze campaign of the 1980s, the same idea that we would make a simple statement about what US nuclear policy ought to be and try to get people around the country, governments, religious groups, civic groups, professional associations, labour unions to endorse that policy and try to create a national consensus around what the new nuclear policy should be.

DB: Wayne Glass, I know you have a lot of experience on Capitol Hill, what kind of advice would you have for an activist on this issue if they want to try and influence policy making from the legislative perspective?

WG: I talk about a change of leadership, but leaders have changed over time and that hasn’t obviated the interest groups to continue to push the nuclear weapons business in the US. Nuclear weapons interest groups work very hard around the country to work with legislatures to ensure the money continues to flow into nuclear weapons programs. The whole modernisation of the nuclear weapons infrastructure is incredibly costly and it has deep political roots in Congress every year when the authorisation bills come around. So I agree that people who feel strongly about this should look to public interest groups but don’t overlook the possibility to communicate with your officials and participate in elections to make sure that these issues are in the public eye during election season and on the party platforms in the state and federal elections. These things need to get in the public eye through the electoral process in my opinion and it is really important for people who have political clout, including average citizens to push their elected representatives to oppose ill-advised steps to expand and advance America’s nuclear weapons program and the extremist national security agenda with respect to nuclear posture. Citizens cannot look the other way, they need to get involved.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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